We’ve all gotten used to the roller-coaster ride that has been the paper pricing picture over the past few decades. D. Eadward Tree suggests this uppsy-downsy may be over. I wonder.

Pricing marches with the supply/demand cycle. Shutting down a paper-making machine is a big deal, so as owner of a paper machine you will want to delay that decision till the last possible moment. Historically Sod’s law (Murphy’s law to US readers) has usually meant that that moment has tended to coincide with the beginning of the recovery of demand, so that suddenly, just as demand is increasing, supply is dropping. So you turn around and start getting the machine ready to make paper again, which you manage just in time for everyone else to have pulled off the same trick. In other words, as supply peaks, demand plummets, as the next phase of the economic cycle comes around. This isn’t a result of stupidity: it’s an effect of the difficulty of turning on and off your paper-faucet. Taking 14% out of the American coated-freesheet-making capacity by closing a single mill might look like a transformational change, but won’t it just fall into the same pattern after a number of years? There may be a bit more of a lag than before, but after all, if there’s more demand than capacity, surely someone’s ultimately going to be tempted to try to supply it even if being able to charge more for your product may dampen enthusiasm for a while.

It’s undeniable that print runs are coming down, and it’s also true that suppliers’ demand planning has become harder than it used to be because of this ability to print closer to a six-month supply or even less. But it’s individual print numbers we are talking about: not annual gross demand for books, which remains fairly constant even if it’s now achieved by two or three individual printings. If there’s a misfit between print capacity and publishing’s needs, the misfit between that and paper-making capacity is even greater. It’s like publishers want to print books in the hundreds, book manufacturers need to work in the thousands, and paper makers are forced to think in the hundreds of thousands. It’s all a balancing act: matching capacity to demand is an art not a science. Ultimately balance will be achieved; only to be disrupted all over again.

However as book work moves more and more towards digital printing, the “problem” will tend to get less and less “problematic” as papers suited for offset (or even letterpress) printing decline in significance, and the main paper used for books becomes that used for digital print.