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British bookshops and publishers are facing a perfect storm of supply chain issues and paper shortages as they gear up for the all-important Christmas season. A combination of increased demand as the global economy emerges from Covid-19, coupled with staffing issues in warehouses and among drivers, means that strain is being felt in the UK supply chain. Added to this scenario is the pressure being put on independent bookshops because Amazon is “ordering tons of books which will be sitting in their warehouses,” as one publisher put it. “Amazon has been scooping up stock wherever it can”.
Another publisher told the Bookseller: “We’re really conscious of indies, we’re trying to deal with the big guys but trying to make sure we can help the indies. One of the things we’re starting to do is, Amazon will ask for 50,000 copies of something and we’ll say ‘We’ll give you 30,000 and talk again in a few weeks’, thereby juggling and negotiating to make sure we have enough to cover the entire market rather than just cover the big guys.”
Covid-19 has led to staff shortages in warehouses and there have been reports of Amazon offering money upfront to bring in staff, sometimes taking them straight from other publishers’ warehouses. “As far as I know we haven’t lost anyone ourselves,” one publisher said. “But we know from our warehouse staff of people where Amazon has steamed in and offered these golden handshakes.”
Ingram Content Group UK senior vice-president David Taylor believes the wider changes happening in the market will eventually lead to higher prices for books. “One of the theories is that as we came out of lockdown it released a lot of pent-up consumer demand and as the economy started to recover there was a huge growth in online spending, as a result of which there was a huge group of container ships out on the ocean.
“I think it is to do with a surge in demand for imports and that in turn is driving the cost of container ships. The spectre of inflation is looming over our industry and there are several reasons for that…prices are rising and printers are going to charge publishers more and publishers are going to suck it up or it will feed through into book price inflation. I would say, a little controversially, that I think books are still incredible value. I think we’ll see an increase in book prices because publishers really won’t have any choice.”
Publishers and booksellers are watching these changes carefully, with retailers liker Waterstones stocking up more heavily in its warehouse than in previous years. Observers wonder whether environmental concerns will also lead to publishers shifting to more local printing too, as questions begin to be asked about shifting large amounts of stock by container ship. This much is certain: these are interesting times for the global book industry.