This past spring, when the pandemic forced bookstores nationwide to close and authors to cancel tours, publishers postponed dozens of titles, betting that things would be back to normal by the fall.
But things are far from normal. Books that were bumped from spring and early summer are landing all at once, colliding with long-planned fall releases and making this one of the most crowded fall publishing seasons ever.
And now publishers are confronting a new hurdle: how to print all those books.
The two largest printing companies in the country, Quad and LSC Communications, have been under intense financial strain, a situation that has grown worse during the pandemic. LSC declared bankruptcy, and its assets will be auctioned off later this month. Quad’s printing business also is up for sale after the company had to temporarily shut down three plants because of the pandemic.
At the same time, there has been a spike in sales, a development that normally would be cause for celebration, but now is forcing publishers to scramble to meet surging demand. From early June to mid-August, print sales were up more than 12% over the previous 10 weeks, according to NPD BookScan. The surge was driven by several new blockbuster titles, including books by Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer, John Bolton and Mary Trump. Publishers also have seen an unexpected demand for older titles, particularly books about race and racism, children’s educational workbooks and fiction.
The backlog at the printers is creating havoc for authors and publishers. Reprints for books that are selling well, which normally take two weeks, are taking much longer.
CNN anchor Brian Stelter’s “Hoax,” about the relationship between Donald Trump and Fox News, was out of stock on Amazon shortly after its Aug. 25 publication date. Stelter’s publisher, the Simon & Schuster imprint One Signal, initially printed 50,000 copies, has ordered another 100,000, but is showing a ship time of up to two months.
Print runs for new titles are getting squeezed and pushed back. Carefully calibrated publication schedules are being blown up as books are moved into late fall and even next year. There are no quick solutions, publishing executives say. Printing books overseas, or using on-demand printing services, can provide a stopgap, but are costly alternatives.
Everyone is included
The reshuffling is affecting everyone from first-time novelists to prominent, award-winning authors.
Knopf and Pantheon are shifting the release of more than a dozen fall titles, including a memoir by cookbook author Deborah Madison and a biography of Sylvia Plath, citing “severe capacity issues with our printing partners.” The imprints also are delaying fiction by Robert Harris, Martin Amis, Jo Nesbo, Alexander McCall Smith and Tom Bissell, whose story collection “Creative Types” is being bumped to 2021.
Doubleday has postponed the publication of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick’s “Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World,” until February.
St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan, pushed back “Tsarina,” a debut novel by Ellen Alpsten, from October to November, a month many publishers had been avoiding because of the election.
“They just couldn’t get the copies from the printer in time,” said Alpsten’s literary agent, Deborah Schneider. “There’s a domino effect. We’re going to have bottlenecks not only in terms of getting stuff from printers but in terms of marketing. Everything is a seat-of-the-pants decision now.”
Some authors have had their publication dates moved more than once. Sasha Issenberg was preparing to release his “The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage” in June, timed for Pride Month. When the shutdown started, his publisher, Pantheon, moved the book to early September, then to late September. Recently, he was told that it is being bumped again — to June of next year.
He is worried about losing the momentum built by advance reviews in publications like Publishers Weekly.
“This was already an incredibly difficult time to put a book out into the world,” he said. “A lot had already been in place for this, and it’s disruptive on a number of levels.”
A backlog at the printers can have a ripple effect up and down the supply chain, causing delays at warehouses and slower delivery to booksellers, who might lose out on sales when customers can’t find the books they want.
“It’s lose-lose,” said Dennis Johnson, co-publisher of Melville House. “Heaven help you if that printing was a reprint of a book in demand. The delay can really be devastating to the book’s chances.”