Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 20, 2021

Publishing Dilemmas, Distribution, and Disruption

by Lisa Norman

The holidays are coming! As writers, we know this is a powerful gift-giving season, and we hope that people will give our books as gifts. As readers, we treasure these hand-chosen gifts of entertainment or enlightenment, knowing that friends have given us something they know we will love.

But this year, there's a problem...or rather a whole bunch of problems. I'd already been working on this article when I was invited to attend a summit meeting on the state of the publishing industry right now. Every speaker started with, "I want to say something positive. But..."

Have you heard?

There's a paper shortage.

Not a toilet paper shortage...a paper shortage.

The cost of wood has increased. Paper mills were reducing production before the pandemic due to decreased demand, but that demand is increasing.

Problem: the pandemic has made it very difficult to increase production of anything due to labor shortages. We could theoretically import paper, but shipping costs are outrageous and the shortages are global.

Much of the material that would normally become paper that could be printed on is instead being made into cardboard boxes. Book manufacturers are wondering if we can use different grades of material to make the paper used in books. Printers are being allocated only so much paper. The problem isn't with the size of their orders, but how much their suppliers can send. Publishers and printers are having to decide which of the many orders they have that they can fulfill. In essence, they are considering rationing the supplies they have.

I'm not even going to talk about the shortages of packing tape, glue, or the special fibers used in making hardcovers.

There's an ink shortage.

Ethanol is used in making ink. Ethanol is also used in the production of disinfectants and the products we use to sanitize surfaces. Medical environments are being given priority access to this limited resource.

There's also a labor shortage.

People are nervous about returning to work while the pandemic continues to make itself felt. Those who can retire early are taking this opportunity. In the book world, this means that we're dealing with a shortage of people to run the presses, stock the warehouses, and drive the trucks.

The printing industry tends to run on an older workforce.

One statistic quoted in the summit was that 1.2 million people over 55 have retired due to COVID. One printer said that Walmart is paying their employees better than they can afford to, and they get full benefits right away. The manual labor needed to run presses, box up the books, and put them on trucks is getting harder and harder to find.

Many printers have closed their doors or gone bankrupt.

Then there's the shipping crisis.

Shipping prices have increased dramatically over the last year as snarls in the Panama Canal and major shipping ports all over the world have caused disruptions. Bottlenecks are causing shortages of shipping containers, while many shipping containers sit on ships around the world, waiting to be unloaded. The cost of shipping has quadrupled.

And of course, the post office is slowing down, too.

In short, the supply chain is a mess.

Holidays are always busy times for printers.

Publishers know they need to plan print orders carefully around the end of the year. What will be the most popular gift book of the season? They need to make sure those are in stock. Chatter in the publishing industry is growing more concerned as publishers place their holiday orders earlier, hoping to get the stock they need in time.

What does this mean for the book industry?

Ingram, one of the largest printers and wholesale fulfillment centers, has announced that they are raising prices for printing in November. We're seeing other printing venues, many of which rely on printers run by Ingram, raising their printing rates as well.

Ingram has asked publishers to consider switching to a print-on-demand model, the same model used by indie authors and publishers.

Traditional publishing and the distributors that manage their books have decided to increase their large orders and order early for the holidays. They have no intention of switching to print-on-demand except under extreme circumstances. (One statistic showed that during the Black Lives Matter movement, when the NYT bestseller list was full of unpredicted titles, 70% of the books sold during that time were print-on-demand.)

My Thoughts About All This

I've been watching this develop and doing a lot of thinking.

  • Print books aren't going away. People love books.
  • Print books are going to be more expensive to produce. People are going to have to get used to paying more for the privilege of reading printed books, at least in the short term.
  • It is possible that alternative fibers may be used.
  • Automation is increasing, so more books can be printed with fewer human hours invested.
  • People will need to be patient. Deliveries will be delayed. Giving physical books as gifts may become more of a challenge.

