At a recent webinar, “The Powerful Case for U.S. Book Manufacturing in the Face of Global Supply Chain Challenges, Paper Shortages, and Rising Distribution Costs”, Bill Rojack, VP at Midland Paper warned us that although the paper market has always had cycles, our current supply problems result from something more troubling. “The paper business has been consolidating for years and will continue to consolidate,” and the pandemic had expedited the process. Book paper represents only about 5-7% of the total paper market (including paper for catalogs and magazines), and in spite of an increase in demand by book publishers, overall paper demand has fallen 50% in recent years. In response many mills have switched from printing papers to other products where they can make more money — such as corrugated boxes and other packaging materials. Thus on current trends, it looks like the paper crunch for books is likely to get worse before it gets better. Once plants have invested millions of dollars converting their factories, retooling back to paper is prohibitively expensive. So even if the packaging market does become saturated it will take a long time for demand to rebalance supply. (See Publishers Weekly‘s report.)

Though this may seem like a tail-wagging-dog situation, speakers at the webinar suggested that part of the solution will be for publishers to modify their behavior. How many copies we hoped to sell, how long we were willing to inventory books, considerations of the aesthetic details of paper appearance and quality, preferences for certain “house” trim sizes, the fixation on unit cost — all these will have to give way as we work with our printers to overcome shortages of materials. (Shortages of labor will probably cure themselves before paper picks up). Our future strategy will have to be to manufacture on a sort of programmatic basis, taking in only the “right” number of copies for our printers given the supply conditions applying at the time of ordering — the number of copies they are able print at that time — and allowing them the flexibility to print more copies for us whenever they can fit the job in. This is not an utterly unheard of methodology — we were already operating a small but growing auto-ordering system at Oxford University Press at least a decade ago, and this is merely a logical extension of that. It sort of represents an extension of the publisher’s inventory control department into the book manufacturer’s back office. Working together to fulfill demand will become a much more collaborative activity.

The important thing will be to avoid killing the golden goose. Demand for printed books is robust, and this has exacerbated the effect of paper shortages. It would be mad for publishers not to compromise on paper choice and print scheduling if that were to lead to the public’s abandoning the printed book out of frustration.

Let it be admitted that a world with only ebooks would still be a perfectly decent book world. Ebooks have the potential to be more profitable than printed books anyway, but a majority of the reading public still prefers a paper book. Pity to have their preference blocked off by stubbornness.