The Publishers Association of the West (PubWest) and the Book Manufacturers’ Institute timed their meetings to coincide in Seattle on Feb. 1-3, underscoring a common theme of collaboration. Besides comparing how they have adapted to supply-chain issues, publishers, printers, and suppliers talked about values-based decision-making and lessons learned from pandemic disruptions. PubWest also announced the 2022 winners of its book design and production awards, and awarded the 2023 Jack D. Rittenhouse Award for contributions to the book publishing community to Steve Piersanti, founder and past president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

BMI executive director Matt Baehr moderated an opening panel on “Book Manufacturing in 2023 and Beyond” that established the constructive tone of the gathering. Baehr, using statistics from BMI’s monthly barometer of manufacturing capacity and lead times, explained that he sees increased capacity steadying the market, while “the big drop is the lead time. Things finally slowed down.” Joe Upton, v-p of business development at digital printer Gasch Printing, agreed: “We’re seeing less of that hair-on-fire, need-it-now” mentality, he said, because publishers have learned to plan further ahead. Angela Engel, publisher and founder of The Collective Book Studio, a hybrid publisher, said, “I feel like I can breathe now.”

Friesens Corp. sales representative Tim Hewitt sees things a little differently. Friesens has “more demand than capacity” at present, he said, because customers overbought in 2022 to get ahead of inflation. “As painful as 2022 was in terms of price increases, it kind of balanced the ship,” Hewitt said. “In ’22 we saw overbuying, and maybe in ’23 we’re overplanning. But we are slammed—there’s no better way to say it.” He urged production teams to communicate well in advance so that Friesens, which does both offset and digital printing, can secure materials and schedule press time.

Like Hewitt, other panelists noticed overbuying and warned that those warehouse hoards of desirable stock eventually would run out. “Once we get through that inventory, we’re not going to go back to the way it was,” Upton said. He encouraged publishers to trust printers and remain open to “product substitutes”: maybe a 45# matte is a production team’s first pick, but a 50# matte will do.

Bill Rojack, v-p at the independent paper and packaging distribution firm Midland Paper, seconded Upton’s suggestion that publishers be flexible and communicate with suppliers. Due to customers competing for scarce supplies, “no mill has ever had pricing power the way they have in the past two years,” he said, but North American mills might not have the capability to produce everything a publisher desires (and “we will lose another paper mill—we don’t know which one yet”). “The paper business has spoiled us with too many options,” he said. “I know books are art. I know they’re special. Don’t make them too special.”

At the Collective Book Studio, Engel finds specialized papers hard to resist. For the sake of “agility,” she said, she works with manufacturers to rethink paper stock and color work; she changed her “anti-digital” bias. Yet she emphasized that retailers like Anthropologie and Papyrus, which carry her titles, “want innovative formats that can only be done overseas,” which means offshoring. Customers in those stores respond to high-quality books with layflat bindings and fine details like embossing, debossing, and foil.

Onshoring, offshoring, and sustainability were among the top concerns voiced by the panel and the whole assembly, in roundtable discussions. Will printing and production shift back overseas as supply chain worries ease? What if manufacturers invest in equipment, but orders dry up before it can be installed?

“We’ve seen a lot of cost increases,” Hewitt acknowledged, “but you have to have capital to invest. If we don’t make a profit, we can’t buy equipment” or get it up and running. Rojack more bluntly said, “A ridiculous amount of investment has been made in the domestic market to support you [the publishers], and let’s not screw that up.”

To keep manufacturing in North America, Upton foresees more investments going into automation, since most printers are not operating at full capacity. Discussion about more automation led some attendees to talk more about this as a labor issue; greater automatization eliminates jobs, and the quality of the finished product is still unknown.

Looking a bit into the future, Baehr said, “You may see some of the work go back [overseas], but not all.” Publishers are “paying for predictability,” fearful of shutdowns and delays. They’re also, as Engel added, increasingly attuned to green and diversely owned companies. Baehr noted that BMI is talking with the Book Industry Study Group, the Green Book Alliance, and European manufacturers “about the carbon footprint of the book,” and he predicts “big attention to sustainability.”

Following the panel, people from across the industry asked how domestic manufacturers can network more effectively or even share orders that would otherwise get shoved to offshore manufacturers. The group sought more education on environmentally sustainable materials beyond paper, including carton materials, glues, inks, and thread. PubWest treasurer Amy Barrett-Daffin, publisher of C&T Publishing, ventured that the industry might begin to rethink post-consumer waste paper, with an eye toward processing PCW onshore and reusing it in North American publishing streams.

“I applaud PubWest for having BMI here,” Midland's Rojack said to the gathering. “It’s going to make us better when you explain your ideas.”