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How bookstores are adjusting to supply-chain problems this holiday season

The A.V. Club asked a trio of booksellers how they’re preparing for this year's book-buying season, and which titles they think will be most popular
How bookstores are adjusting to supply-chain problems this holiday season
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“Our basement has more books in it than we’ve ever had,” Michael Fusco-Straub, co-owner of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, tells me over the phone. It’s October, and Fusco-Straub and his staff have been busy getting ready for the upcoming holiday shopping season. This includes stocking up on the books he thinks people will most want to buy—even more so this year than in years prior.

“In the past, we’d order 24 copies. Now I’m ordering 150 copies, so I have reserves always. That’s what I’m doing with the bigger titles this year,” Fusco-Straub says.

As with countless other industries, book publishing continues to experience major supply-chain disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a loss of sales and delays in getting books to readers. During this crucial time of year, bookstore owners don’t want to take any chances, and they’re doing what they can to plan ahead.

The A.V. Club talked to Fusco-Straub and representatives from two other independent bookstores last month to see how they’re compensating for global supply-chain issues ahead of the holiday shopping season. They also shared which books they think will be most highly sought-after this year and their advice to customers.

What’s the problem?

As reported in The New York Times last month, supply-chain issues in the publishing industry are two-fold and massive, affecting both shipping and printing. There are problems nearly every step along the way, and they all compound each other.

In brief, shipping from overseas—most affecting full-color books like cookbooks, which are often printed in Asia—has become a quagmire. There is not only a shipping-container shortage, but also long lines for container ships at U.S. ports. What’s more, warehouses and distribution centers are experiencing worker shortages due to employees either getting sick from COVID or quarantining after an exposure.

There are also delays at domestic printers. For years, printing plants have been shutting down, and now, with a recent uptick in demand for printed books, the printers that remain are having trouble keeping up.

All this means that it will take more time to restock books that sell out at local stores, especially if a book needs to be reprinted, which can take up to four times longer than usual—closer to three months instead of three weeks, the same New York Times story reports.

Danielle Mullen, the proprietor of the nonprofit Semicolon Bookstore in Chicago, goes even further. “It used to be that if a book wasn’t in, it would take three to four days to get it in the store. Now, back-order dates are to February,” she says.

Long story short, if a book sells out during the holiday shopping season, consumers may very well be out of luck.

Which books will be big this year?

There’s always a bit of guesswork around which titles will be the most popular any given holiday season, but as far as new books go, this fall’s biggest literary releases will likely be in high demand.

Books Are Magic’s Fusco-Straub says the “big hitters” this year will be Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, Lauren Groff’s Matrix, Amor Towles’ Lincoln Highway, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, and Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You? (“Obviously,” he says of the Rooney.)

Read The A.V. Club’s book reviews of Harlem Shuffle, Crossroads, and Beautiful World, Where Are You?

A representative from independent mainstay Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, echoed many of those titles and added two more novels—Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land and Richard Powers’ Bewilderment—and the upcoming The 1619 Project, the book-length expansion of The New York Times Magazine’s ambitious history of slavery and its long legacy in America. The book is set to be published on November 16.

Mullen, whose Semicolon is the only Black woman-owned bookstore in Chicago, also says The 1619 Project would be highly sought-after. She added that two more fall 2021 releases—Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo and For Brown Girls With Sharp Edges And Tender Hearts by Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodríguez—were also in demand at Semicolon. “You can’t get it and it’s already on back order,” she says of the latter. Mullen is also keeping an eye on Will Smith’s memoir, Will, slated for publication November 9.

Beyond this year’s hottest new books, shoppers are also buying reprints of older titles tied to cinematic releases. At Semicolon, Nella Larsen’s 1929 classic novel Passing and the 2004 nonfiction work The Last Duel by Eric Jager are selling out. Both received big-screen adaptations in October.

At Books Are Magic, Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic Dune, whose film adaptation starring Timothée Chalamet just topped the box office for a second weekend in a row, has been selling steadily throughout the year, Fusco-Straub says.

Read The A.V. Club’s film reviews of Dune, Passing, and The Last Duel.

“I’m most worried about cookbooks,” Fusco-Straub adds. Cookbooks are popular holiday gifts and among the books most affected by the supply-chain issues. “Full color, printed overseas—a lot of cookbooks will be hard to find this year,” he says.

Fusco-Straub highlighted three new cookbooks he’s stocked up on: Carla Lalli Music’s That Sounds So Good, David Chang and Priya Krishna’s Cooking At Home, and Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad’s Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love.

At Semicolon, Mullen makes sure to keep on hand copies of High On The Hog by Jessica B. Harris. Harris’ 2011 history of African American cuisine has been selling out ever since Netflix released its series based on the book earlier this year.

By and large, the desirability of old books with timely adaptations and new literary releases is easier to predict and plan for. Novels like Harlem Shuffle and Beautiful World, Where Are You? have large initial print runs, and booksellers can order large quantities of them.

“But every year there are also sleeper hits that catch publishers and booksellers by surprise,” the Powell’s representative says. “[W]ith unanticipated titles, we may have only ordered a handful and the publisher may have only committed to a small initial print run. With the current supply-chain issues, the publisher of a surprise hit may not be able to reprint and get those new copies into stores until well into the New Year. Those sleeper hits arise in a number of ways, but recently we have seen a number of titles take off after gaining popularity on TikTok.”

Advice for book shoppers

The booksellers The A.V. Club talked to all gave similar advice for those planning to give books as gifts this year: Shop as early as possible, especially if you have your heart set on a particular book. It’s possible that some shoppers are already heeding that warning. Publishers Weekly reported on October 28 that sales of print books had risen 7% over the previous week, suggesting that consumers may be starting their holiday shopping early.

“Generally speaking, I would recommend ordering anything you really want for Christmas by the end of November at the latest,” says the representative from Powell’s.

Booksellers are also asking shoppers to be flexible. “If the book you were planning on is sold out, ask a bookseller for a recommendation,” the Powell’s rep says. “You might find something lesser known that you like even more.”