Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic hit this past spring, industry members from across the book business have monitored the health and stability of the supply chain, concerned about severe disruptions to the flow of books. For the most of the year, the supply chain has performed better than expected, but there was a wary eye on how it would hold up in the fourth quarter, when the usual rush of books would be compounded by the release of a raft of titles that had been delayed from earlier in the year. In addition, industry members were worried that factors such as printing capacity issues and new lockdown orders would complicate the holiday sales season.
At the start of Thanksgiving week, PW reached out to a handful of key players to gauge how they were feeling about the state of the supply chain, and most think it continues to perform well. “We haven’t had all the problems people were talking about,” said Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt. He added that B&N, which many publishers and distributors see as a key to a successful year-end sales push, has had no problems receiving books and getting them into stores.
Publishers’ biggest account, Amazon, has seen sales boom this year as more consumers shop online. Publishers were given a huge scare when the e-tailer temporarily prioritized essential items, such as medical supplies, and delayed some book orders at the start of the pandemic. Despite a new rise in Covid cases, that is unlikely to happen again, and Amazon is giving books the same attention it does in every fourth quarter. “We have worked closely with publishers over the last several months, and we continue to invest in tools, services, and processes to support them and streamline the delivery of their stock to our fulfillment centers,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
Joe Matthews, CEO of Independent Publishers Group, said that while there has been some congestion and delays at a few Amazon distribution centers, there have been no serious problems. He attributed that in part to Amazon and others in the supply chain spreading out orders over a longer period than in 2019, when they were concentrated into the last four weeks or so of the year. “Overall this has me feeling very confident,” Matthews said, “because the supply chain seems to be better than last year, and the orders are materializing despite Covid.”
One of the most encouraging trends for the industry going into the holidays is the strong demand for books. According to NPD BookScan, print unit sales were up 7% for the year through the week ended November 14 over the comparable period in 2019. That week’s sales were higher than any previous week this year, and that was before Barack Obama’s A Promised Land hit stores November 17 and sold about 1.7 million units across all formats in its first week.
“The demand is here—it’s just a question of keeping up,” said Shawn Morin, CEO of Ingram Content Group.
Daunt concurred, saying if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it has been the increased interest in reading and the rise in industry sales.
Printers have been running full-out for months and, for the most part, have been able to keep pace with demand. At the end of October, a survey conducted by the Book Manufacturers’ Institute of its members found most were experiencing extended lead times on printing jobs, and about half expected that to continue into next year’s first quarter, according to BMI executive director Matt Baehr. “Most are running at full capacity, and labor is still the biggest issue in the industry,” he added.
Publishers have taken creative steps to deal with printing capacity issues. One move that has attracted some attention was the decision by Penguin Random House to print 1.5 million copies of the U.S. edition of A Promised Land at Mohn in Germany. Though a number of independent booksellers reported receiving some damaged books, the laydown for A Promised Land generally went well.
“PRH did a great job getting A Promised Land to the right stores in the right quantities,” Daunt said. He hopes the release of Obama’s memoir will be the beginning of a steady increase in sales through the rest of the year.
Despite a hack of some of B&N’s systems in mid-fall, online sales have been good, Daunt said. Sales through physical stores, however, have suffered in different parts of the country. All but two of B&N’s stores were open the day before Thanksgiving, and he isn’t expecting more major lockdowns, but he admitted that the future is impossible to predict right now.
Daunt said if more lockdowns are to come, the priority should be keeping stores that carry items such as food and medicine open. But he believes bookstores are in the next tier of stores that should be allowed to do business in person. “Bookstores are safe places,” he said, “and books give people something to do when they are isolated and help maintain mental health.”
Business had been picking up at B&N before the virus began to surge in early November, and Daunt is uncertain about how strong foot traffic will be for the remainder of the year. But, he said, with stores in a number of very strong regions, he remains optimistic that the rising tide of demand will lift B&N’s boat.
Independent bookstores remain the part of the publishing ecosystem that seems most vulnerable to the uncertainties of the pandemic. In September, ABA CEO Allison Hill told PW that a survey of 400 member stores found that sales were down by over 20% in the first eight months of the year for half of respondents. She noted that entering the fourth quarter, independent bookstores were on “precarious ground.”
The arrival of A Promised Land did provide a huge boost, but many indies need more than a single hit to stay in business. Indie online and curbside sales remain a bright spot. Heather Duncan, executive director of Mountain and Plains Independent Booksellers Association, said a number of her members reported that sales growth in those areas has helped offset in-store sales declines. One MPIBA member said its top concern is not about a lockdown but about keeping its staff healthy enough to remain open.
Though booksellers said some individual titles have been hard to get, in general the supply chain is holding up. “There have been some minor Covid-related delays, but overall we’ve been pleased with timely shipments from the publishers and Ingram,” said Stephanie Hochschild, owner of Book Stall in Winnetka, Ill.
One key to finishing the year on an up note, several booksellers agreed, is the health of Ingram. “I just hope that Ingram’s warehouse keeps operating,” said Nina Barrett, owner of Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, Ill.
BISG executive director Brian O’Leary said the performance of the supply chain in the fourth quarter is in keeping with its performance since spring. “I’d say that the supply chain has been adapting all year in real time, as the channels have evolved and demand has shifted,” he noted. “That continues to happen in this peak selling season. Companies are working together more closely than before because they have to, and so far it appears to be working.”