Turmoil for Publishers in International Shipping

The international supply chain situation for books and media is in what one might euphemistically call, a “fluid” situation as of this writing (March 2024). Having recovered from the worst of the pandemic’s effects, demand in the USA is roughly back to pre-pandemic levels, in terms of both book revenues, and the cost of freight to import them. The supply of books (especially four-color work) is sourced mostly from China and other Asian countries, of course, and most are shipped in containers from Shanghai to ports on the west and east coasts of the USA. 

However, the supply of incoming books is now subject to a number of geopolitical and domestic events that are creating uncertainty, and things could possibly get much worse in the near future. The situation demands a great deal of flexibility and resiliency on the part of publishing’s purchasing executives and supply chain planners in the USA. 

Conflicting Trends 

At the same time, there are other, conflicting trends affecting ocean freight capacity, which is the single most important driver of rates. In response to the uptick in post-pandemic consumer spending in the USA in 2022 and early 2023, the ocean freight companies launched a campaign to increase capacity by adding a significant number of new eco-friendly vessels to their fleets. This of course had the effect of lowering rates and, in an attempt to hold up prices, carriers shut down certain lanes. As 2023 progressed further, we saw a drop in consumer spending that led to a consequent increase in capacity and subsequent lowering of rates. To say the least, we have experienced fluctuating pricing conditions, not to mention a good deal of turmoil and anxiety. On top of that, the conflict in Israel has led to even greater uncertainty following attacks by Iranian-backed Houthi militia on western-aligned commercial shipping in the Red Sea. 

It is All About RISK

In the minds of the planners, direct supply chain costs may now be taking a back seat to supply chain risks. The risk is not so much in the delay (shipping via the Cape of Good Hope adds increased but predictable transit times and higher freight costs compared to the Suez Canal), but more the uncertainty of losing more than that through even worse, unpredictable outcomes.  

That is not all. The flipping and re-balancing of freight between east and west coast US ports causes concern for shippers and publishers. When industrial strikes by the ILWU and PMA unions shuttered US west coast container ports in 2023, traffic was naturally re-routed to the east coast. And with similar labor contract negotiations due to begin on the east coast terminals in October 2024, it is likely that traffic schedulers are already contemplating the reverse moves.  

Other Options

In response to these disruptions to ocean freight, we are seeing other options becoming more economically viable. These include hybrid Ocean-Air combinations that lower the risk of costly delays on the ocean, and through the Red Sea in particular, especially for urgent front-list shipments. They feature aggregation points in more friendly economies like Dubai or Europe, in a hub and spoke network similar to that used by domestic air carriers. 

Of course, the other long-term solution to shipping containers of books from Asia, is the option of near-shoring or “friend-shoring.” It is becoming a subject of increasing interest to publishers who want to proactively manage risk. Friend-shoring refers to the routing of incoming materials through countries that are politically and economically safe and low-risk. Such countries obviously include Western Europe, but also increasingly Eastern Europe. 

High Alert

On top of all this, there are even more trends to manage. These include increasing environmental pressures from customers and partners. Shippers are being asked to make decisions that reduce their carbon footprint, but cleaner shipping means slower steaming, which of course means longer shipping times and greater cost. Labor costs for shipping and docking are increasing as well as data security costs, as more shipping companies and publishers resort to AI and modern technology to manage lead times and book-miles. And as the threat of shipping losses climb, so do the costs of insurance. Extended transit times cause delays in positioning empty containers at the source ports in Asia that lead to more costs for new containers. Technology is allowing the industry to manage many of these issues and to move away from a JIT (Just-In-Time) delivery model to safer and more predictable routes. Flexibility is key now. Some carriers, for example, are re-routing freight across Central America on trains and re-loading on to vessels bound for the Gulf and East Coast ports. Given these turbulent waters, it is not surprising that supply chain planners and purchasing agents are on high alert.  


We are indebted to the Book Industry Study Group, their Lunch and Learn series of webinars, and the Woodland Group, an international freight consulting company, for material included in this article.