Supply-chain chaos has booksellers reading between lines this Xmas

11:58 am on 30 November 2020

Booksellers are facing a return to the 1970s way of doing things this Christmas, by having to trust their instincts, and stock up on the books they think people will want to read.

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Demand for books in New Zealand is up Photo: 123RF

Global supply chains are causing havoc for retailers everywhere, and the publishing industry is not exempt.

Booksellers, publishers and readers are having to wait weeks to receive their orders, and so to ensure they're fully shelved in time for Christmas, stores are buying in bulk now.

Australia supplies most of the books which end up on New Zealand's bookshelves.

The New Zealand branch of publisher Allen & Unwin alone brings in 800,000 books from the other side of the Tasman Sea each year.

But director Melanie Laville-Moore said this year getting these over was proving difficult.

"Space on the boats is becoming ever more difficult to acquire," she said.

"There are fewer boats wanting to come to New Zealand. There's a shortage of containers around the globe. And so the supply chain, there's just pressure at every single point."

It has been complicated by industrial action in Sydney port, and then the death of a worker at Auckland port, which caused both ports to be shut for a considerable period of time.

Meanwhile, demand for books in New Zealand isn't slowing down.

"Sales are up on last year," said Mel Winder, the managing director for New Zealand's branch of the international publisher Hachette.

"[That's] even taking into account the six weeks when there were no book sales at all."

It's fuelled by greater access to authors for media in the country, which has been brought about by the pandemic.

Different way of selling this Christmas

It's all building up to what is the busiest and most lucrative time of the year for the industry.

But the difficulty in transporting stock, coupled with the delays, and then an added hunger from the public for books, is forcing booksellers to prepare for Christmas in a completely different way.

Where they used to buy a set amount and then top up, depending on what was selling, bookseller Renee Rowland said that option was not available this year.

"We're buying in much bigger quantities than we usually would.

"More up front, so the up-front costs are there, and that in turn affects cashflow. It's difficult.

"So you definitely have to have nerves of steel, and just hope that it's going to be okay."

She says the times have changed.

"The golden age was you know, you ordered a book, and then three or four days later you'd have it. But that time of immediate gratification is changing, along with a lot of other cultural things."

Throwback to the 70s

There are a few problems confronting booksellers who are having to order up in bulk ahead of time.

It's not just the up-front costs of putting in huge orders and accepting that money is not going to be returned for some time. There's the added problem that many bookshops aren't big enough to store huge quantities of books in one go - they just don't have the physical space.

And then there's the issue of predicting the Christmas bolters - the books no one anticipates will sell quite so well, and end up being a surprise hit.

In the past, booksellers were able to react to the demand, see what was selling well, and put in an order for more of those, and then be able to receive those books within a matter of days.

For example, last year Lady in Waiting by Baroness Anne Glenconner was a surprise hit.

"She was interviewed by Graham Norton. It was a hilarious interview, the book went crazy, and we could easily get stock back into the market," said Winder.

"If something like that happened this year, it'd be really tough."

Dan Slevin from Booksellers NZ said it was a return to the old-fashioned ways.

"The way people have described it to me is that this is what it used to be like in the 1970s when you had one go at doing your Christmas ordering, and you had to trust your instinct as a bookseller to judge what was going to be a big seller or not.

"So some of our most experienced booksellers - the people who have been in the business the longest - have been coaching the younger ones, at how it used to be."

So if you're planning to buy a book as a Christmas gift, the advice is get in early.