Yes, there could be a book shortage this holiday season. But it is not as bad as you think

Mary Cadden

The book industry is no stranger to disruptions. Recently, the industry saw a pandemic that hampered sales for many independent retailers and caused publishers to delay releases. In May 2020, it saw a shortage of books on race in the wake of protests after the death of George Floyd. This holiday season supply chain issues are presenting a different problem, but book sellers have a plan.

Normally, as the holidays approach print book sales rise as people purchase gifts. Unfortunately, current supply chain issues, which for the book industry include shortages in labor, paper and delays in shipping, may impact how many books are available. Recent headlines warning of a book shortage spurred panic that books will be hard to get this year. 

Do book lovers really need to worry? Will there be empty shelves at book stores? The answer is mostly no, though it will ultimately depend on the book you're looking for. 

"This time of year we all panic," says James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble. "I don't think the hysteria that grips us this October is any different."

More:Supply chain issues: What are they and how will shortages impact the holiday shopping season?

Booksellers and publishers plan far in advance of the holiday season in order to have ample supply. They start printing copies weeks or months ahead of release dates, which means delays on most of this year's major titles will be minimal, if at all. 

"We know our customers so well that we feel that we're stocking up on the right thing," says Lori Fazio, COO of R.J. Julia Booksellers. "Do we always get that 100% right? No. And this year, could it become an issue? Sure. But we're not panicked because we know we have lots of great stock in the store in general."

Most retailers are well stocked with titles that have large print runs, such as this week's No. 1 USA TODAY bestseller "Lincoln Highway" by Amor Towles, or an already proven bestseller, such as Kristin Hannah's "The Four Winds," that has remained on the USA TODAY Best-Selling Books List since its publication in February.

If it is the new Sally Rooney you want, "we're not going to run out," says Daunt. But he cautions, "if you've got somebody who absolutely wants a particular book and it's obscure, then get it sooner rather than later, because you never know." 

More:20 fall books we can’t wait to read by Katie Couric, Billy Porter, Jonathan Franzen and more

Current supply chain issues will most likely hit debut authors, lesser-known writers and the hard-to-predict viral titles the hardest. If demand on those books is high, retailers will be unable to restock quickly to take advantage of the trend. 

"It's the unknown, it's the amazing talent or the first novel that we (can't anticipate)," says Daunt. "A book's sales could ignite thanks to a review, book club or going viral on TikTok and that won't happen now, which is a real shame." 

Publishers are doing what they can to mitigate the impact. 

"We have teams that are constantly doing triage based on the immediate needs and how the current situation (printing delays, consumer demand, stock level at our warehouse and at retailers) differs from when we originally ordered the books," Macmillan Publishers, a major publishing company, told USA TODAY through a spokesperson. "We expedite shipping if possible and, for new releases, we have had to move some titles as a last resort."

What can you do now help you snag the book you or your loved one wants? If the title is going to be published in the next few months, pre-ordering at an online retailer or at a store could increase your odds. And if the reader you are shopping for has an eReader, think of purchasing gift cards. Retailers will not be running out of eBooks anytime soon. 

But what happens if you can't get your hands on the physical book you want now? Ask a book store employee for a recommendation for something similar that's in stock. "Trust us," says Fazio. "I would tell the customers to trust us, trust our recommendations.... We'll help you get something that your recipient will love."