February 23, 2015

Why your production team is going insane right now


Sittin' on the dock of the bay/causing untold damage to the economy/*whistles* (image via Wikipedia)

Sittin’ on the dock of the bay/causing untold damage to the economy/*whistles* (image via Wikipedia)

As of this writing, the West Coast port strike has ended—for now—which is good news for everyone in the supply chain. However, it’s unclear how long it will take to resume normal shipping operation, or how much damage has been done. And for book publishers, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

If you haven’t been following this, Gizmodo has a solid explainer that breaks down the colossal snarl and struggle that ultimately led to hundreds of thousands of tons of imports/exports sitting in limbo off the coast of California. The struggle is between the dockworkers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union or ILWU, and the shipping companies that make up the Pacific Maritime Association. After the union’s previous contract expired last June, the new contract negotiations eventually ground to a halt, and the movement of cargo followed suit.

This led to dozens of container ships stalled from California to the Puget Sound, which means maritime traffic nightmares. Meanwhile, everyone who sells the 40% of all US imports that come through California’s major ports takes a hit, and anyone exporting perishables losing their customers while goods rot on the dock. Between speculation that this would knock a percentage point off the GDP and that President Obama might unilaterally seize control of the negotiations under the Taft-Hartley Act, there was plenty of pressure on Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

However, he successfully moderated a resolution last week in the form of a tentative contract, and while it still needs to be approved by the union membership as well as the PMA, the ILWU members are now handling the massive backlog of cargo, which according to the Associated Press may take months to process.

This also brings to light the many exhaustive issues with American shipping infrastructure, from railroads to ship size to trucking, as well as reminding us that American trade union leverage hasn’t yet been entirely destroyed and that they can still disrupt like the best of them, if need be. (Next stop, oil!) Plus, trade unions are an important part of the book world; the ILWU represents Powell’s employees, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) represents employees at The Strand and HarperCollins.

IDW Publishing has had to delay the release of comics originally slated for 2/18, echoing a similar delay due to a dockworker strike in 2012. But there are doubtlessly plenty of other publishers scrambling to get their titles routed. Publishers Weekly reported on the delays in book shipments, and the findings were anxiety-inducing, to say the least. It’s cheaper to print image-heavy books in China, which means that millions of American children’s books, cookbooks, art books, etc. all come through West Coast ports. PW quotes Ray Ambriano, the COO of a logistics company that works with multiple publishers:

Ambriano said he is advising clients to begin to implement contingency plans, on a limited basis. For a publisher with 10 containers for example, Ambriano said two or three containers should be diverted to East Coast ports. A similar number should be diverted to Canada, and the rest should continue to go through the West Coast. Trying to move all shipments to the East Coast would “overwhelm” the facilities there, Ambriano explained.

So production teams now have to ensure that their shipments get whacked up into new separate shipments, slated to arrive at some undetermined date at a bunch of different ports, all before stock can even begin to get trucked to the warehouse, where it has to be received, put away, and made available before anything else can happen. Calling an audible with book cargo is hugely complicated, considering the especially large amount of SKUs at play, and it often leads to stock being damaged, delayed, or just disappearing in the system.

And if you add Chinese New Year (新年快乐, everyone!), when vast amounts of the Chinese printing industry (and the rest of the country) just shuts down for days at a time, you have the makings of a certain slow-burn clusterfuck. Adding the port backlog to Chinese New Year means a huge amount of variables and definitely means a wrench thrown into the sales cycle, which is bad news for everyone but especially for smaller companies where quick action and early access to stock is crucial to maintaining sales momentum.

So if you work in publishing,  show some support for your production team, because they work hard, and their jobs have gotten a lot harder over the past few months. Buy them lunch. Bring them beer. Say something kind. It’s going to be a long few months.

(Thanks to Wah-Ming Chang, our amazing managing editor, for contributing some valuable insight to this post)

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.