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Supply chain issues are slowing the production of books ahead of the holidays

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Publishing is having a great year. Book sales are booming above even pre-pandemic levels. But if you want a physical copy of a book, you might be out of luck. The pandemic has snarled supply chains all over the world at every stage of the process, and so actually printing, shipping and selling books is kind of a mess right now. NPR books editor Petra Mayer is here to help us untangle what's going on. And, Petra, explain what the problem is.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Yeah. So, well, partially, it's the same thing that's happening in a lot of other industries right now, yeah? The pandemic has meant that there's no one to staff warehouses and ports, so getting printed books to market is way more difficult and expensive than it is usually. But the thing is, first, you have to have the printed books. And there are a couple of challenges that are specific to publishing. So I talked to Candice Huber. They're the owner of Tubby & Coo's Mid-City Book Shop in New Orleans, and I think they kind of summed it up the best.

CANDICE HUBER: The paper, the printing, the shipping, the warehouses - just, like, every single step of the process has been affected.

MAYER: So to be specific about it, you've probably heard this summer, there was a shortage of lumber. That's why your two-by-fours cost so much more. So, you know, guess what else uses lumber? Paper pulp and cardboard. So paper pulp is scarce to begin with. And then since lots of people are at home ordering stuff online right now, most of that pulp is getting bought up to make shipping boxes. On top of that, there are actually very few physical plants in the U.S. anymore that can actually print books. And some of them went bust during the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: What does it mean for me if I am out to, I don't know, buy gifts for the holidays and go to my local bookstore? Like, am I finding empty shelves, or what?

MAYER: Not empty shelves, but you might be in trouble if you want a printed copy of a specific book. Here's Candice Huber again.

HUBER: So one that I can think of off the top of my head is a book called "She Who Became The Sun" by Shelley Parker-Chan, which is a great book. And I love it, and I want to recommend it. And I cannot get it because it's been on backorder. And that has been really upsetting.

MAYER: By the way, I have to agree with Candice. "She Who Became The Sun" is a gender-bent retelling of the rise of the first Ming ruler in China. And it's so good.

SHAPIRO: OK.

MAYER: (Laughter) So you might not be able to get that particular book. But, you know, booksellers like Candice Huber are going to make sure that you find something. And I should add also that giant online sellers like Amazon will have less of a problem because they have so much warehouse capacity. It's mostly your local stores that can't get their hands on the popular books.

Graphic novels are also being hit really hard because they require better quality paper and more sophisticated printing. And actually, it's not just books. Board games and puzzles, you know, they're also, of course, made from paper and cardboard. So the supply chain issue is screwing up games companies, too. For example, Ravensburger North America, which makes things like Brio trains and some very popular board games, they announced last month they're not taking any more orders for the rest of 2021.

SHAPIRO: Apart from the groups you mentioned, who is getting hit the hardest by this?

MAYER: Well, publishers are in trouble, of course, because, you know, they rely on you being able to find a specific book, and the publication dates keep changing. You know, if I had a dollar for every email I've gotten about a publication date change because of the supply chain issues, you know, I could buy a lot of books.

(LAUGHTER)

MAYER: But really, it's first-time authors, mid-list authors, anyone who doesn't have a lot of resources to ride out a situation like this. We talked a lot last year about what it was like to publish during the pandemic and how that was, you know, messing up book tours and authors' ability to interact with their fans. But this is something different.

You know, if a debut author is counting on someone hearing about their book and wanting to buy it, but that book is either not printed or it's sitting in a shipping container in a port halfway around the world, that author is in a lot of trouble.

And, of course, you know, e-book sales are not affected at all. But it turns out, like, nobody reads e-books anymore. I talked to Kristen McLean, who's a book's industry analyst at the NPD Group. And she told me that only 20% of readers prefer e-books. So, I don't know, I guess me and my Kindle are in the minority.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Petra Mayer, a books editor with our team. Thanks a lot.

MAYER: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIBOU STATE'S "NATURAL FOOLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.