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Book printers are reporting a surprising end-of-year crunch

An open book lies before a series of full bookshelves.

"Now we get about five to 10 queries every single week from people who are really faced with the prospect of having to turn their home environment into their office environment," said Nick Bates, CEO of Bookbarn International. iStock/Getty Images

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This holiday season, some U.S. book printers are reporting a surprising holiday crunch. E-books have declined in popularity in recent years: according to the NPD Group, sales peaked in 2013 and dropped nearly 30 percent by the end of last year. Meanwhile purchases of print books have steadily recovered, increasing 10 percent over the same period. That’s left an industry that reduced its book-making capacity over the years scrambling to supply holiday orders.

In the wake of the financial crisis and the rise of the e-reader, book printing companies went out of business. Even large companies that survived decided to shutter plants dedicated to book manufacturing. But then something strange happened.

“On the way to the funeral of the book, it actually didn’t die,” said Jim Fetherston, president of the Book Manufacturers’ Institute. While physical book sales have picked up, he saw membership at the association decline 8 percent between 2017 and 2018. For the first time in a decade, he says the industry is seeing more demand than it can supply.

He says his own book printing company, Worzalla Publishing in Wisconsin, has been working at maximum overtime for several months with no room to expand the schedule.

“We’ve been working pretty much seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” he said. “We’ve got a pretty tired workforce. They’ve been working very hard this fall.” He estimates his company turned down several million dollars in orders this holiday season.

“We’ve actually had to use presses that are not traditionally used for book manufacturing,” said Patrick Henderson, the director of government affairs for the commercial printing company Quad/Graphics. Henderson says it’s taking a lot of overtime, and a bit of hustle, to make sure popular titles don’t go out of stock. But in some respects, he says an increase in orders is a good problem to have. Moving into the new year, he says more investments are needed and his company will work to ensure it has enough book printing capacity for the future.

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