September 9, 2021

Paper problems plague publishing: scary shortfalls seen soon


The Johnsonburg Paper Mill in Johnsonbury, Pennsylvania (courtesy of Domtar). Industry experts foresee a shortage of paper in the near future.

The coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath continue to create problems across American industry—of which book publishing is very much a part.

The latest bad news, as reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, concerns a looming shortage of paper. (No, not that kind of paper, although, come to think of it, yes, also that kind of paper.) Print books are traditionally manufactured out of paper and paper products, and the shortage threatens the timing of fall releases.

One publishing insider pointed out last year that the backlash against plastic packaging has resulted in the manufacturing of more cardboard and paper packaging, this being a prime example of the law of unintended consequences. As mills pivot to manufacturing more cardboard packaging, they have less capacity for things like, well, books.

Another unforeseen consequence is that reduced supply means that there are more publishers jockeying for position in printers’ manufacturing queues, which likewise has a ripple effect. Some industry professionals are dreading a repeat of 2018, when the release of a single blockbuster—in that case, Michelle Obama’s Becoming—caused months-long delays in the printing of other, less popular books.

According to pub-industry bible Publishers Weekly, print capacity was already lagging pre-pandemic, and structural problems such as a 60,000-person shortage of truck drivers are contributing to widespread delays. Logistics expert Susie Scally said that “publishers need to deal with the reality that the cost of transporting books is extremely high and that they need to be ready to ‘pay the bill.'”

Ouch! We don’t like the sounds of that one bit!

As one of our youthful heroes once asked, what is to be done? Well, one time-honored tactic to responding to manufacturing delays is to shorten the runway on the other end of the chain. This means that managing editors across the industry will have their hands full getting the books you want to read into production as early as possible. Wait a minute … shoot, that’s me! I gotta go!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.