Finding that sought-after book for Christmas no longer straightforward

Covid-19, Brexit and supply chain problems conspire to frustrate and worry booksellers

People are advised that if they think a book is a good Christmas present then buy it now. File photograph: The Irish Times

People are advised that if they think a book is a good Christmas present then buy it now. File photograph: The Irish Times

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The latest victim of the unholy trinity of Covid-19, Brexit and a creaking global supply chain is the book – with industry figures and retailers saying some festive must-reads will be difficult, if not impossible, to find as Christmas approaches.

The weeks ahead are traditionally the busiest time of year for the book trade, but they may become a nightmare with books joining toys, clothes, electronics, decorations on a list of seasonal favourites set to be in short supply.

A chronic global paper shortage, vanishing stock pickers in the United Kingdom’s book warehouses , scarcity of truck drivers on British roads and delays at ports and customs points are being blamed.

A lot of the book distribution centres in the UK, where more than 85 per cent of our books come from, relied on eastern Europeans as pickers and they left in the post-Brexit period

Higher environmental standards for producing pulp as well as increased demand for personal protective equipment has seen caused paper prices to spike, while the global shortage of container and port delays have exacerbated the shortages.

“We are looking at a perfect storm with everything going wrong in all directions,” according to Galway-based bookseller Tomas Kenny.

It is now taking longer to get orders from UK warehouses because of labour shortages, partly caused by the post-Brexit [and] post-Covid departure of eastern European workers.

Moreover, reduced paper supplies mean that getting some popular titles reprinted ahead of the busy Christmas period will be challenging, if not impossible, he added.

“A lot of the book warehouses and distribution centres in the UK, where more than 85 per cent of our books come from, relied on eastern Europeans as pickers and they left in the post-Brexit period. Then there has been the shortage of truck drivers who would, in the past, have brought the books to Ireland,” he said.

The lack of truck drivers in the UK has been a huge problem, as have the paper shortages. Orders that would have taken days to come in are now taking weeks

While the situation has been manageable for much of the past year, as orders began to ramp up in recent weeks ahead of the crucial Christmas period, things have started to worsen, said Mr Kenny.

“Book shops have been placing orders which have not arrived or have been a fraction of what was ordered,” he said, citing several high-profile books that had “taken way too long from when I ordered them”.

In one case, an order from a UK publisher left a week after it should. Then when it reached Dublin Port problems with customs documentation led to the shipment being returned to the warehouse.

“But the thing was that the publisher was not dealing with any returns because they were under so much pressure and the tracking information had not been updated. Because it was two weeks after publication of the book by this Irish author I abandoned the original order and placed a new one only to be told the book was out of print. That has happened for three or four big Irish books,” said Mr Kenny.

He said Kenny’s had placed orders for “books that have not been arriving and no one knows where they are. Trying to find out where your books are can be really problematic and you don’t want to double up on orders. It is an absolute nightmare.”

Mr Kenny added that “people in the industry are terrified . . . we are used to ordering little and often but now we all have to order in bulk in case we can’t get the books people want closer to Christmas. We can return stuff if it doesn’t sell, but we won’t be allowed to process returns until the spring.”

He urged those planning to buy books as presents this year to do it sooner rather than later. “If you want something and you see it in a shop or and you think it is a good Christmas present then buy it now. It is that simple.”

The likely Christmas favourites include Brian O’Donovan’s memoir of his time as RTÉ’s Washington Correspondent, as will Michael Harding’s newly published A Cloud Where the Birds Rise. And the latest Sally Rooney book, Beautiful World Where Are You, and Décor Galore from Laura de Barra. But, says Mr Kenny, the book that is likely to disappear off the shelves fastest is The Coastal Atlas of Ireland.

Echoing the concerns, Cian Byrne of Maynooth Bookshop said the two strands of his operation – one dealing with academic books and the other focusing on general interest – are facing “a nightmare scenario”.

“When it comes to academic books we have a very short window to make our money and the first six weeks of each semester is make or break,” he said. “We have to be able to turn around the books fast or else people will just go to Amazon but the lack of truck drivers in the UK has been a huge problem, as have the paper shortages. Orders that would have taken days to come in are now taking weeks,” he said.

[Many sellers are] all stressed out. They are afraid they won’t be able to source books and that will send people to Amazon

Last Thursday in the UK was Super Thursday, the day marking launch of books targeted at the Christmas market. “We didn’t have a lot of the books that had been published. And it was the same for a lot of booksellers,” he said.

“What I would say to people is start shopping soon because the days of you showing up at the last minute to get all your gifts are gone, at least for now. We will always have books on our shelves and we will find the right book for someone.” He added that if people are looking looking for the Barack Obama, Bruce Springsteen book or the Coastal Atlas of Ireland later this year then they might not be on the shelves.

Others in the book trade downplay the scale of the problem, but accept that there are issues; and one will be about the existence of some delays, not about whether a favourite book can be bought, or not, said one publisher.

The book trade has been jittery for a while, so many publishers began printing for Christmas earlier than normal, though that has made it more challenging to order reprints in October, the publisher added.

Having spoken to others in the trade, Lisa Coen of the Dublin-based Tramp Press said many are “all stressed out. They are afraid they won’t be able to source books and that will send people to Amazon.”

Faced with delays, some customers might opt for e-books: “But if you can’t get a book you want to give as a present you won’t go for an e-book. Instead you will go to a pair of socks and Christmas is just so important for everyone.”

However, there is a possible silver lining, since Irish books may get more shelf space this Christmas. “We might see more windows of books from Irish publishers and that is brilliant,” she said.

Ms Coen said that most of the Tramp Press books were printed in Poland and in pre-Brexit times were shipped to warehouses in Ireland and the UK via the land bridge from continental Europe.

The books destined for Ireland have been re-routed to avoid red tape when going into and out of Britain.

“Our printer has had to jump through a lot of hoops because of Brexit, so they went with new delivery routes. Printers are under more pressure than usual and a little less available and the big thing is the paper shortages,” she said.

“Getting hold of it is tricky and if you price it on a Monday and then the following Friday there might be big increases so you have to be really decisive in your orders.”

Her shop has ordered more to ensure that they have supplies.

“You want to be looking at books and not looking for them,” she said. “But the bigger print runs are a challenge for a small company.”

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