Is there an upside?

Actually, there are a few.

  • Book sales are increasing, depending on what genre you're looking at.
  • Authors have an opportunity to disrupt the publishing industry as we move into this holiday season.

What if we promote audio and digital products?

Embracing the new normal.

Ebooks and audiobooks have advantages over physical books.

  • You can increase the font size or change the playback speed
  • An entire library can fit in your pocket
  • Better for the planet
  • No shipping required

What can we do to make giving an ebook or an audiobook more desirable?

If you want to give something tangible, think inside the box.

What if we create beautiful gift cards for ebooks and wrap them up? Ebooks are generally cheaper than printed books. We can give more books for the same price!

7 Ideas for Enhancing eBooks as Gifts

I polled several groups of authors that I know and we put together some ideas to increase the fun factor of egifts.

  1. Put the download link into a QR code. Then work that QR code into the image on a pretty card, making the card interactive and fun. You can do this with a physical or electronic card.
  2. Buy a book from a used book store and then put the digital gift code inside as a bookmark -—bonus points if you are giving a book in a series.
  3. If your gift comes in the form of a code, create a puzzle that reveals the code: put the puzzle in a card. You can get as creative as you'd like with these, from crossword puzzles to quizzes from other books you know this author loves, or even teasers about the gift. Again, this could be a physical card or an email.
  4. Put the gift code in a box of tea or other reader-friendly experience.
  5. Give a gift that relates to the book, and attach the ebook code to it.
  6. Attach the code to a picture of the book cover. Bonus points for framing the image or being creative in how you use the image.
  7. Create an ultimate reader gift: a warm cozy blanket, mug with supplies for their favorite hot beverage, and a gift code for an ebook you know they'll love.

What about the dilemma around the different technologies that people use to buy their ebooks?

We don't have an easy way to guess what format our gift recipient needs. And yet we face this same dilemma when we give sweaters or jewelry — what size does the person wear? We've grown adept at guessing and being sneaky to figure out our loved one's size. Learning our friends' digital preferences can become part of the gift-giving adventure.

BookFunnel or similar tools may offer a solution

If we do know what type of technology our reader loves, we can give them a gift directly from their chosen venue. Not all, but most, ebook retailers offer the option to give an ebook as a gift to someone. They can email it directly to the recipient. Or, if you "give" it to yourself, you can get a code to give to the recipient to redeem.

One more advantage to ebooks, especially for indie authors.

Generally, a higher percentage of the profits from digital goods go to the authors. By making the move to giving digital gifts, we won't only be saving the planet, we'll be feeding the creatives, helping them to continue creating new and exciting stories for us to share with our loved ones.

What do you think? Who's with me in creating a digital gift-giving disruption this holiday season? Let's discuss in the comment section!

Links for more info:

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About Lisa

Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.

Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, an indie publishing firm. She teaches for Lawson Writer's Academy.

Upcoming Classes

Top Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

20 comments on “Publishing Dilemmas, Distribution, and Disruption”

  1. Thanks for this. I hadn't really thought about it, since 95%+ of my book sales are ebooks, and most of my reading is via e-books as well. Most of the print books I read come from the library.

    1. Yay, Terry! As someone who has already made the jump to ebooks, do you have more ideas? Alternatively, what are you hoping for this Christmas?

      1. I really don't have much marketing advice. I dread having to deal with it. I tend to duck and run around holiday time, since everyone's busy pushing their books, and I don't read/write Christmas books. I tend to release in February after the craziness has died down. I started writing late in life, around the time ebooks hit the scene, and my first publishers were digital first, so ebooks are my comfort zone.

  2. The supply chain issues have been and continue to be a nightmare.

    I haven't used a local printer in our new area yet and hadn't even considered the lack of physical material. Looks like eBooks will be the way to go until this all sorts out.

    I wonder if hemp paper might be a good way to go. Fast growing, minimal space.

    Lots to think about. Thank you!

    1. Ellen, it is interesting to consider the optional fibers and how they might change the industry if they go that direction. The variety could be fascinating. Add in the increased automation, and I wonder if our books will look and feel different in 10-20 years.

      1. Additionally, if you are writing about art, are into fiber art, or have a creative book/book topic alternative materials opens up the topic you're writing about--it adds another layer and more dimension (no pun intended). I'd add environmental books to that list, too. That's exciting!

      2. I came across the QR code and books the other day and was fascinated! I think it'd be fun to do themed QR codes. For Halloween, a pumpkin or a ghost. "Scan me--if you dare!"

  3. In many ways, I prefer e-readers. Less to carry, reading privacy, no wait for new books. But I understand the importance of having physical books, especially for school and for the library. My daughter hates e-readers. She wants to touch the book. So, I hope we can continue to have both once they get this all sorted.

    I think your ideas for promoting e-books will be a godsend for some of the authors here, and I hope your post gets shared far and wide!

    1. I love reading on my phone. I have Kindle, Nook, and a universal reader... But the walls of my house are lined with physical books. Where I live, internet is spotty, so our schools can't use web based curriculum.

      I think physical books will always have a place.

      But ebooks sure are lighter... And less dusty!

  4. I read my kindle regularly, but I also read print books. However, I don't like it when people gift me books if they don't know my preferences. I like to choose the books I read in my genre, the authors, etc... I'd rather have an Amazon gift card.

    What it will impact as the world opens up and author events can be in person is getting an autographed book. I've received a few digital signatures in the past, but it's not the same. If you want a signed edition, it needs to be in print.

    And, there are some bookstagrammers who are print snobs. They only want the print books for their flat lays, etc... The publishing industry is going to have to press upon them that it can be done with an egalley--I've done it, and it looks nice. But, some egalleys now arrive without proper cover art, so the publishers will need to do a better job of that or send it later.


    1. Excellent points, Denise. We would need something very special to make signed ebooks unique treasures. Maybe the NFT process will create something eventually? Who knows?

      I tend to give open ended digital gifts as well, but thinking of how to support authors during this season good me wondering about being more strategic.

      We live in interesting times!

  5. Lisa, The immediate future looks kinda scary for print books, but it will force the book industry to make some changes that will probably be good for us all. And I love your ideas for making giving ebooks fun. The beautiful cards are a great idea--as is the book reading bundle. Now I'm going to add making some holiday cards to my to-do list!

    1. I do think the changes will be good, Lynette. I love the ideas of new papers. It was fun coming up with ideas. I had a LOT of help from the writers groups that I hang with in coming up with the ideas for those pretty cards. I think that we'll adapt to the changes over time...the only consistency is change, right?

  6. Interesting development this morning that I want to share here. Ingram just sent an email out to publishers suggesting that they consider using "Groundwood Eggshell" paper as an alternative to "50# crème" - they list several benefits, but the key take away is that if you can't get the paper you want, try the alternative they are offering. Do note that one benefit they mention (bulkier / lighter weight) could also require a change in the cover file if the spine width changes. Still, it is interesting to see them pointing out the immediate availability of alternative paper. I would expect to see more of these options as the printing industry adapts.

      1. I'm actually excited to see more paper and cover options. Not looking forward to spine adjustments, but I enjoy having choices!

        1. Yesterday, my son gave me an older book (1971). I collect books, so this isn't my first...but I was struck by the thin spine. I thought, "hm. I thought these were collections of stories..." and then I saw the index - yep, it was a much longer book than the same thickness would be today. Looking at it with a modern book, I realized the paper was rougher, thinner. It has discolored over time. I'm now completely fascinated by the changes in paper over time!

  7. […] of distribution delays. You can read about the current challenges for the publishing world on Lisa’s post, “Distribution Disruption and the Christmas Dilemma.” The early buyer gets the book this […]

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