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Bottleneck at printers derails holiday book sales in US

Presses are struggling to keep up with surge in demand, creating backlog

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Books on display at Book Culture in New York. A backlog at the printing presses, plus a surging demand for popular hardcover titles, has hurt publishers at peak sales season.

New York

THIS year has been, much to everyone's surprise, a blockbuster for the publishing industry. Despite the relentless news cycle, readers have bought books in droves.

Hardcover sales are up, and unit sales at independent bookstores have risen 5 per cent. Multiple titles - Bob Woodward's Fear, Bill Clinton and James Patterson's The President Is Missing and Michelle Obama's Becoming - have passed the million-copy mark, while there is also a surprisingly strong appetite for literary fiction.

But what should be good news for publishers, agents and authors has created headaches during the crucial holiday sales season, as printing presses struggle to keep up with a surge in demand, creating a backlog that has led to stock shortages of popular titles.

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Several of this year's most critically acclaimed novels, including Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry, Richard Powers' The Overstory and Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers, were listed as out of stock on Amazon the week before Christmas after inventory ran low because publishers could not to reprint copies quickly enough. Best-selling and critically lauded nonfiction titles like David W Blight's biography of Frederick Douglass, Samin Nosrat's cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and Ben Reiter's Astroball were also unavailable on Amazon, with some titles showing shipping dates of two to four weeks from now.

The industrywide paper jam has been building for months - a result of shrinking and consolidation among printing companies, the collapse of one of the major printers this summer, global paper shortages and a tightening job market that has made it difficult for printers to hire additional seasonal workers.

The backlog is so severe that it is spilling over into next year, causing publishers to shift the release dates for some January books because they can't print copies in time.

"It's more complex than it's been in the past. You can't just count on making a phone call to your printer and saying this book is taking off, let's do a press run this week," said Adam Rothberg, senior vice president of corporate communications at Simon & Schuster. "This is the new normal for the foreseeable future." NYTIMES