September 29, 2021

Paper problems plague publishing, part II


The 70-inch press at Friesens Printing Co. in Manitoba, affectionately known as “Big Daddy.” Friesens is one of many printers coping with a shortage of paper.

We have written in this space before about the supply chain issues that threaten all of manufacturing, merchandising, and retail—very much including books! The element of the current manufacturing landscape that often receives short shrift in today’s media, however, is the nationwide shortage of paper—a problem that preceded, and was exacerbated by, the pandemic.

To the uninitiated, this may seem puzzling. Need more paper? Plant more trees! Unfortunately the dynamic is quite a bit more complex, and fraught, than that. Friesens, a Canadian printer who has printed Melville House books in the past, is one of many printers grappling with this unfamiliar challenge. Friesens Vice President Andrew Fennell lays the scenario out succinctly: “The last few years of mill and machine closures,” the crafty Canuck cavilled, “have effectively reduced the remaining mills’ capacity to produce paper.” Striking a plaintive note, the nefarious northerner noted that “we no longer can simply make a call and expect a mill to willingly and happily take our order.” (Ouch!) Warming to his theme, the manly mountie added that some mills “may limit Friesens to 80,000 pounds of paper for a month.” I don’t know … that sounds like rather a lot to us!

“The global economy is vulnerable because it never really recovered,” adds Nada Sanders, a professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University. (We have professors of “supply chain management”?) “There is massive pent-up consumer demand,” Sanders explained, “but it’s important to have supply and demand connected because when you have a supply shortage you don’t have the products consumers want.” Slow down there! Supply and demand should be … connected? Is this what they teach you in “business” “school”? Yeesh!

“Essentially, there are shortages at every level of work that goes into book printing,” confirmed media reporter Anna Garrison, “and literary fiends should expect to see this shortage extend through the rest of 2021.” Seeking illumination and perhaps even reassurance, we sought out in-house logistics expert Simon Reichley, but unfortunately, he was unavailable for comment.

The paper shortages are just one part of a supply-chain picture that seems increasingly grim. Publishers buffeted by the pandemic and its concomitant losses have been counting on a big fall to make up their shortfalls. They (we) may have to wait a little longer for distribution channels to catch up, hoping in the meantime that readers are willing to be patient. As publishing executive Julia Cheiffetz put it: “We print things on dead trees, and that presents enormous operational challenges.”




Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.