At the Book Manufacturers Institute’s check-in webinar on August 26, representatives from across the book manufacturing spectrum confirmed something that has been widely discussed in publishing circles for many weeks: printing capacity for trade books is tight.
BMI executive director Matt Baehr, who instituted the regular calls in the spring as a way to gauge how BMI’s members were faring as the pandemic was starting, provided a recap of the meeting to PW. The takeaway was relatively straightforward: while demand for educational textbooks has been generally soft, demand for one-color trade titles has been strong, Baehr reported, and is expected to remain so for the remainder of the year.
The decision by publishers to move an extraordinary number of spring titles to the fall, higher than expected sales in some categories since the pandemic hit—a few printers mentioned the surge in demand for homeschool titles, Baehr said—and consolidation among printers have all contributed to the capacity crunch. According to Baehr, printers and suppliers also said the decision by both trade and educational publishers to delay placing orders until they could get a better handle on what fall market demand would be is another factor putting pressure on printers.
On the topic of staffing, Baehr reported that most printers are fully staffed, but are still looking for more help. Some companies, he said, had expected to get more job applicants once the extra $600 in unemployment insurance ran out at the end of July, but few saw much of a pop, and those that did apply generally had little industry experience. Still, Baehr noted, no company said staffing issues were preventing them from meeting deadlines, though some said they were outsourcing some work.
With capacity an issue, meeting participants also said they were seeing increased interest in print-on-demand, as well as other short-run options that can do quick turnarounds. Demand for uncoated groundwood paper, the main paper to print black and white trade books, is also in high demand, but there is no indication of a shortage, Baehr said.
In general, Baehr said, printers and suppliers have seen a steady increase in business since the summer. “It is a much different conversation than we were having in the spring,” he said.
Publishing sources said that one thing that has not contributed to the capacity issue is LSC Communications’ Chapter 11 filing. Sources said LSC has been making good on their performance promises so far this year. In reporting second quarter results, LSC said book printing revenue was down because of the lack of educational orders while demand for trade titles was strong. And publishers are keeping an eye on how the bankruptcy process plays out. Bids for LSC’s assets were due Wednesday evening, but there has been no announcement about how many bids were received.
Under bankruptcy proceedings, a winning bidder for the assets could reject certain LSC contracts, but publishing sources said they don’t expect that to occur, especially this fall. The printer also still has the option of not selling its assets and opt instead for a financial restructuring.