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Buy books now: How the pandemic could affect holiday supply

Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
The marquee at BookPeople advertises what was happening in December 2016. Booksellers in Austin and across the nation are concerned about the pandemic's effect on book supplies for holiday sales.

Halloween may still be a few weeks away, but independent booksellers warn that a potent mix of COVID-related factors means your holiday book buying should start now to avoid shutouts on popular titles and help stores survive.

Pandemic disruptions to publishing’s supply chain mean December shoppers will be too late to have a full range of choices for Christmas book buying. Booksellers across the country — including Austin’s BookPeople and Bookwoman — are adopting the American Booksellers Association’s “October Is the New December” campaign to alert customers.

“In the past, it’s been rare for there to be more than one or two books that are not available during the holiday season,” said Charley Rejsek, BookPeople’s general manager. “This holiday season, there's no guarantee that we're going to have any of the hottest titles in stock two weeks before the holiday. The supply chain has been dramatically affected in every way.”

The disruptions come at a pivotal time.

“This is the most important holiday season and fourth quarter for independent bookstores — for all independent businesses — in decades,” said Allison K Hill, CEO of the ABA. “There’s a lot at stake.”

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Distancing requirements and temporary shutdowns at plants have reduced book printing capacity, and shipping times are delayed amid higher use of a strapped U.S. postal system. Many authors’ book releases were postponed in the early months of the pandemic, layering increased end-of-year demand on a strained system.

And some big developments next month will further spike demand. The 3 million-copy first print run of President Barack Obama’s memoir, “A Promised Land,” will drop Nov. 17. A portion of the run is being printed in Germany to relieve the backlog at American printing plants. November also will see announcements of prestigious book prizes such as the Booker and National Book Awards, which typically fuel sales of the winning titles.

Rejsek and Bookwoman owner Susan Post both said their stores’ booksellers will be primed to offer alternatives to sold-out titles that won’t have time to go to reprints before the holidays.

“One thing (to plan for) is to have your second go-to book. You need to know what book might substitute for the book that will sell out, so you should know what you'll be suggesting," said Post, who also sells curated book and gift boxes centered on themes such as local authors, feminism, anti-racism and LGBTQ themes.

Both Bookwoman and BookPeople currently offer limited-capacity in-person browsing, and BookPeople will extend its store shopping hours beginning in mid-October, Rejsek said. Preordering now helps ensure a desired title will be on hand for holiday gift-giving, she said.

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A redesigned BookPeople website debuts later this month, she added, which will allow for easier online shopping of the store’s selection, including its cache of quirky gift items.

Retailers traditionally depend on fourth-quarter sales to buoy the bottom line. This year, in the wake of temporary store closures and fewer in-person buying opportunities as readings moved on-screen, end-of-year sales are even more important, booksellers note.

“Thirty-five ABA member bookstores have closed so far,” Hill said. “A July ABA survey of 400 member stores suggests that some 20% of those surveyed may not survive until January 2021.”

Rejsek said a robust holiday sales season is “crucial” for BookPeople.

“We turn 50 years old on Nov. 11,” she said. “This holiday season is definitely going to be crucial to ensure that we can move forward to the next 50 years.”

President Barack Obama speaks in March 2016 at South by Southwest. The first volume of his memoir is out Nov. 17 and is expected to spike demand. A portion of the run is being printed in Germany to relieve the backlog at American printing plants.