Should we be rethinking our print-to-consumer supply chains?

Should we be rethinking our print-to-consumer supply chains?

Publishers continue to wrestle with book printing in 2023, asking questions such as ‘how should I print my books and where?’. We’re all looking for quicker, cheaper and greener ways to print books and simplify the supply chain. There are many ongoing issues affecting publishers' abilities to print books, so what are the alternatives? Is it possible to re-visit our distribution lines? Find different routes to market? How easy is it to print shorter print runs, print on demand, or shift to digital products?

The number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland climbed to a 10-year high in 2022, as the book trade defied the odds in an otherwise brutal year for high street retailers. There are now 1,072 independent bookstores after the industry enjoyed a sixth consecutive year of growth, according to the Booksellers Association. The resurgence followed a 20-year losing streak in which the number of independent bookshops in the UK sank to a low of 867 in 2016.

However these positive statistics may mask the strain on the book industry’s supply chain, which coincides with soaring demand for print books during the pandemic. Print book sales in the US were up 8.9% in 2021 compared with 2020, which was already up 8.2% compared with 2019.

The clogs in the supply chain have been especially tough for independent booksellers across the country, who have had to encourage customers to be patient with titles that are out of stock or have delayed releases because of the supply chain. Some books have had their release dates pushed back several times, which leads to “domino effects”, affecting pre-order campaigns and events.

Even Donald Trump has weighed in, commenting to Fox News about delays in printing more copies of a photo book of his presidency, titled Our Journey Together, that is being printed by Donald Trump Jr’s publishing company. According to Trump, the book’s printer told him, “Well, we have one problem: We can’t get paper. We can’t get ink. We can’t get glue. We can’t get leather for the covers.”

Many companies in the sector have warned of disruptions this year, stemming from paper shortages following strikes by workers in Finnish Mills. Mills all over the world have cut back on producing paper for books and magazines, instead using pulp to make more cardboard, packing and other types of papers that are more lucrative. While buyers once had the upper hand in the paper market and could order as much paper as needed, paper mills now tell printers how much paper they can give them. Jim Fetherston, president and CEO at the printer Worzalla, was quick to point to the root cause of printing delays—the steady closing of printing plants has resulted in “North American print capacity being at historic low levels”. Furthermore, two of the most common types of paper used in book production have seen their price per ton increase by nearly 50% and with freight rates showing no signs of dipping back to pre-pandemic levels, the question of moving to a more local printing house beckons.

Local printers support significantly lower transportation costs, more than offsetting a potential rise in production costs. However, extortionate freight rates are not the only driving factor, long transit times, port congestion, difficult scheduling and frequent lockdowns in China are all challenges that are also potentially solved by moving production nearer home. Moreover, there are environmental advantages of relocation as transportation is highly polluting, but quality control will be a factor.

Short-run printing: Printing less copies on each print is perceived as less cost-effective than larger print runs which still offers better value for money per unit. However, these days short run printing is far easier and more affordable, making it a realistic option for companies of all sizes, with less up front investment needed for each print job. With shorter production time the chances of long delays recede and less storage is needed. Opting for shorter print runs makes it a lot easier to keep the content in your book up to date. If businesses only print 100 to 400 copies, they should be able to use them up before it’s time for an update. Minor updates can be made every time a small print run is ordered, helping the content to stay as informative and accurate as possible.

Print on Demand (POD): A POD book can be printed in a relatively short time, the long wait usually required for traditional presses to print your work is cut to a minimum. Overhead costs for storage, handling, and inventory are significantly reduced because POD ordering drives down the costs that would be associated with having a large inventory and of course there is no wastage! This is especially beneficial for university presses and academic publishers as recent printing delays have often resulted in books not being available in time for the start of a semester!  POD allows the flexibility of offering niche publications which appeal to smaller audiences. There are of course reasons why print on demand historically has not been popular. The per-unit cost for POD is usually much higher than traditional offset printing; however in 2023 where storage, transport and paper prices have soared, POD provides us with a more sustainable model for the future.

At Supadu, we work closely with a range of POD suppliers to help our publishers who are looking to switch to print on demand services. Contact

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