Canadian booksellers are struggling, but not in the way you might think

Erik Ko actually had some good news coming out of the pandemic. While most entertainment industries saw less business and closures, he actually saw a bump.

With movie theaters, nightlife and restaurants closed, people turned instead to the more solitary pursuit of reading — lifting a long-suffering industry to a level of popularity not seen in years.

“Demand has suddenly doubled, tripled,” explains Ko, co-founder of Manga Classics and CEO of Udon Entertainment – both Ontario-based publishing houses. While he said the market is about as good as it has ever been in the 20 years he’s worked in it, there’s a problem, and it’s most clearly demonstrated by one of their bestsellers.

During an interview with CBC News, Ko presents one of his company’s biggest hits of the year: a manga adaptation of Anne of Green Gables.

Erik Ko, co-founder of Manga Classics and CEO of Udon Entertainment, poses with the manga adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, one of Manga Classics’ most popular titles. Ko says they can’t keep it in stock due to global delivery issues and a paper shortage. (Eli Glasner/CBC)

“It’s one of the most popular titles we have, and we’re out,” Ko said, shaking his head. “It will be in April before we can actually get the stock back.”

Demand, but no offer

Ko is far from alone.

While booksellers around the world want to sell books to readers and readers are hungry to buy them – in 2020 both the United States and the United Kingdom saw their biggest annual increase in over a decade — a global paper shortage and a global shipping crisis mean they’re struggling to meet that demand.

While in Canada, overall sales declined in 2020 due to widespread store closures and canceled new releases, ebook sales showed an upward trend. According to BookNet Canada, COVID-19 will no longer severely restrict book buying in 2021, and readers are now specifically looking for more physical books from brick-and-mortar bookstores.

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Paper mills flooded with new orders are also experiencing pulp and paper shortages and are struggling to deliver paper quickly to printers, which themselves have more orders than they can handle and cannot outsource them abroad due to the global shipping crisis.

Ruth Linka, president of the Association of Canadian Publishers and an associate publisher of Vancouver’s Orca Books, said they wait every year to see if any of their titles make it to school price lists and reading lists — something that invariably drives demand up. They usually order more books to meet that demand and receive them within a few months.

Several Orca titles made it onto the Forest of Reading school list this year – the largest reading award program in Canada. But that required extra pressure for two books, (Heart Sister by Michael F. Stewart and Riley can’t stop crying by Stéphanie Boulay) which could not be done in time, they were removed from the list.

“It’s frustrating because, you know, we put in two years of work getting a book. And before that, the authors, who knows how many years wrote the book,” Linka said.

All that work adds up to a small window of marketability for most of their books, usually just a few months. “Or maybe, if we’re lucky, on the market for a few years.”

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Costs go up, prices don’t

Years of trouble in the book industry erupted into a large-scale storm during COVID.

The North American printing industry has been shrinking for a decade, causing many printers to go out of business or consolidate. Now printers that still exist here are dealing with increasing orders.

At the same time, the cost of wood pulp has exploded due to environmental initiatives and rising demand elsewhere, especially cardboard used in increasing volumes thanks to the rise of internet shopping. As a result, paper costs have risen and supply has become scarcer.

The Kruger paper mill in Trois Rivieres, Que., seen in October 2008, produces paper for books, among other things. A global paper shortage and a global shipping crisis are making it difficult for Canadian booksellers to meet the rising demand for physical books. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Finally, the cost of shipping overseas has even increased fivefold, prompting more companies to try to print their titles domestically.

Linka said Orca was already planning to move much of their printing back to Canada, but they are now competing with other companies who want to do the same.

She said it will eventually become more difficult to cover the cost of printing books in a market where consumers are rarely willing to pay more.

“For example, a children’s picture book hasn’t really changed in selling price in 20 years,” she said.

Losing authors

Authors, meanwhile, are waging a different battle.

Canadian children’s writer Paola Opal had two books scheduled for publication this year, which she hoped would benefit from a December sales boost.

Instead, Opal said, the files are “located somewhere in China with the printer,” on an unspecified waiting list.

“When I look at my sales, they always peak during the holiday season, so missing the holiday season is the worst,” she said. “With these two new titles off the shelves, it’s essentially taking an entire year’s worth of royalties out of the stream.”

Opal said the uncertainty makes it even more difficult to continue writing and has forced her to look for ways to subsidize her work.

Canadian children’s author Paola Opal says delaying the publication of two of her books means she’s been forced to look for other ways to subsidize her work, such as setting up an Etsy store to sell her characters’ merchandise, including Christmas cards. with Perry the polar bear. (PaolaOpal/Etsy)

For her, that meant opening an Etsy store to sell merchandise from her characters. While that ultimately helped her, she says it’s just another distraction from an industry that already requires so much more than writing.

“I had to think creatively about how I can still make money doing what I love… but not relying so much on the book that comes on the shelf at any given time?”

Opal says she hopes to see her books and readers back by spring, although that timeline is far from set.

With publishing insiders predicting that the wood pulp and paper shortage may continue through 2023, and no real signs of the domestic printing industry expanding, the future of the book industry is just as shady as the current publishing schedule.

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