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 reduced business and closures, his actually saw a bump. 

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

“The demand all of a sudden, like doubled, tripled,” explained Ko, co-founder of Manga Classics and CEO of Udon Entertainment — both Ontario-based publishing companies. Though he said the market is just about as good as it has ever been in the 20 years he’s worked in it, there’s a problem, and it’s shown most clearly by one of their best sellers.

During an interview with CBC News, Ko holds up one of his company’s biggest hits from this 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 supply issues and a paper shortage. (Eli Glasner/CBC)

“It is one of the most popular titles that we have, and we are out of this,” Ko said, shaking his head. “It’s going to be next April before we can actually get stock back.” 

Demand, but no supply 

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 largest annual increases in over a decade — a worldwide paper shortage and a global shipping crisis mean they’re having a difficult time keeping up with that demand.

In Canada, while total sales in 2020 decreased due to widespread retail closures and cancelled new releases, ebook sales trended upward. According to BookNet Canada, COVID-19 is no longer severely limiting book buying in 2021, and readers are now specifically looking to buy more physical books from physical bookstores.

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The impact TikTok is having on book sales

BookTok, an online community and hashtag on the social media platform TikTok, has unexpectedly boosted the sale of books to the benefit of Canadian authors, retailers and publishers. 2:10

Paper mills inundated with new orders are also facing a pulp and paper shortage, and are struggling to deliver paper quickly to printing companies, who themselves have more orders than they can manage and can’t outsource them overseas due to the worldwide shipping crisis.

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

This year, several Orca titles made it onto the Forest of Reading school list — the largest reading award program in Canada. But that required extra printing for two books, (Heart Sister by Michael F. Stewart and Riley Can’t Stop Crying by Stéphanie Boulay) which wasn’t able to be done on time, so they were removed from the list. 

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

All of that work comes down to a small window of marketability for most of their books, usually only a couple of months. “Or maybe, if we’re lucky, a few years in the market.” 

WATCH | What supply chain shortages look like for two Canadians: 

What supply chain shortages look like for two Canadians

Ian Hanomansing talks to two Canadians experiencing supply chain shortages about what it means for their own business and for consumers. 6:54

Costs rise, prices haven’t

Problems brewing for years in the book industry erupted into a full-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, printing companies that still exist here are being forced to deal with increasing orders.

At the same time, the cost of wood pulp has exploded due to environmental initiatives and rising demand elsewhere, particularly cardboard used in increasingly high volumes thanks to the rise of internet shopping. That’s caused the cost of paper to increase and supply to become more scarce. 

The Kruger paper mill in Trois Rivieres, Que., seen in October 2008, produces paper for books, among other things. A worldwide paper shortage and a global shipping crisis mean Canadian booksellers are having a difficult time meeting a rising demand for physical books. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Finally, the cost of overseas shipping has as much as quintupled, prompting more companies to attempt to print their titles domestically. 

Linka said Orca was already planning to shift a large portion of their printing back to Canada, but they’re now competing with other companies looking to do the same.

She said it’s ultimately making it more difficult to field the costs of printing books in a market where consumers are rarely willing to pay more.

“For instance, a picture book for kids hasn’t really changed in its retail price in 20 years,” she said.  

Authors losing out 

Authors, meanwhile, are fighting another battle. 

Canadian children’s writer Paola Opal had two books slated for publication this year, which she was hoping would benefit from a December sales bump.  

Instead, Opal said, the files “are sitting in China somewhere with the printer,” on an indefinite wait list. 

“If I look at my sales, it always spikes during the holiday season, so to miss the holiday season is the worst part,” she said. “With these two new titles not hitting shelves, that takes basically a whole year’s worth of royalties out of the flow.”

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

Canadian children’s book author Paola Opal says publishing delays for two of her books means she’s been forced find other ways of subsidizing her work, like creating an Etsy shop to sell merchandise of her characters, including holiday cards featuring Perry the Polar Bear. (PaolaOpal/Etsy)

For her, that’s meant opening an Etsy store to sell merchandise of her characters. While that’s helped her bottom line, she says it’s just one more distracting element of an industry that already requires so much beyond writing. 

“I’ve had to start to think creatively about how can I still make money off of doing the thing I love … but not depend so much on the book hitting the shelf at a certain time?”

Opal says she hopes to see her books and readers return by spring, though that timeline is far from fixed. 

With publishing insiders projecting the wood pulp and paper shortage to last possibly until 2023, and no real signs of the domestic printing industry expanding, the future of the book industry is as unreliable as it’s current publishing schedule.

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