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  • Writer's picturePaul Cumbo

Averse to eBooks? Time to Reconsider. The Print Book Supply Chain is Struggling.

Like so many other industries, the physical book supply chain is under a lot of strain right now. If you have ordered a print book--any book--lately, you may have experienced a shipping delay. You might have noticed that that hardcovers, especially, are taking longer to arrive. It depends on the book, of course, and current stock levels of any given title.

Ingram, one of the major printers and distributors that accounts for a good percentage of books purchased globally, recently sent a notification to all publishers that turnaround time for orders has been stretched to nearly three weeks in many cases. This applies both to individual orders, as well as to bookstores large and small. Yes, even your favorite cozy local bookshop by and large orders its books from large corporate distributors.

I guess this is a good problem on some level--people are ordering a lot more books. But you might have to wait a little longer depending on what you're ordering, when, and from whom. Of course, eBooks, which account for about 20% of book sales these days, remain instantly available and will likely only increase their market share.

One thing this brings sharply into focus is just how resource-intense the production and distribution of paper books truly is. Don't get me wrong. I'm an English teacher, a writer, and a book lover. But don't be under any illusions that the book industry fits some earth-loving eco-ethical vision of the world. Like so many other things, it isn't that simple. Your love of paper books (and mine) is an expensive love, indeed.

If you think about it for a minute, you'll realize just how massive the difference is between digital and print media in terms of what it takes to produce and distribute. Physical books take a lot of materials to make. That uses an incredible amount of trees and water. They take more materials to package, box, and ship. They require a large amount of space on shipping vehicles. Those vehicles, with their heavy cargo, require substantial fuel.

I love physical books on the shelf as much as anyone else. And I'm not blind to the economics at work, particularly as they relate to local businesses. But pandemic paralysis aside, if bookstores are in danger of closing, it isn't specifically because of eBooks. Now, it's true that many physical bookstores have closed over the past twenty years, of course, and there are many reasons for that, including online distribution of print books. But it isn't because of eBooks. Like I said, the eBook market share is only 20%, and that's despite eBooks having been around for long enough to have totally digitized the book world if they were destined to do so. Most people prefer physical books.

I will always encourage supporting well-run local bookstores. But I've come to appreciate the efficiency of digital media, too. It also provides some tools (such as annotation, and the ability to search word meanings, etc.) that can offer wonderful enhancements to understanding a text. If you consider yourself averse to digital books, it might be time to think again and give them a try...if only because of our current situation. (Also, it's worth remembering that huge platforms like Amazon are the sales vehicle for hundreds of thousands of small businesses.)


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