Still reading (& gifting) paper books? Why that might be a problem this year . . .

Books are getting more expensive and harder to get, period, due to a perfect storm of pandemic and shipping-related factors.

K.A. Wiggins

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If you’re a committed aficionado of book-shaped books, I have some bad news for you.

It might not be much of a surprise, though. If you still go to actual physical stores (you Luddite!), you may have noticed shelves getting increasingly bare and gap-toothed as the shipping, production, and raw materials industries reel from a combination of pandemic and transport-related woes.

On the pandemic side, print production facilities are struggling to get workers and schedule enough workers to run at full capacity without exceeding safe social distancing measures. Paper shortages have been building as the industry shifted to more profitable formats (largely packaging) over time and domestic/North American production shifted to overseas (more on that in a bit). Everyone’s struggling to get enough trucks (and drivers) on the roads to move goods. And, across industries, there’s growing awareness that paying minimum wage for services rendered is a great way to lose your workforce to competitors.

Then there’s the Suez Canal shipping crisis. The price of containers skyrocketed after a ship grounded, snarling up shipping timelines and routes around the world, shipments were and continued to be delayed, and the situation isn’t expected to improve much for months to a couple of years.

Book prices will rise as resource, shipping, and production costs get passed up the chain (authors and illustrators definitely aren’t the ones getting a pay bump.)

Why is all this relevant to authors—especially children’s authors?

Print books remain popular across age groups and genres, but children’s books are particularly weighted toward print.

While children’s ebooks (and audiobooks) are enjoying growth, not every parent is able or comfortable handing a tablet with a pre-loaded library to their little, and image-heavy board books, picture books, early readers, and illustrated novels can be challenging to format for a strong reading experience on digital. Physical books are also much easier to unwrap under the tree.

Which brings us to the current news cycle. I just spent the last week doing interviews with the CBC on behalf of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators of British Columbia (cwillbc.org). Many kids’ books are scheduled in the fall and early winter to capture that all-important holiday shopping season. And, this year, print orders may not arrive in time, bestsellers may not be possible to restock, and scheduled books are already being rushed out early or delayed for months, well into next year.

It’s our most vulnerable who take the hit.

While some authors’ and illustrators’ careers have stayed strong and pivoted to digital over the pandemic, others are struggling. They’ve lost access to familiar ways to promote books and earn an income. Live book launches were cancelled, as were school visits, festivals, and most other speaking opportunities. Some events pivoted to digital; not all, and not all “opportunities” that have shifted pay speaker fees or offer effective avenues for book sales.

In traditional publishing, promotion focuses on new launches. In-store placements are generally paid for, and shelf space is limited. If a book fails to get a strong start during a narrow window—often only a month, certainly less than a year—its chances of “earning out” its advance and generating ongoing royalties for the creator(s) are slim. And publishers look at past sales to determine the potential profitability of future books, meaning that author or illustrator’s next manuscript is less likely to sell or generate a reasonable advance.

As we’re seeing across society, it’s our most vulnerable who take the hit. Seniors and students, economically disadvantaged, racialized creators, those struggling with mental or physical health, and those without strong support systems (wealth or a partner or family who provide material support) are more likely to be pushed out, leaving publishing, as usual, dominated by the voices who have the leisure, wealth, and privilege to ride out the waves.

What you can do to help:

  • Definitely keep supporting new releases. Preorder early to signal interest and demand to the publisher; they may be able to increase that first print run to meet demand where they wouldn’t be able to order a reprint. Especially for your holiday shopping, this year shop and/or preorder now.
  • If a new release isn’t available, consider browsing and shopping from backlist titles and store stock, putting in an order on books that you can afford to wait for, or switching to another format like ebook or audio. Browse BC Kids’ Books!
  • Not in a place to buy books this year? We hear you; it’s been tough all over. Put in requests for books to be purchased by your local library and reach out to your favourite creators with some encouragement; they need to know that their words or art matters and people care!
  • On the speaking side, we do have a number of people who are great over Zoom and/or vaccinated and able to present live where public health and safety orders allow and would love to hear from teachers, librarians, even business groups. Search our speakers’ database.
  • Are you a published (or professionally indie publishing) author or illustrator of books for ages 0–18 living in British Columbia? Join us!
  • And longer term, we’d love to see more domestic production capacity so we’re not continuously outsourcing overseas or even from the US. BC-created books would be rad!
  • Finally: BC residents can enter our giveaway to win your choice of a kids’ book stack in time for the holidays or a free one-hour author or illustrator visit over Zoom. Not a local? Subscribe to our newsletter; we run national and international giveaways too!

About the Author

K.A. Wiggins is an award-winning Canadian speculative fiction author, creative writing coach, speaker, and President of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators of British Columbia society. Learn more at kawiggins.com.

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K.A. Wiggins

Award-winning speculative fiction author @ kawiggins.com, creative writing coach @ cwc2004.org & President @ cwillbc.org. Freelances @ thecreativecollective.org