A work slowdown by longshoremen at West Coast ports, which has been going on since the summer and caused a shutdown in business over the weekend, is reaching a critical point. The job action has slowed imports of books printed in Asia and, although some publishers have had to adjust the publication of only a few titles, more significant delays are likely if a resolution in the labor dispute isn’t reached soon.
Michael Jacobs, CEO of Harry Abrams, said that even though a few books from Asian printers have been late, the publisher hasn’t had to delay the release dates of any titles yet. “For the most part, our schedule is holding,” Jacobs said. That could change, however, if the situation at the ports doesn’t improve soon. The freight forwarder used by Abrams reports that talks on a new contract have made progress, and an end to the impasse may be in sight. If things don’t improve in a month or two, Abrams will need to start making contingency plans to ensure that its fall titles are not delayed, Jacobs said.
An end to the dispute would be welcome news for Chronicle Books, since most of the company’s illustrated books are printed in Asia. For Chronicle, transit time for books coming from Asia has doubled: traveling from the printer to the Indiana warehouse of its distributor, Hachette Book Group, used to take 30–35 days, but now can take as long as 68 days, according to Jeff Wiebe, associate director of operations for Chronicle.
Like Jacobs at Abrams, Wiebe said the delays have had only a minor impact so far, but that is likely to change. Noting that the situation at the ports really began to deteriorate last November, Wiebe said that the backlog has become so substantial that even if a settlement is reached this week, it could take up to two months before things get back to normal. Chronicle is facing the possibility of moving out the release dates on some of its frontlist titles set for publication in March, April, and May.
Since the slowdown affects all ports on the West Coast, Chronicle has had a difficult time finding alternative ways to get books to its warehouse. The company has rerouted about 10% of its freight through Vancouver and has looked at sending some shipments through ports in the Gulf of Mexico or along the East Coast ports, but found that this option would save only a little time with a big increase in costs.
Another possible option is using airfreight, but because of its higher cost, Chronicle has not made that move yet. Scholastic is also considering using airfreight to bring in a portion of its books’ print runs if the port dispute drags on. Ellie Berger, president of Scholastic Trade Publishing, said that “many of our full color and novelty books that were printed overseas have been impacted” by the labor impasse, but that to date Scholastic has had to delay the release date for only one picture book, which was moved back a month. Still, Berger said Scholastic continues to monitor the situation “very closely” and will look for alternatives if needed.
One reason the work slowdown hasn’t had more of an impact on publishers’ schedules yet is that many have moved at least some of their four-color printing back to the U.S. from offshore. Jacobs said that as four-color capacity at American printers has expanded, the cost difference between U.S. and Asian printers has narrowed. One of the options that Abrams will explore if it becomes necessary to find alternatives to using the West Coast ports is to move even more printing to the U.S. Candlewick Books is another publisher that may be relying more on American printers in the future. According to Hilary Berkman, chief financial officer, Candlewick prints books both in Asia and the U.S., and as the dispute continues the company has been “adjusting our sourcing.”
Note: This story has been updated from its original version to reflect more recent events.