Did you hear the one about the paper shortage?

Except it’s real?

And it’s affecting publishing?

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Yeah, I just found this out, too and I’m wondering why this isn’t bigger news. I got the heads-up via Kristin Nelson, a literary agent whose newsletter I subscribe to. Here’s what she said in her August, 2019 newsletter:

Seventeen years in this biz and just when I think I’ve seen it all, something new and unforeseen comes down the pike. Publishing is currently grappling with two issues wreaking all kinds of interesting havoc.

According to Nelson, those issues are a paper shortage AND printing capacity concerns, and the two are interrelated. Oh, and throw into the mix tariff concerns, and you’ve got a whole lotta “yikes” brewing in the publishing industry.

Basically, with the rise of ebooks, Nelson notes, some printers went out of biz or cut way back on producing paper books. But then, when it because clear that paper books are still a thing, well, there were thus holes that hadn’t been filled, and publishers have been scrambling to figure out what to do to make inventory on paper books when there aren’t as many printers anymore to handle it AND when there’s a paper shortage.

These issues affect authors, and by extension, readers. Publishers have to push publication dates back if they can’t get the books printed, and Nelson notes that this is often done on debuts, which of course is a major downer for a new author. Paperback editions are also getting delayed, says Nelson, which means hardback are the only options on the shelves for readers who prefer to read physical books. With the potential for delays in a paperback, a publisher may decide to not release a paperback at all.

So why is there a paper shortage?

First, it’s not new. You might have noticed during the holidays that some books seemed hard to come by in paperback.

Here’s Forbes with some info:

Paper shortages—sometimes referred to as paper crunches—are often cyclical, though rarely predictable by more than a few months, but what makes this one different is it’s nature: Typically, it’s a standard supply and demand sort of scenario. What’s happening now, however, is almost a perfect storm of politics, business, environment, and technology such that we haven’t seen before.
[…]
We’re at a time when capacity is down. Just as publishing houses from time to time go through mergers, buyouts, and consolidation, so do vendors—printers, and even paper companies. Paper has been a fairly dicey segment in recent years and as a result we have seen some mills shut, retool, or be acquired by a larger concern.

–Rachel Kramer Bussel, “How the Paper Shortage Has Affected Book Publishing” (June 10, 2019, Forbes), interviewing Danny Adlerman, director of production and manufacturing, Lee & Low Books.

In addition, Adlerman notes, single-stream recycling has also created problems. Single-stream recycling lumps paper and all kinds of other materials together, which means…

…with the advent of more and better recycling, we have also become more mindful of using less plastic. That’s also a good thing, but what happens if we stop using plastic on disposable packaging? Things still have to be packaged, of course…and a cheaper, more eco-friendly alternative is paper and cardboard packaging.

The response of the mills, accordingly, has been to focus more on commercial packaging paper and pulp products. This has resulted in fewer mills producing less publishing grade stock—less poundage, but also fewer grades. This has hit the novel market harder than the picture book market in some ways, but the magazine market, already under technological siege, has also been hit quite hard.

— Adlerman via Kramer Bussel, “How the Paper Shortage Has Affected Book Publishing”

And last May, I caught a piece in Publishers Weekly (that Nelson also linked to in her latest newsletter) that raised concerns about how tariffs were going to affect paper, like those placed on paper coming from Canada.

Repercussions for these crunches in the publishing industry unspool over time and end up affecting authors. Nelson notes:

Aspiring authors might think, “I’m not there yet, so this doesn’t impact me.” Well, you’d be wrong. As agents, we are seeing an indirect impact—editors are acquiring fewer books in 2019. Paper shortages and printer delays are not necessarily the sole reasons, but we agents can extrapolate that imprints are taking fewer risks; they’re acquiring fewer authors who can “build” and focusing instead on acquiring the “sure bets” or titles that can “break out big.”

How this paper shortage situation affects smaller publishers that cater to smaller demographics (like LGBTQ+ fiction/genre fiction, e.g.) is anybody’s guess, but those houses use printers that larger houses use, too, and smaller houses have to pay costs, too, for producing a paperback book. Those costs get passed along the food chain, friends, to readers. Meanwhile, authors and publishers may experience delays in production, delays in release, and possible shortages in terms of supply. All of which also gets passed along to readers.

And what this means for ebooking I’m not sure about, either. Ebooks aren’t going to go away, but a lack of access to paper for physical books has long-range implications that I’m still pondering.

Publishing, like other systems, is kind of an ecosystem and lots of things are connected. So when one part experiences stress, others do, too.

Food for thought, y’all.

And if you’re interested in reading a bit more, here:
Printing Delays Present ‘New Normal’ for Academic Books
Bottleneck at Printers has Derailed Some Holiday Book Sales
2019 Print Forecast: Tight Paper Market Will Continue Squeezing Publishers
Paper for Books is Getting Harder to Come By

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