Singing the Supply Chain Blues

From Publishers Weekly:

I was flying from the Bay Area down to Orange County recently, thinking about my first book and its publication date just a few weeks away. Was there anything we’d failed to do? Was our social media effort gaining any traction? What should I say at my upcoming events at Rizzoli in New York City and Book Passage in San Francisco?

And then I looked out the window as we passed over the Los Angeles harbor. Ships, as far as I could see, were anchored for mile after mile. I wondered if my books, coming from Hong Kong, were on one of them, or backed up somewhere across the Pacific Ocean. I suddenly had a very bad feeling.

From the time I began working on my book—an attempt to surface my guiding principles that had shaped my work in architecture—my publishing guru, Gerald Sindell, had been preaching the meaning of “pub date.” It took me a long time to fully understand the significance of that date, but it had begun to sink in, and I had become a believer. Not only a believer—over time I organized my life around pub date. It had become my true north, my lodestar.

Pub date is not just the date a book happens to be available in stores. It can become, in a life that may only comprise one book, the single moment in which what one has to say has the potential to be news—to get attention, to enter into the public discourse. My book turned out to be a bit of a memoir, but much more so a polemic, a plea to architects and the communities that work with them to understand that architecture is not just about pretty buildings, but that architecture, done right, shapes lives.

So I had hoped that my pub date was going to be the moment when the attention of a reviewer here or there, an influencer on Instagram, and/or a respected authority in the academic world would coalesce into some kind of buzz, piquing the interest of the general reader and inspiring them to browse the book online or in person, and maybe take it home. As an added inducement, we had folded a large poster of the nine principles that the book was built around, and hoped it would soon be up on designers’ and students’ walls everywhere.

Soon after my flight landed, I called my editor-in-chief and pleaded once again to find out when the books would be in stock at Ingram’s warehouse in Tennessee, and when they would be on the shelves of the bookstores that had preordered them. After much pressing, the timeline became clearer.

The books were likely to go on board a vessel in Hong Kong soon.


And then they would take about four weeks to reach California.


And then it could take a month to get through customs and into the publisher’s warehouse.

I added this up, and we were looking at late December. Then they would need to find an available trucker and get the books to Tennessee. Add a month or so for that. So, basically, pub date was gone. The supply chain stories I’d been reading about without any particular sense that they might affect me, suddenly did.

Having blown past the Christmas season and the hope that our fully illustrated big-enough-for-a-coffee-table book might become a popular gift, we’ve suspended our publicity for a few months. Working with the publisher, the painfully receding event horizon of that magical moment called pub date has whizzed past January and February (wrong time to introduce a design book, apparently)—so April 5 is now our new date.

I’m not feeling very good about the many thousands of dollars invested so far in our marketing efforts. I’m planning to send a note to the hundreds of early orders for the book that have come from the architecture community to slow down expectations. And then, somehow, in a few months, we’ll need to fire up our efforts once again and attempt to catch the public interest before the zeitgeist is kidnapped by other, unknowable events that might, or might not, sweep in next April.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

19 thoughts on “Singing the Supply Chain Blues”

    • The first is true: the problem has been *quietly* known in the business world since March, but the general media kept it quiet and there was a lot of hope it would settled by August. (Hope, as in: “doing nothing, hoping somebody else solves the problem”)

      The second, while technically possible, really isn’t viable for books: China prints books much cheaper ($3-5 per hardcover) than Canada, which decimated US printing decades ago. Air shipping would double to triple the cost since ship cargo normally runs $4000 per container and container prices have exploded ($20-30k in august/sept). It’s come down a bit since high value cargo moved to air but those rates also went up. And, of course, the price of most went up to match. (TVs which have been dropping steadily all decade have all gone up back to 2012 prices.)

      Expectations are:

      1- It will be spring to early summer before the backlog clears, if it clears.
      2- Container costs will stay high much longer

      Depending on when the order was placed the “christmas gift” book might show up by Easter.

      The problem isn’t limited to tradpubs; micro presses and larger Indie operations have been using China. And it’s not just low margin products like books. It impacts every product coming from Asia in general.

      China-sourced products have other problems due to their under-reported energy Crisis and the growing wave of Chapter 11 bankruptcies there, real estate and manufacturing. Even some wannabe tech companies. There’s no telling how bad the problem is or might get because economic news in China are routinely cooked but it is a safe bet the dominoes are just starting to fall. Just that it is. China, Inc has been built on corporate debt and the CCP chose now to crack down.

      Long term, it may be wise to get used to seeing “Made in Vietnam”. Or India or Phillipines.

      • Sounds like something that POD can more readily dodge. Ingram isn’t going to send one-off POD requests to China. (Or is there something I don’t know about Ingram POD fulfillment???)

        If I’m correct, that feels to me like the greed involved in lowest-unit-cost-inventory-and-hope-to-move the-bulk-of them-at-pub-date is not well aligned with the current supply chain uncertainties. Can’t they shift this fellow’s books to a POD fulfillment, even at greater unit cost and with an inventory sunk cost? Where’s the analysis comparing these options?

          • Ah. If so, then I can certainly see the “print it in China” impetus. Still, those books CAN be printed in the US (even if not as POD), it just costs more. Which brings us back to cost/return analysis vs abandonment.

            I feel like I’m always asking for financial analyses for why trad publishing does something, and never getting what I’m looking for. I don’t think it’s just me… 🙂

            • Going with China makes sense because tradpub margins are pretty low so any printing cost reduction is welcome.

