Printing Delays Present ‘New Normal’ for Academic Books

Printer closures and paper shortages create scheduling headaches for academic authors and staff at university presses.

January 11, 2019
 
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When one of the largest independent book and journal printers in the U.S. closed its doors last summer, many university presses braced themselves for printing delays. What they didn’t expect from the closure of Edwards Brothers Malloy was that the disruption would continue into 2019.

“It was really bad this fall,” said Gregory Britton, editorial director of the Johns Hopkins University Press. He said the printing schedules of most of the press’s new titles were delayed.

Britton initially believed the delays were due to paper shortages that have affected much of the publishing industry -- including newspapers and magazines. But this was not the major cause of delays for university presses, he said.

“The companies that manufacture books are inundated with work,” said Britton. “There’s been a lot of consolidation and now there’s less capacity. In the past when there were delays, we might have been able to shift work to a different printer -- now those printers don’t exist.”

As a result, book and journal publishers and university presses are scrambling to adjust to longer, sometimes unpredictable, printing schedules.

In addition to printers closing or merging, university presses have in recent years been printing books in smaller batches so that they don’t end up with unsold books.

“Instead of printing a two years’ supply, presses might print a six-month supply to keep inventory costs down,” said Britton.

More frequent reprinting has put additional pressure on printers, however. “They’re swamped,” he said.

A Christmas Crunch

University presses publish lots of academic monographs that don’t have strict deadlines, said Britton. But they also publish commercial trade titles that need to be printed before key selling periods such as Christmas, and there are academic works that need to be out early in the year to be considered for fall course adoption. Consequently, there is “always a big rush before the holidays to get books printed,” said Britton.

The run-up to Christmas 2018 was unusually stressful, said Mary Rose Muccie, executive director of Temple University Press. “Our lead trade title for fall, which had a specific, critical launch date, ended up being significantly delayed,” she said.

Temple University Press wanted The Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition, a third-edition nonfiction book celebrating all things Eagles, to be out early in the football season. In the end, the title was available for Christmas sales and author signing events. They pulled it off “by the skin of our teeth,” said Muccie.

She said she has experienced delays of up to a month on some titles, the effects of which extend beyond potential lost sales.

“We pride ourselves on providing excellent support to our authors. This includes having their books available when we expect them to be," she said. "Publication dates that are moving targets makes managing these expectations a challenge,”

Representatives of several university presses contacted by Inside Higher Ed said their companies -- West Virginia University Press, George Mason University Press, the University of Iowa Press and Penn State University Press -- had also experienced longer printing schedules than usual in recent months.

“We’ve had a few close calls,” said Jennifer Norton, associate director of Penn State University Press. It’s important that books be printed in time for conferences, events and book signings, but some conference deadlines were missed last year, she said.

Previously, Norton would have allowed four weeks to get a book printed, but now she’s budgeting at least six weeks. For titles that have strict deadlines, Norton said she now secures printing slots months in advance.

The prospect of a book signing without any books would make any author anxious. Thankfully, it didn’t happen to Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American studies at Amherst College, whose book was recently published by Penn State University Press.

Stavans’s book, Don Quixote of La Mancha, is a graphic novel adaptation of Don Quixote illustrated by Roberto Weil. It was delayed by 10 days after the contracted printer ran out of the paper needed for the job and an alternative printer had to be found, said Norton.

“For a moment, it looked as if some publicity events and the publication of reviews might need to be rescheduled,” said Stavans. “But in the end, everything worked out.”

Stavans, who is publisher at Restless Books, said he understands the challenges presented by this new printing environment.

“The press acted intelligently, updating me at all times,” he said of Penn State University Press.

Karen Copp, associate director of the University of Iowa Press, said there is naturally “some disappointment” from authors when books are delayed, but many are understanding. She said she had been experiencing delays of eight to 10 days but is hoping the wait time shrinks now that the fall rush is over.

A New Normal

Still, it's uncertain how long it will take for printing times to return to what they were, said Britton. It could be that the slower lead times persist throughout 2019. For now, at least, delays are the "new normal," he said.

“We’re doing a lot of different things to counter this,” he said. “We’re building more time into schedules; we’re looking for alternative vendors. We’re being flexible on things like what paper stock we use.”

Britton noted that the increased use of ebooks has negatively influenced print sales, but the impact was not as great as some printers and paper mills anticipated.

“Looking at this in a broader context, the forces that caused printers to consolidate and close may have been a market overcorrection,” said Britton.

The printing industry began experiencing major problems in mid-2018, said John Bond, a scholarly publishing consultant and founder of Riverwinds Consulting. Several U.S.-based printers merged or closed, increasing demand at remaining printers. Severe paper shortages also played a role as many mill operators, seeing falling demand for books, switched to producing tissue paper and paper-based packaging in place of printing- and writing-grade paper. Bond believes it may take six to nine months for paper mills and printers to catch up to demand.

John Edwards, vice president of market development at CJK Group -- the parent company of numerous technology, communications, printing and manufacturing companies -- agreed that paper mill operators had underestimated demand for paper, creating a gap between supply and demand that he predicts will persist through 2019. The price of pulp also increased, making paper production more expensive, he said. Several university press directors said they had noticed slight increases in their printing costs.

Maple Press, a Pennsylvania-based printer, has seen exceptionally heavy demand for book manufacturing services over the last six months. In addition to competing printers merging or closing, there were some exceptionally popular books in the last half of 2018 (such as Michelle Obama's Becoming, published by the Crown Publishing Group) that put additional strain on industry capacity.

“Many of our customers did experience lead times that were longer than normal during the second half of 2018,” said Bill Long, vice president of sales and marketing at Maple Press. The printer has been ramping up -- “running overtime, hiring additional workers and investing in additional capacity to better service demand levels,” he said.

Long predicts that capacity levels will “remain somewhat tight for the foreseeable future.”

“This will inevitably lead to longer lead times in some cases moving forward,” he said. “It will become more important for publishers to work more closely with printers on their capacity needs and timing.”

Britton said he viewed the situation as somewhat ironic. “Reports of the death of the book, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated.”

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