Whistling past the container port

The supply chain apocalypse may mean a lean holiday book season

But first, about last night…

A strange thing happened. I walked into a roomful of strangers and made small talk for a couple of hours.

I’d been invited by Sutherland House’s uber-publicist Sarah Miniaci to an informal kickoff for this year’s Toronto International Festival of Authors at the Westin Harbour Castle. It seemed a novel thing to do, meet in person for drinks, so I said yes.

I wore a blazer for the first time in 2021. I got there before Sarah and found about twenty people in the Chartroom Bar. There was nothing to do but bounce in and start chatting.

I have nothing special to report except that I had a good time. It was wonderful to be with real people in a convivial setting instead of staring at faces on screens.

I hadn’t realized that I missed the adventure of social gatherings. There is little serendipity on Zoom. You never log on to Zoom and introduce yourself to a nice man named Manuel who introduces you to his charming wife Shari who says she writes domestic thrillers and you have a great little talk about writing and find you have acquaintances in common and then solve the Barry and Honey Sherman murders together. And then go home and learn that Shari Lapena is the very big-time best-selling author of The Couple Next Door, which you buy on Audible. Just doesn’t happen on Zoom.

I also met Roland Gulliver, the new director of TIFA, and the former number two at the Edinburg International Book Festival. I spoke to him long enough to register his ambitions, which are high. Thank god. It’s been some years since there’s been much buzz around the festival.

By the by, no one shook hands. No one got too close. No one wore masks. We were all double vaccinated. We may all have COVID.


Welcome to the 117th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:


Logistucks

All summer long, I listened to people complain of waiting two months for delivery of a refrigerator or sofa or television. Manufacturers and retailers have been unable to keep up with demand as we all spend more money on our now continuously occupied living spaces.

I also read about auto manufacturers unable to source metal parts, plastics, and computer chips; construction companies short on lumber and hardware; factories closed or working at half-capacity for want of workers; container ships backed up in every port (including a record forty-nine anchored off Long Beach).

I marveled at the numbers. The US Bureau of Labor reported that industrial companies need to fill 1.5 million jobs through 2022, but can’t find workers. There is a shortage of 60,000 truck drivers in America, a number that is expected to increase. A container of goods that cost $1,500 to move from China to the US two years ago can now cost $30,000 if you need it quickly. If you’re a toy manufacturer who doesn’t want to take chances on missing the Christmas season, you charter a one-way flight from Shanghai at a cost of over $1 million.

The whole on-demand commercial world was in crisis, unable to move materials or finished goods from A to B in sufficient volumes in a timely manner. And somehow I thought I was immune from it. I wasn’t in the market for an automobile or a sofa. Sutherland House does not print books in China; our goods seemed to be moving as expected; nor were we experiencing unusually high demand.

The worst inconvenience I experienced, personally or professionally, was that one of the kitchens at my favorite restaurant was closed for want of staff, and two menu items of which I’m fond were unavailable. It’s been tough but I’ve survived.

I noticed a shift toward the end of August, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, when we had to scrap an entire print run and find somewhere to reprint on short notice. A hellish amount of juggling ensued. There was no press time available anywhere. We were looking at February or March to print a hardcover in Canada. Still, that problem was due to our error, and we muddled through. I figured we’d be ok if we avoided further mistakes.

Thus I whistled past the container port.

We’re now only a few weeks on but there’s no escaping the logistics shitshow.

  • Many thousands of our fall books are sitting on a dock in Ashland, Ohio because our distributor can’t hire staff to put them into inventory.

  • Booksellers are having trouble getting shipments in a timely fashion, putting unwanted delays between pre-arranged publicity for books, including reviews, and their in-store availability.

  • We’ve got books with incorrect listings on Amazon, including a couple listed as unavailable, because Amazon is short of people to fix errors in its system.

  • If any of our books outperform this fall, we’ll likely have to move immediately from hardcover to paperback because of the lack of press time. Printers are having trouble staffing up and they’re getting more work than ever because of an irrational exuberance that’s sweeping publishing as we come out of the pandemic.

  • We’re wondering if we have to do mostly paperbacks instead of hardcovers next spring because of the hardcover printing problem.

  • Some of the US printers we use are short on paper, or limited in the types of paper they have available.

  • We’ve done decorative endpapers on all our books since our launch, a modest design signature of Sutherland House. We may now have to forego them because decorative endpapers add time to the production process and printers are balking.

If you poke around publishing Twitter these days, you see a lot of this:

The various websites devoted to publishing, few of which ever gave a thought to the manufacturing and distribution of books, are now consumed with logistics.

“Supply chain issues hit us out of the blue in August 2021,” independent publisher Christine Swedowsky told Book Riot. “We had expected shortages at the beginning of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020 when everyone was stock-piling toilet paper. Those never materialized, until our printer was hit with a perfect storm of paper shortages, truck and container shortages, a downed printing press, and hurricane Ida.”

Swedowsky’s partners in printing and shipping have told her things will only get worse in the final months of the year:

For a small, independent publisher the situation is particularly difficult. We don’t have the purchasing power a large publishing house has. Our print runs are small. For a printer, the economic decision will always be in favor of the larger print run and the publisher who can exert the most financial pressure.

It’s cold comfort that things seem to be even worse in the UK. A book distributor recently warned its publisher clients that in addition to shortages of drivers and warehouse staff, it is in danger of running out of the cardboard and wood used to package books thanks to “the sheer idiocy of Brexit.”

So, yes, start your Christmas shopping now. Meanwhile, we’ll be looking to purchase a hand press and mill our own paper. Can’t be that hard.


Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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