Print, Paper, and the Supply Chain in Eleven Links

What's Happening Here?

Mid-April (but before Elon Musk was a factor), my Twitter feed featured a particularly plaintive thread. Meg Reid, the director of Hub City Press, posted, “I know complaining about supply chain issues is VERY 2021 but I want to state clearly: they have gotten worse. A very short thread of this week's nightmares.” Her thread pointed to the publisher’s need to commit to a book being at a printer 16-20 weeks out from publication date. That entails committing to a specific print run, a specific number of pages, and an anticipated shipping date for moving physical copies. Another disaster she’d just learned of from her printer had to do with ransomware, which meant that all work at that particular house simply stopped. Other voices chiming in about the supply chain noted increased shipping costs and variable delivery schedules. Someone working in a short-run printing house noted that they were nearly out of necessities such as ink and toner, paper, laminate, board for covers, binding glue, and casing glue, all of which were necessary to produce a hardcover book. An author noted that she’d been told three different and increasingly further-out publication dates. Another respondent, working in logistics, stated that 2021 had just been the dress rehearsal for supply chain issues in 2022. 

Subsequently, I heard Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette Book Group, deliver an optimistic keynote at the Book Industry Study Group Member Meeting in New York. Publishers Weekly provides an excellent summation of his comments relating Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to the current state of book publishing. In the context of the “best of times,” he noted the record revenues of the past two years, with high demand for content across all formats. He applauded the success of independent and chain booksellers. Qualifying as part of the “worst of times,” however, were some of the same supply chain challenges—ransomware, denial of service attacks, distribution costs, etc.

The question (for those of us not working directly with print product) is, just how bad is the situation? 

Listening to the Experts

In late March, Lou Caron, of the Printing Industries Association of Southern California (PIASC), provided a nine-point discussion of the demand tensions being felt by his industry. He cites as a factor the closure within the past few years of a North American paper mill, which happened, “in part, because they could not compete due to aging equipment, rising labor costs, and restrictive environmental regulations.” Due to a desire for cost savings, minimizing the available paper inventory had been emphasized, and during the periods of highest contagion, mills shut down. When conditions eased, the mills reopened but quickly exhausted available inventory, as industries impatiently also tried to reopen. Raw materials coming from other parts of the world were hard to get and frequently sat in containers off-shore, on ships held up by pandemic measures in place at the biggest ports. Those constraints are slowly lifting, but conditions have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. Caron complains that there are insufficient ships and containers available and that printers are having to compete with corporate giants such as Walmart and Amazon. He does not see the situation improving until late 2022 or early 2023. 

Canon Solutions had sponsored a webinar targeted to publishers wrestling with the paper problem earlier in the year. A writeup appearing in Publishers Weekly brings out the salient points made for adjusting to the challenges. Bluntly, the message was that the paper most in need by publishers for their books only represented 5%-7% of total marketplace production. Producing materials more suited to packaging needs represented a more reliable business opportunity to the mills. A short-term recommendation was that publishers might want to cut back on the variety offered in trim size or in paper quality for their products, while making some long-term shifts such as emphasizing print-on-demand and similar implementations of automation.

In late 2021, Friesen Press, Canada’s largest printer, had made a similar case, that demand was outstripping supply at a time when the costs of raw materials and shipping were rapidly increasing. Their recommendations were careful forecasting by publishers and early booking. In an attempt to bring a positive spin to their customers, they noted that some were working to bring manufacturing back to North America, with a new mill opening up in Arkansas, but that there would be a lag in building back capacity. 

Most recently, another factor having a significant impact on paper production is an ongoing strike by the Finnish Paperworkers’ Union, with support from the Transport Workers Union in Finland. That strike has halted paper production and transport completely, with the strike currently extended to May 14, 2022. As the World Print & Communications Forum (WPCF) had warned, this strike affected both the US as well as Europe. Even before the strike extension had been announced, a WPCF statement sounded a serious alarm about the impacts that would soon be felt as a result of the strike and the war in Ukraine.

“The stocks of printing companies will not last until the strike has been settled and printers will be forced to announce to their customers their incapacity to fulfill the orders. The inability to print will cause large financial losses not only to the printing company but also to the final customer. This will entail foreseeable shortages of many printed consumer goods and some products, including food and medical supplies, that cannot be put on the market due to a lack of packaging.

“Tensions on all markets are increasing with the war in Ukraine and will cause additional supply problems to produce forest-based products that source their wood or pulp from Russia or Ukraine.”

Analysts at Harvard Business Review are questioning whether the risks of global supply chains outweigh the rewards in 2022. 

Managing the Situation

One analyst’s contribution to a newsletter put out by the Printing Industries of New England (PINE) pointed out that the issue was not just one of paper supplies but supply chain disruptions in manufacturing of some of the graphic-arts toner and offset ink. Again, publishers were warned that the initial quarters of 2022 would require careful planning.

GMToday, serving the greater Milwaukee region, reported on the impact of these shortages on one local press. The Wisconsin Historical Society Press commented on how fortunate they felt that local industries in lumber and paper allowed them to keep their book production in the US. The same article has comments from a local library director regarding how much a shift to digital books would help to satisfy their patron needs.

Speaking during a March 2022 webinar (this one sponsored by Westchester Publishing Services), the production manager for a prominent university press talked about the adaptations they’d made, including lengthening printing schedules to as long as 12-16 weeks and shifting heavily over to print-on-demand. In coverage by Publishers Weekly, she mentioned the need they’d felt to adapt their planning to the “lifetime of the book” rather than thinking about just an initial production run. 

Moving Forward, Making Changes

This brings us back to another important point made by Michael Pietsch at the Book Industry Study Group meeting. How sustainable are current practices? What could we be doing differently to improve the final product delivered to readers and users of these books? Todd Carpenter had the final word on that Friday in April, when he tweeted out the following: