B.C. writers, publishers, fear supply chain issues as holiday season approaches

We get it. It’s only September. December is months away. Surely it’s too early for a story about the holidays.

But the holidays are where Surrey-based children’s author and illustrator Paola Opal’s mind is: a critical time for sales of her series of small, brightly coloured board books for very young children.

“These books make great little gifts for stocking stuffers,” Opal said. 

But this year, her books could be kept off shelves by supply chain issues impacting the publishing landscape in B.C. and beyond.

Paola Opal said if her new books don’t ship in time for the holidays, it could mean thousands of dollars in lost sales. (Submitted by Paola Opal)

Opal was expecting to have her latest books in stores by October but her publisher is telling her they may not arrive until 2022, missing the holidays entirely.

“It’s a whole year of missed sales, really. And it’s really sad,” Opal said.

“It’s hard to make a living as an author and so when you take a few thousand dollars out of an author’s annual pay, that’s very significant.”

Many in B.C.’s publishing world are concerned about disruptions in their supply chain, saying it could lead to lost sales and book-buying consumers having fewer choices or long waits for specific books.

‘A lot of uncertainty’

Heidi Waechtler, executive director of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia, said in B.C. and beyond, publishers are watching carefully.

“I think they’re all worried,” Waechtler said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Smaller publishers could be hurt the most, she said. With fewer staff they will be challenged to navigate the situation. They also tend to prioritize emerging or lesser-known authors who have less sales data, which makes it difficult to predict demand.

“They have to look at upcoming authors and make some difficult decisions about which ones to prioritize,” Waechtler said. “It might mean lost sales.”

Writers who seem especially vulnerable are those with books printed overseas. Most full-colour books are printed overseas, so many children’s book writers are worried.

“If they can’t get the new releases in [store] … that’s going to have a knock-on effect to royalties,” said K. A. Wiggins, president of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators of B.C.

K.A. Wiggins said the works of many childrens’ authors, especially those writing for very young children, don’t translate to e-book very well which makes having physical books available for purchase extremely important for sales. (K.A. Wiggins)

“We’re absolutely going to see authors, illustrators stepping back from trying to publish … They’re getting discouraged.”

Not all writers will be affected, said Barb Drozdowich, a board member with the Federation of B.C. Writers. 

E-book authors will be better insulated, she said, compared to those who produce children’s books, coffee table books and other types of books that are generally consumed as a physical product. 

Printers swamped, paper scarce

When a book wins or is short-listed for a literary award, or when the author appears in the media, or even when a celebrity highlights a book on social media, the demand for that book will increase and publishers usually print more.

Doug Climie, vice-president of sales and marketing for Burnaby-based Hemlock Printers, says printers are struggling to keep up with on-the-fly demand across the industry.

Doug Climie said any publishers who haven’t put their holiday orders in for printing likely won’t have them completed by Christmas. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

“We’re seeing lead times now, what used to be maybe three to six weeks, are now going to three to six months,” Climie said. “We’re now saying you need to be booking for 2022.”

Paper is an issue, Climie said. Some mills formerly making book paper have shuttered in recent years or switched to making cardboard packaging for e-commerce sellers like Amazon.

The price on the paper that is available has increased several times since the start of the pandemic.

“It’s absolutely unprecedented … that we’ve had as short of supply, as well as significant price increases at the same time,” said Chad Friesen, CEO of Friesens, a book printer in southern Manitoba.

An employee at Hemlock Printers at one of the press machines. Climie says while the printing business has seen challenges in the past, he hasn’t seen so many come together for so long in his years in the field. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

Even recycled paper is harder to come by, said Ian Larouche, marketing director of Quebec-based Marquis Books.

“All the offices are closed,” said Larouche. “Everybody is working from home so they don’t get a lot of paper to recycle.”

Over the years, some printers in North America have shut down or moved overseas, reducing capacity in North America.

Some North American printers are also facing a labour shortage with the pandemic hampering foreign worker recruitment.

Shops scrambling

Kelly McKinnon, co-owner of Vancouver bookstore Kidsboooks, says there will be no shortage of books stocked this holiday season but specific books may be harder to find. 

An example of a hot item at Kidsbooks, McKinnon said, are manga — Japanese comic books or graphic novels. McKinnon said it can take months to get new stocked shipped in. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

McKinnon and other retailers always want the right books on the shelves but said 2021 has been “exponentially harder” because retailers have less sales data and must order books earlier in larger numbers.

“I need a crystal ball,” McKinnon said. “We’re used to supplying the market quite quickly.”

McKinnon said those seeking specific books as gifts should consider buying sooner rather than later.

Climie said he expects the supply shortages to last into 2022. The good news, he said, is more mills may reopen and return to producing book paper.

Another solution some are calling for is a return to more printing done in Canada.

“That’s something I think we want to figure out,” said Waechtler.

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