              However, that is predicated on cheap shipping costs and reliable schedules. The latter issues may be temporary but shipping costs aren’t soon returning to preinflation numbers any time soon, if ever. Best hope would be solar and wind powered cargo ships but those aren’t coming this decade.

              A case can be made that how bad the inflation rate for ’23-24 gets will be determined tomorrow in Virginia. 😀

      • I hesitated in doing my initial comment, because I didn’t know if the writer was attempting to do this on their own, or had a publisher. If own their own, then I understand them getting caught by this. If it was a publisher and they are a competent professional, they should have seen this coming. Unfortunately, too many managers do things by rote, without considering the world might change.

        • If that’s the standard, then observation indicates there are no competent professionals.

          Here’s a test we can all safely do at home. One year from now, what specific economic or commercial problem would today’s competent professional have seen coming. This problem soulld be as specific as the port situation. Stuff like inflation, inequity, or recession doesn’t count.

          • That’s not quite fair: corporate players have ongoing relationships with their suppliers that provide them with info the public (us) doesn’t get. They know more so more can be expected of them and most of the big players have adapted.

            It’s a bit easier to get insight into publicly traded companies since they are required to list known dangers ahead in tbeir SEC filings and most do a good job. Rarely do things crop up that *should* have been seen but weren’t.

            Privately held companies don’t have to divulge dangers; they only answer to their overlords. So it is hard to tell if they are ignorants or merely close mouthed.

            That said, “black swan events” do happen. Pandemics for one. But most natural disasters–hurricanes, ice storms, tornadoes, elections, idiotpoliticians™ on a rampage–all *can* be planned for. The same is true of the current supply chain issues.

            One of many examples: Toyota, GM, and other automakers were idled by the pandemic lockdowns and cancelled their orders for semiconductor chips. It saved them a few bucks. But then when they restarted operations they had to restart the pipeline and they had to go to the back of the queue behind other customers who didn’t cancel. Tesla was one that didn’t. They still ran short of their supplies but not right away. And they were able to redesign around the shortages, dropping some features, rewriting software to change how other features work. They never stopped production and actually grew the business despite the pandemic and shortages. GM and the others took losses; Tesla prospered. Just hit $1T in valuation. And growing.

            Normally, just-in-time supply chain management is the right, expected, thing. In this case though, Competence came from looking longer term, understanding that the pandemic shutdown was interrupting demand, not killing it, and taking in supplies that wouldn’t be used immediately. Understanding there *would* be an after to the pandemic. Knowing when to go against tbe “right”, expected move.

            Now, back to the ports: the problem has existed all year. Not a secret.
            A cargo surge was expected. Companies kept afloat during the lockdown and afterwards by drawing on their warehouses. They knew they would hzve to reorder big. Many retailers and distributors have been working around it; hiring their own bars and planes, diverting cargo to other uncongested ports in Florida, Texas, the Carolinas, etc. Prices will go up but supply will go through.

            Publishers obviously can’t afford those pricey alternatives, not with the list price on the cover. But they should have *planned* for big delays and above all *warned* the authors they’re “nurturing”.

            This is a slow motion trainwreck.

            As for next year, likely issues (for the US) are easy:

            1- 10% inflation specific enough?
            2- $7 gas
            3- A new housing bubble
            4- War in the pacific,Ukraine, or the Baltics
            5- A new President, VP, or both
            6- More government deadlock
            7- More riots but for non-equity reasons
            8- A political assassination or two
            9- A big terrorist event
            10- mass murder at the southern border

            Pick your poison; any two of tbe above.

            (Dystopias breed crisis.)

  1. 1, 2, and 5 are specific enough. Well done.

    And I agree both of the American authors being nurtured should have been warned.

    One answer I haven’t found is where the big box stores who chartered their own ships are going to off load them. I suspect they have thought of that, but just don’t know where they will go.

  2. I am finding 2021 fascinating, expect 2022 to be even more interesting. The pandemic is a black swan.

    With 750K dead in the U.S., it’s the equivalent of Seattle or Alaska flitting out of existence. That’s unprecedented. I’m guessing 800K dead by 2022.

    What are the implications of such a change? Unexpected supply chain interruptions are one known consequence. The Great Resignation is an unexpected consequence. Felix’s list of issues are all plausible, but I expect even more bizarre phenomena in this unprecedented world.

    In my head, all the experts are at sea. Wow! What a time to be alive.

  3. You’re enjoying this?!
    (You own a bunker in Montana?) 🙁

    “May you live in interesting times. ”
    Me, I’d be happy with bored like a gourd.
    So far its been: category 5 hurricane and aftermath, followed by a 7.4 quake and a year of aftershocks, followed by 18 months (and counting) of pandemic. Ongoing the latter, with a newer more transmissible variant emerging in (again?!) the UK.

    “One of these – AY.4.2 – has been steadily growing in proportion in the UK over the last few months, accounting for 63 percent of new UK cases in the last 28 days.”

    All against the background of active culture war.

    Dunno but at this point an asteroid impact wouldn’t shock me.
    But I’d prefer boring. Even if just for a while.

    • Despite the heroic efforts of politicians and press, the virus appears to have become accepted by the public. Look at the football crowds, lines at airport TSA checks, restaurants, etc. Masks? Unless forced by government, they are disappearing. People have learned to live with it.

      • Some people are comfortable with a 0.2% chance of death. Especially with a handful of treatments available today that weren’t available 18 months ago. That is an average, though. Some are at higher risk, some at lower and demand the right to choose what happens with tbeir bodies.

        Others demand absolute zero and won’t settle for “live and let die”.
        No middle ground in these absolutist times.

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