How supply chain woes might impact Chicago booksellers

In IPG Ink’s warehouse, millions of books sit in cardboard boxes wrapped in plastic.
Millions of books sit in IPG Ink's warehouse in Chicago. Will supply chain woes stop them from getting to your local bookstore? Anna Bauman / WBEZ
In IPG Ink’s warehouse, millions of books sit in cardboard boxes wrapped in plastic.
Millions of books sit in IPG Ink's warehouse in Chicago. Will supply chain woes stop them from getting to your local bookstore? Anna Bauman / WBEZ

How supply chain woes might impact Chicago booksellers

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused supply chain strains in all sorts of industries: software, furniture, clothes, toys.

Books are also not immune, and the publishing industry is on edge this holiday season.

Sandra Law is the Midwest sales representative for Abraham Associates, which represents more than 30 small publishers.

She says there are supply chain issues at practically every step of the book-making process: There’s a paper shortage, there’s a glue shortage and there’s a printer shortage.

Law says 98% of the books people read in the United States are printed in China. So even if a publisher can find a printer overseas, and they can find paper and all the books get made, then the publisher still needs a shipping container.

“It’s a little wild,” Law said. “Shipping containers used to only cost around $2,500. Now some publishers are having to spend upwards of $25,000.”

Law says her job as a rep is challenging right now, but that she can’t imagine the difficulties facing someone working in publishing operations. “Oof! It’s just not the time to have that job!”

Clark Matthews knows that all too well. He’s the vice president and general manager of IPG Ink, a book distributor and printer based in Chicago.

Clark Matthews stands next to a large role of paper at IPG Ink’s book manufacturing facility.
Clark Matthews of IPG Ink says, “you know, my supply chain is stronger now than it’s ever been because I’ve got a Plan B and a Plan C for everything.” Anna Bauman / WBEZ

“There aren’t as many mills as there used to be,” Matthews said. “They’ve all shut down. They’re going bankrupt. They’re retooling for diapers. And everybody knows about the ships that are off the coast of California right now. And off the coast of Boston. It’s real.”

At IPG, there’s a giant room with industrial paper cutters, conveyor belts, massive rolls of paper and huge printers. They print about 10% of their book stock in-house. When Nerdette producer Anna Bauman and host Greta Johnsen went to visit, though, they printed even less than that because their main printer was not functioning.

Matthews said an important belt broke in the bowels of their industrial printer. And because of supply chain issues, he can’t easily order a replacement. Instead, an IPG technician is going to another site and taking a belt from another machine to put it in their printer.

A printer at IPG Ink is broken and pages of books sit motionless.
According to Clark Matthews, this broken printer at IPG Ink cannot be fixed easily because of the supply chain crisis. Anna Bauman / WBEZ

Because of all these problems, Matthews has found as many logistical redundancies as he can. “You know, my supply chain is stronger now than it’s ever been because I’ve got a Plan B and a Plan C for everything,” he said.

Booksellers are also trying to think about their Plans B and C. Especially now, as people start buying gifts for the holidays.

“It’s gonna be an issue for sure. Don’t ignore it,” said Javier Ramirez. He co-owns and runs Exile in Bookville, an independent bookstore in Chicago. Only about half of the shop’s sales comes from new books — they sell used books, too — so he thinks he’ll be safer from shortages than the stores that rely on shiny new releases.

“I think it’s those big titles, you know, like the Sally Rooneys and the Colson Whiteheads and the Jonathan Franzens. I think that’s where bookstores are going to be impacted,” he said.

Now, of course, if an avid reader has their heart set on the new book by Colson Whitehead, they could download an audiobook or an e-book.

But Ramirez says someone who waits until the last minute to do any holiday shopping is definitely going to feel the impact.

“Somebody’s gonna walk in looking for a gift for their uncle who loves military history, nonfiction, [and] he’s going to get a book on how to press flowers, you know?” Ramirez said.

The key to giving and receiving books as gifts this year? Flexibility and an open mind.

You can listen to a longer version of this story from the Nerdette podcast here or wherever you get your podcasts.