October 21, 2016

Hanjin Shipping Co. files for bankruptcy, books await rescue on the high seas



Somewhere in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch…

Hanjin Shipping Co. Ltd. is a Korean container carrier that operates the world’s seventh-largest fleet of container ships, and handles nearly eight percent of all trans-Pacific trade by volume. The international shipping company filed for insolvency in late August, freezing its assets and cancelling all new cargo loads, while the Korean court system prepared details of the its eventual liquidation. Now, more than a month later, many of those assets remain stranded off-shore or in the possession of creditors awaiting payment after the eventual sale of the company’s assets.

What does this have to do with publishing? Well, contrary to popular belief, books are not grown from seed in Massachusets. Often, they’re made in China or Korea, just like everything else. And in order to get those books from Korea or wherever, you have to put them in a really really big box and then put that box on an even larger boat and then cross the salt and trash water-desert known as the Pacific Ocean.

You see where we’re going with this.

Yes, it is true, just like diapers and sweatpants and iPhones, book are material goods subject to the inscrutable whims of capital. Which is to say that right now there are a lot of them stuck on a boat somewhere, not being read.

According to a report by Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly, a good number of U.S. publishers have had significant disruptions in their operations on account of Hanjin’s liquidation. Some have experienced significant delays in delivery, while others are still trying to figure out how to get their books off boats seized by understandably angry creditors. From Reid’s report:

Ray Ambriano, COO of Meadows WYE, an international shipping and logistics firm specializing in publishing, said the Hanjin’s financial woes have affected “quite a few” importers, including publishers, and that “a bankruptcy of this size is unprecedented.”

The Hanjin Switzerland, a container ship scheduled to arrive in New York on September 12, and carrying books from a number of publishers—including, among others, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury, St. Martin’s Press, Viz Media, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux—did not dock in New York until October 14. “The vessel sat south of the Suez Canal for more than three weeks in fear of being arrested by Egyptian authorities,” Ambriano said.

Others have not been so lucky. Fantagraphics Books and Drawn and Quarterly still have entire print runs frozen in limbo. They are currently in talks with experts in maritime law, and are either making plans to reprint, or hoping that the books are eventually delivered to port.

Dan Pipenberg at the Paris Review Daily summed the situation nicely: “Some of us go our whole lives without once witnessing an intersection between book publishing and maritime law. But we’re among the lucky ones.”

What a time to be alive.

Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.