The surge in sales the publishing industry has experienced since 2019 has provided more evidence that the printed book is alive and well throughout a wide range of segments. The pandemic created new readers as people stuck at home turned to books for entertainment, education, and comfort. The data is undeniable: many publishers enjoyed record results in 2020 and 2021, and while sales softened some in 2022, demand for books remains higher than it was prior to the pandemic.

People want physical books, and all book printers absolutely love their role in creating them. We take pride (and joy) in seeing an author’s dream become a reality. But there is a harsh truth we all need to acknowledge: without an influx of new labor, the long-term survival of book printing in North America faces an existential threat.

Let me stress that printed books are made primarily by humans—talented, dedicated craftspeople who turn a myriad of raw materials into beautiful finished products. They work in safe environments and, in many cases, use equipment featuring the latest technological and mechanical advances. (These comments do not apply to the digital book production environment, which is not constrained by labor considerations.) But even modern book printing equipment still requires a robust labor pool to operate the machines.

People like to say that automation can solve any labor shortfall, but that does not apply to book printing. Automation requires broad-based adoption in a highly profitable business for the economics to justify costly technological intervention. Making a robot to flip hamburgers at locations all over the world makes economic sense, but that is not the case when one is talking about the limited number of remaining financially viable offset book printers. Nope, the ROI around automation is extremely difficult for our industry, where margins are tight.

We still need people to run machines, and, in that way, we are like all other manufacturing companies in the news. We are struggling to recruit younger workers to replace the retiring generation of experienced workers.

There are a variety of reasons—which we all appreciate—why today’s newest employees are shying away from jobs in manufacturing. Those societal issues are wide-ranging and not easy to address. That said, we are pouring a huge amount of resources into employee recruitment, training, and retention.

Without an influx of new labor, the long-term survival of book printing in North America faces an existential threat.

Unfortunately, demographics are not on our side. Birth rates in the U.S. show a steady decline. Between 2007 and 2021, the number of births fell from 4.3 million to 2.7 million, a 14% drop. And the production world cannot be lulled into inaction by recent news of widespread layoffs, since most of those cuts are in office jobs in the technology and financial services sectors. The demand for the essential workers who keep manufacturing working remains unmet.

So, what to do? We need to work together to show the need for legal immigration policies. We need more people to work in our factories. We will train them. We will give them health and wellness benefits. We will pay them a living wage. And, hopefully, they will find fulfillment in a rewarding job that can become a career.

We need the publishing community to help us by taking a leading role in this campaign. We are with you, and we want to actively work with all industry stakeholders on the task of expanding the labor pool. But let’s be realistic—the average book printer has neither the expertise nor financial resources to spearhead this effort. Publishers have bigger profit margins, more staff resources, and political sway. We need publishers to help lead these discussions. We need publishers to lobby the government to open our borders to a larger pool of workers—a tactic used multiple times in our country’s history to grow its economy.

I challenge the Big Five book publishers to use their government relations executives and lobbyists to take on this leadership role. It’s not an antitrust concern to work together on this topic, and while immigration reform has become a hot political issue, we must stay above the noise and look at the facts. It’s simple: no workers, no product; no product, no sales.

Now is the time for all of us, together, to stand up and help address this critical issue. If not, there is a real possibility that someday readers will look up to find the bookshelves empty.

Rich Letchinger is v-p of sales and chief marketing officer at Worzalla.