Post-pandemic strategies? Fix the supply chain of books!
November 24, 2020 by ruediger

Two seemingly separate pieces of news came in this morning: The International Pulishers Association released a survey¬†on “Covid-19’s impact on global publishing“, based on a broad roundcall among their members worldwide. And perhaps surprisingly to many observers, the first challenge that the IPA study adressed was NOT bookshop closures due to lockdown – but an article on how “Supply Chain Disruption Leads to Ecosystem Stress“!

Books in a box with a flowerpot ready for delivery

Books in a box with a flowerpot ready for delivery (Photo: Ruediger Wischenbart)

Incidentally, German trade media like B√∂rsenblatt and buchreport reported yesterday that one of the leading scientific publishers, Springer Nature, ditches their German logistics partner KNV Zeitfracht, and switches across the border to the Dutch “Centraal Boekhuis” (CB),¬† a collaborative initiative owned by some 800 Dutch publishing stakeholders, with a history going back 150 years, and active in both the book and – since a few years – in the health sector.

The IPA report summarized: “Publishers operate in a complex ecosystem with
printers, logistics providers, distributors, and retailers, meaning the supply-chain effects of COVID-19 control measures caused significant supply disruption.

KNV Zeitfracht had indeed drawn criticism recently for underperforming in the strained times of Covid-19 challenges.

But there is a much deeper, and more fundamental underlying issue which gained wider visibility only now.

Under pandemic conditions, with consumers migrating to online and digital purchases, especially smaller independent bookstores suddenly had to rely dramatically on their online capacities for their survival. But many discovered not just limitations in their own digital setup. The challenges were multiple:

  • Ordering books from wholesalers became fragile;
  • Catalogues of titles available for ordering by their clients had many blind spots;
  • Delayed delivery to the costumers required apologies;
  • Wholesalers like KNV in Germany suddenly announced plans to cut down on their traditional service of daily delivery, to just bringing orders to stores only twice a week.

To give just one example from my own customer experience: When I ordered, as a gift to the daughter of friends, a hardcover copy of the English original of the new Stephenie Meyer book “Midnight Sun” – certainly not an exotic title -, the online order was confirmed by my favorite indie bookstore with a note of caution that they couldn’t give me a precise date for delivery, due to supply chain issues.

In return, for a publishing giant like Springer Nature, their market and customer base are global. The Dutch Centraal Boekhuis, Springer Nature said, will take care of all their distribution worldwide. National services alone are simply not good enough anymore.

All these highlighted shortcomings are not only an involontary PR campaign to the advantage of Amazon.com, wich hosts a multilingual, ever expanding catalog of available titles, ready to be served to consumers around the world.

It much more highlights the fault lines of what will shake up the foundations of the book business, in getting their post-pandemic strategies right.

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