I want to talk for a minute about why publishing is in so much trouble right now.
Its way more complicated than most people seem to think. First, you need to know that the vast majority of our business remains in hardcover and paperback books. Hard copies mean physical objects. The second strongest sector has been audio books. Ebooks are a distant third. Selling books is a very long and complicated supply chain. Ignore editorial — writers and editors can work at a distance and electronically. It really starts with the paper.
Storing paper for the big presses takes an enormous amount of warehouse space, which costs money. Printers don’t store a lot — they rely on a “just in time,” supply chain so that when a book is scheduled to go to press, the paper is delivered to the printer. Most of that paper is manufactured in China. Guess what isn’t coming from China; nothing, for the last three months.
Some of the paper comes from Canada. Guess what the Trump administration put a big tariff on at the beginning of the year? Yup, paper. So, we don’t have adequate paper supplies. Then consider that big printing plants are not “essential businesses.” There are only a couple printers in the US that can handle the book manufacturing business. One of them shut down last week. Covid-19.
We started rescheduling books like mad to deal with that. But supposing we had paper, and a printer and bindery, the books have to be shipped to the warehouse. Again, that’s non-essential movement. The freight drivers moving books? Staying home, as they should. Not all of them. I hope they remain healthy, because dying to get the latest bestseller to the warehouse doesn’t seem quite right to me.
Now consider the warehouse situation. Traditional publishers maintain huge warehouses. Lots of people are working there, bless them, but it’s putting them at risk. There they are, filling orders, packing boxes, running invoices. Giving those boxes to the freight drivers who take the books to the bookstores and distributors. Again, truck drivers risking their lives to bring books to the bookstores.
But think again. The bookstores are closed. The distributors are closed . No place open to deliver the books to. Some bookstores are doing mail order business, bless them, but they aren’t ordering very many books from the warehouses. Amazon isn’t ordering very many, either — because they have (correctly) stopped shipping books and are using their reduced staff to ship medical supplies and food.
So the books that distributors and sellers ordered months ago are not being printed or shipped or sold. And because of that, they aren’t making any money. And because of THAT, they are not ordering any books for months from now. Plus they aren’t paying for the books they got from publishers in February and March. Cash flow has ground to a halt.
Now, audio books….turns out that people mostly, almost 100%, listen to audio books while they commute to work. Sales of audio books collapsed about the Middle of March. Fortunately, there isn’t a physical supply chain there, so theoretically that business can restart immediately upon resumption of commuting. So given all the above, it’s not a good time in the publishing industry. The damage is going to last for a long time. The effects will be felt for at least a year to come, even if we do go back to business as usual in May. Or June. Or July…..
Oh let’s be real. We won’t go back to business as usual until there is a real vaccine for this corona virus.