From the Island Books blog June 26, 2020
So our doors are open. We can better serve the public. You can buy what is on our shelves directly, instead of through Instagram or our website. That is fantastic! But, your books are still taking weeks if not months to get here. We aren’t able to give you the same two-day service as before. The insecurity of shipping during the pandemic, which is ongoing, remains. Here’s some insight into why books are still taking forever to get to you:
The pandemic has been brutal to the book industry, publishers, authors, and bookstores alike. As any small business, most bookstores have had to close their doors losing profits without their browsers, but more specific to the book industry is how publishers have been able and not been able to respond to supply chains and shipping constraints. On top of not being able to operate with doors open, bookstores were now unable to predict neither when new releases were going to arrive nor when special orders for customers were going to come in stock. Backlist (titles that are not new releases for a publisher) books were deprioritized at book printers, which meant many books that were normally available became limited and eventually backordered.
All of this has been rough for authors, who have had books released during this time and have been unable to promote their book and booksellers have not been able to handsell them, but also unfortunate in that if a reader wants an older book, they could not purchase it because the publisher was no longer printing it.
The pandemic has been a trip for publishers, who have had to cut staff and find new solutions for printing as China became an ever more difficult place to import and export goods and paper becomes even scarcer, as well as deal with an overrun shipping industry. (If you want to read more about the global and long term issues with paper shortages and how book paper has been deprioritized by paper mills, I would check out this article from BookRiot.)
Last but not least, the pandemic has been rough for bookstores, who can’t guarantee products to their customers and have had to place orders through large-scale distributors that have large warehouses filled with books and priority in ordering from publishers, rather than the publishers themselves, which is more expensive in an already economically tight time. They couldn’t get highly anticipated titles in time for their release dates and have frequently had to cut staff and work limited hours.
Over the last month, we have seen a global demand for books on racial injustices. Some of these books are already bestsellers and stocked in stores. Some of these books are older titles that only larger stores that have larger inventories might have in stock, or specialty stores, or black-owned bookstores. But the demand quickly overwhelmed anything bookstores have on their shelves, then overwhelmed what the warehouses have stored, and stores had to turn to the publishers for copies. Publishers have already been in quite a knot of having unreliable supply chains making them unreliable suppliers for bookstores right now.
Now, publishers are having to change their re-crafted plan of prioritization during Phase I of the pandemic to react appropriately to the Black Lives Matter movement. They know these books are important, but they couldn’t predict that everyone and their mother would have a burning desire to educate themselves on racial justice. They had to re-organize their printing schedule to make sure that the titles that focused on antiracism were the highest priority product. Interesting to note as well is that most book printing is done domestically, but if a book uses more than two colors, they are usually printed overseas. These books can take four to six weeks just to cross the Pacific Ocean, which means that many children’s picture book titles are still taking their sweet time to arrive to us.
But let me repeat that again: Books on antiracism are the highest priority product for publishing companies right now. How awesome is that.
And after what felt like a millennium but was actually two to three weeks, publishers are finally notifying bookstores of more concrete delivery plans. And even when they say one thing, we can’t guarantee that their word is gold. And this means that our vague answers in web orders got vaguer about timelines because we don’t want to over-promise and disappoint.
So, that is why we took a month to get you your copy of How to Be an AntiRacist or White Fragility. That’s why even though AntiRacist Baby came out last week, we don’t have any copies on the shelf. And that’s why we are having trouble believing the timelines the publishers are giving us, and consequently giving you vague answers.
No matter where you purchased these books from, unless you get an audio or digital book, you probably had to wait. You might still have to wait as everyone continues to keep selling out of their shipments in record time. This means that the consumer has incredible power in where their money goes. There is no difference in convenience between Amazon and us right now, especially because publishers supply books to independent bookstores and their distributors before they supply books to Amazon. So, now the consumer is making a decision on where they want to buy their books solely by where they want their money to go. (I acknowledge that there may be other factors, but I am breaking it down to be as simple as possible.)
Island Books, especially during the pandemic, has always been a huge proponent of shopping small and supporting the communities you live in. Whether you are buying from us, a boutique, a family hardware store, or whatever local shop it is that makes your community unique and special, we want you to give your dollar to them. This moment in history has given us so much space and called so much attention to the comparison of ease vs. value. It has called attention to the humanity of small businesses and independent bookstores. Now, activists are calling our attention to investing in Black, Indigenous, and communities of color to think about how we are voting with our dollar, to think about how much power we hold when we invest in one company vs. another. We want to call attention to the power and responsibility that consumers have. Investing local, within your own communities, is so important. Investing diversely is important to make sure that there is a more diverse and competitive market out there for consumer choices. Investing for the future is also a huge focus at this time.
Of course, we want your support. But we want your support even more because you understand why you are supporting us, the value we bring to the community, and the passion we have for working in it. Though we cannot host events in our store or be a gathering place, we long to be able to return to that state. Independent bookstores cannot last through the months ahead unless our communities choose to invest in them so that they will be able to be places of education, entertainment, community, and emotional value.
We hope you continue to choose investing in us. Investing in the future ensures we have a future.
— Kelleen, Island Books, Mercer Island, WA