Covid-19 has been the bearer of blame for disruptions throughout the publishing industry. Yet many of these issues were not caused by the pandemic, simply exacerbated by it. With the U.S. economy running on a tight supply chain (a system so delicate that it regularly suffers from hiccups), it was only a matter of time before something threw a bigger wrench into the machine. Whether through the paper shortage, a shipping delay, or your book’s publishing date being pushed back, they are all connected. Like throwing a rock into a body of water, the effects ripple out, starting small and manageable, until the issues are widespread.
What disrupted the economic flow in the American market wasn’t the emergence of Covid-19, but rather the current commerce system. The market runs on a “just in time” supply chain, wherein companies do not retain any backup stock and instead order manufacturers to produce inventory as needed. This concept was developed by Taiichi Ohno in the 1950s to increase profit, while eliminating excess stock piles and workers. This “just in time” supply chain method began in the U.S. auto industry and was quickly adapted across manufacturing, where it maintains its hold today. Unfortunately, because a chain is one continuous segment, the system is very tenuous: one small disruption will throw off the supply line.
The enactment of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 allowed for the deregulation of the trucking industry, which turned over government control of pricing towards the industry itself. It was signed by President Carter and supported by the Interstate Commerce Commissioners and Department of Transportation, in hopes of “removing entry controls in trucking” and to “reduce rates per carrier”. Despite the savings deregulation provided the companies, drivers and consumers did not benefit. Instead driver’s wages fell and there was harsh competition. The pursuit of profits steered the economy towards a heavily monopolized market, which further highlights the shortages in the supply chain when one of the branch companies suffers a setback. Besides the monopolies that run the country at every corner, there is also the pitfall of having outsourced manufacturing to again–cut costs. Much like having a single lane highway in and out of somewhere is inefficient, leaning on a singular source is unreliable as any number of unexpected things may occur that cannot be controlled such as natural disasters or a pandemic. Without a backup plan for unforeseen circumstances, it creates weak links in the chain. The lack of options and flexibility this provides leaves little wiggle room for when something goes wrong but likewise it means that if the system is not improved upon or outright changed, the market will continue to suffer supply chain issues.
The word shortage is constantly being stressed in the news, however the exact meaning of shortage is being stretched. While there are products missing from shelves in stores, it doesn’t mean that the products are not being made or are out of stock. In some cases, it’s rather an issue with management of facilities and the workers that make and deliver these products. One such example is the apparent truck driver shortage. The American Trucking Associations claims there is a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers. They cite that an aging workforce and lack of new drivers are the main cause for the shortage. However, these headlines often ignore that drivers are being ground into a fine paste for low pay, poor benefits, and without leverage to argue for better – truck drivers can easily be replaced for someone willing to do the job for less. Omar Alvarez, a truck driver for 12 years at the port of LA, explains how hours of traffic and even longer hours waiting in truck lines create delays before he can even pick up his shipment and begin the delivery. Whether this is due to a computer error or an unloading issue, Omar is forced to sit and wait, with most of those hours going unpaid. Truck drivers are often classified as contractors rather than employees (despite paying out lawsuits that say otherwise), a distinction which empowers companies to treat them poorly.
While it would be easy to blame these delivery delays or Covid-19 for the current global paper shortage, the truth is the issues have been bobbing along the surface and wreaking havoc for years. There have been numerous fluctuations in the worldwide paper supply over the years, depending on the demand within the market itself. In recent years, demand has shifted away from plastic packaging to more eco-friendly alternatives–mainly paper. In response, paper mills have moved to “commercial packaging paper and pulp products”; this limits the availability of suitable paper product for publishing. The paper industry also faces consolidations and closures much like publishing does, leading to fewer production mills. With the world coming to a standstill during quarantine, printing in the U.S. faced the challenge of not having enough paper and product, since both paper and printing have been primarily outsourced to more affordable manufacturers in China. All of these factors have led to a bottleneck for print books. When the coronavirus hit the world at large in early 2020, the already struggling printing industry couldn’t withstand another blow. As of 2022, paper mills within the U.S. have run out of paper reserves and there is no easy solution to the problem.
Publishing delays are far more than a shortage of products or of people willing to work–its a lack of foresight to shore up the economic system so that it might sustain against these setbacks. Like an endless line of dominos, the issues will continue to cascade down the chain. It starts with the economic system, then flows to manufacturers to shipping to labor before finally falling flat once everything reaches the consumers before looping back around and starting over. The “just in time” system is vastly in need of an overhaul or perhaps an entirely new direction of functionality so that these issues can be addressed. One small stone tossed into the supply pond should not be allowed to upend the system, nor allow the system to run at a roughshod capacity for easy profits. In regards to addressing this, President Biden has signed Executive Order 14017, wherein they assessed some issues with the economic system and solutions they plan to implement. Biden intends to provide financial support to manufacturing in the U.S. as well as move the U.S. to be less dependent on external and imported production. While this may seem good on paper, proper application will take at least months (if not years), before any improvements are seen. Until then, the supply chain will continue to choke up publishing, unless radical short term solutions are considered.