Focused on “Innovation Across the Supply Chain,” the annual meeting of the Book Industry Study Group, held April 26 at the Harvard Club in New York City, presented a day long series of panels on the state of the paper and printing industries, as well as innovation in workflow and workforce issues and digital book sales.

The annual meeting opened with a panel focused on the challenge of meeting demands for paper and printing after a year of “dramatic declines in paper capacity” in 2018.

Lindenmeyr Book Publishing Papers v-p Janet McCarthy Grimm described the year as a “perfect storm” of challenges for the industry. The past year, she said, combined “a resurgence in demand for print books,” with a decline in capacity by as much as 40% for virtually every kind of coated and uncoated book paper. Declines, she said, that “caught the industry by surprise.”

So far in 2019 the paper capacity “has been better,” she said, though cautioning that “we need to keep an eye on the market as orders pickup.” Grimm described a domestic paper market in transition, as paper mills shift production away from paper for books to growing demand for paper for packaging. These trend, she said, led to a “strain on the system towards the end of 2018.”

In combination with market demands, Grimm explained that the paper industry (as well as the printing industry), is plagued by growing labor shortages. Indeed, mills have been shut down altogether for lack of workers. And she said it’s not just paper mills navigating a labor shortage. Trucking and paper delivery vendors face similar challenges. Trucking companies can’t find drivers. Young people she explained “just don’t want to do [trucking jobs] any more,” pointing to the profession’s grueling lifestyle and the demands of long distance driving.

Matt Baehr, executive director of the Book Manufacturing Institute, said the printing industry faced the same issues. “It’s the same for printing plants, which are being shut down. The worker shortage is a problem and it’s not changing.” He noted that printing problems spiked between September and December of 2018. He described a printing landscape plagued by a lack of investment in new facilities and specifically a decline in hardcover printing capacity. He noted hardcover capacity was being complicated by the need to shift limited workers from the print side to the bindery side, “which slows everything down.” Printers, he said, would happily add shifts to their plants if there were workers to staff them.

Grimm called on the industry to begin a “a group conversation” to find “innovative answers to these problems.” (She also cautions the industry to also be mindful of the “restraint of trade issues” around any kind of collective industry response). And she called on the need for industry groups such as BISG and the Book Industry Guild of New York, to be a part of any industry conversation on these issues.

In the short run, Baehr and Grimm urged publishers to “stay in contact with your manufacturing partners," and plan two to six months in advance of publishing projects. Grimm said that publishers that supply their own paper to printers “do better.” And she cautioned that while paper supplies were good at the moment, “it can go from a good to a tight paper situation overnight.”

Grimm emphasized that paper production is part of a “global market” and urged publishers to “strike deals with overseas suppliers looking to get into the U.S. market. U.S. mills that have left the book paper business in the U.S. are not coming back.”

Also during the event, publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin, CEO of the Idea Logical Co., was awarded the 2019 Sally Dedecker Award for Lifetime Service to BISG. And the late Robin Seaman, director of content acquisition at Benetech, was posthumously awarded the 2019 Industry Champion Award, for her passionate commitment to making content accessible to disabled readers. Seaman passed away unexpectedly in January.

We’ll have more on the BISG annual meeting later in the week.

Correction: The comment advising publishers to supply their own paper to printers was incorrectly attributed in an earlier version of this story.