It's only mid-October but I implore you to turn your thoughts to the winter holidays, if just for a minute or two. If you are planning to buy books as gifts — and surely you are — now is the time to order them from your local bookseller.
Supply chain issues, which we have already encountered this pandemic with everything from refrigerators to toilet paper, are affecting books. Printing plants are at capacity, workers are scarce, and shipping problems — everything from a lack of shipping containers to backed-up ports to not enough truck drivers — can delay delivery once the book is printed.
I get e-mails almost daily from publicists announcing that the publication date for one book or another has been delayed. It's not the author's fault, or the book's fault, or the publisher's fault, and it is very definitely not the bookstore's fault. The fault lies in the great difficulty of simply getting the book printed and shipped.
The New York Times and Publishers Weekly have both reported on this in recent weeks.
"After years of printing plants shutting down and going out of business, the demand to print books domestically now exceeds the available capacity," the Times reported.
In some cases, publishers resort to triage, Publishers Weekly noted. That is, publishers might concentrate on printing new titles rather than reprinting books that are sold out.
Local booksellers are aware of the problems, and they are adjusting how they work.
"None of this is unexpected," said David Enyeart, manager of Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul. "We've been able to change our buying here to prepare for this winter. That's meant ordering more copies of books to arrive on the publication date. This year, we are buying bigger first stacks than usual, in the hopes that we won't run out.
"And of course we're encouraging customers to start their holiday shopping now. We are taking preorders on new books. When the books arrive, we'll set aside any preordered copies before the books even hit the shelves."
Matt Keliher, manager of SubText Books in St. Paul, notes another problem — the enormous volume of goods that shipping companies such as the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx and UPS are moving these days, which creates backlogs.
"So an order that I place on Monday that would normally be in by Friday the same week might not arrive until Wednesday or Thursday of the following week," Keliher said.
"So, what we are asking folks to do is shop early, but also to shop with greater flexibility. Ask a bookseller for an alternative, or purchase a gift card."
At Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, booksellers said they have been affected by the supply chain delays "in every way imaginable." Many of their books come from small publishers with fewer resources, which makes printing and distribution even more of a challenge.
"We urge our customers to shop early, but more importantly, come into the bookstore and allow our talented booksellers to help you," they said. "Chances are, if a book you wanted is out of stock, our booksellers will have several similar recommendations."
So why am I urging you to give books, despite these problems? Because books make wonderful gifts. Bookstores need you. Authors need you. Publishers need you. (Just for the record, Amazon does not need you.) And if you can't secure the exact title you had hoped to give, booksellers can suggest 10 other books that would be as good — or better.
Said Angela Schwesnedl, co-owner of Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis, "It isn't very often that there's only one right book for someone. I'm hoping for some gentleness all around and I'm fully prepared to send people to some of the other great stores in town if we don't have what they want, like we do every year."
So hop online, pre-order from an indie, and not only will you help out your favorite bookstore, but with your shopping done early you'll find yourself with loads of free time in November and December. Time to bake cookies!
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books. @StribBooks. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org