Last week, I tried to order a paperback book from one of our distributors, only to learn that the title was on backorder. In fact, several titles were on backorder, with no clear arrival date in sight.

Luckily, I didn’t need this book right away, but that’s not the case for everyone, especially those in the education space. With the new school year quickly approaching, you might be trying to source books for your classroom, only to find out some books aren’t currently available. What gives?

While many industries have started to bounce back from disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the publishing industry continues to feel its effects. Book releases have been delayed, reprints are stuck in limbo, and stores are having trouble keeping shelves stocked. What’s the story behind all of these book shortages? Let’s break it down.

Supply Chain Problems in the Publishing Industry

Writing, editing, layout, cover design, printing, marketing, distribution: It takes a lot of steps for a book to go from someone’s imagination to the hands of readers, pandemic or not. Disrupting just one part of the supply chain can delay or even cancel the whole production.

Paper Shortages

Right now, the biggest cause of book shortages relates to a book’s most basic element: paper. It’s such a ubiquitous thing most people don’t think about. But believe it or not, there’s currently an international paper shortage. Several factors, most of which are related to the pandemic, have gotten us to this point.

Paper Mill and Printing Facility Closures

At the start of the pandemic, many paper mills and printing plants shut down to help stop the spread. Some closures were only temporary, but others were permanent. Those that stayed open operated at reduced capacity, limiting the number of products made.

Rising Pulp Costs

Book-grade paper is made using pulp, a raw material produced from wood. Pulp prices have been on the rise for years, but—you guessed it—the pandemic has caused prices to spike even higher. Because of mill closures and delays, there is less pulp on the market, while demand remains high, driving up prices.

Changing Consumer Demands

With more people staying home during pandemic lockdowns, online shopping skyrocketed. Data from the US Census Bureau shows that e-commerce sales increased by 43% in 2020, growing from $571.2 billion in 2019 to $815.4 billion in 2020.

This surge in online ordering generated a need for packaging products. Many mills and other production facilities stopped making book-grade paper and converted their factories to create cardboard and other packaging materials.

At the same time, demand for books increased during the pandemic as people looked for entertainment. But with mills producing less paper suitable for printing, many book publishers had to push back projects until materials became available.

Labor Shortages

COVID-19 has led to a significant loss of workers in industries related to publishing, from paper manufacturing and printing to shipping and distribution. Many older workers took the opportunity to retire during the pandemic. Other workers moved on to different positions and industries in search of better pay and benefits, leaving vacancies as companies sought new staff. With fewer workers, overall productivity is down.

Transportation Woes

While many books sold in the United States are printed domestically and in Canada, a lot of manufacturing takes place overseas in countries like China. Because of their weight and volume, books are commonly transported in containers and carried across the ocean on massive shipping vessels.

However, just like with the cardboard issue, the rise of online shopping has created a competition for space on those ships. And even if there is space, book shipments can hit even more delays once they arrive at port. There just aren’t enough workers available to unload cargo quickly and get it onto trains or trucks. Oh, and there’s a truck driver shortage, too. Thanks to this logistical bottleneck, book stores and distributors are waiting even longer for stock to arrive.

It’s unclear how long these issues will continue to impact the publishing industry, even though we’re more than two years into the pandemic at this point. Until these major problems are solved, don’t be surprised if this book shortage continues into the fall and beyond.

What’s Going On at Prestwick House?

As much as we hate to admit it, these publishing delays have somewhat affected Prestwick House, too.

While we publish many of our own books, we sell a lot of paperbacks from other publishers. Usually, we order those paperbacks directly from them and have the books shipped to our warehouse. Then, we send them to you when you place an order. It’s a nice system, when it works. But if those publishers don’t have inventory of their own, we might have to wait a while for some books to be restocked.

So, what does this mean for you, especially as we head towards the new school year? If you still need books for the fall and haven’t yet placed an order, we recommend getting that done as soon as possible to avoid shipping delays. Fortunately, the vast majority of the books we carry are in stock, including our Literary Touchstone Classics titles and collection of vocabulary, grammar, and reading resources! In-stock orders usually ship within one business day.

After placing an order, our customer service team will reach out to you directly if any of your requested titles are out of stock and/or backordered. We’ll work with you to ensure you get the books you need in a timely manner.

Have questions about placing an order, or would you like a quote before you buy? Contact us today. We’re happy to help!