how publishers and printers play their survival in the face of shortages

The shortage of raw materials to manufacture books and magazines continues and has increased in recent weeks. Publishing fears price increases that are increasingly impossible to absorb.

Will 2022 be the year of all the dangers for publishing? The paper shortage, which has been raging since the end of the first confinement, continues and worsens. Costs are soaring, forcing a large part of publishing, and in particular independent publishers of books and magazines, to have to take radical decisions to avoid disappearing. But the actions implemented, such as raising prices, only offer temporary support to a situation with no real solution.

In recent weeks, the situation seems to have reached a point of no return. At the end of March, the Finnish-Swedish papermaker Stora Enso launched a sales process for four of its production sites. Fifteen days later, another key player in the industry, the Italian Fedrigoni, set up another price increase. Meanwhile, workers at the Finnish group UPM, one of the world’s largest paper makers, were on strike. It just ended after 112 days.

“At the moment, it’s very complicated”, confirms to BFMTV Philippe Bretagnolle, commercial director France for the Italian company The Tipografica Varese. “Most of the paper is supplied in Europe by Scandinavian papermakers. These paper mills suffered huge strikes, which considerably reduced paper production and caused shortage phenomena.”

“Not a day goes by without a new problem,” laments France Moline, production manager in the Madrigall group (Casterman, Gallimard BD, Futuropolis, Denoël Graphic). “You have to constantly review the files. What we do today may have to be done again tomorrow. The teams are struggling to absorb this extra work, which is colossal. never finished…”

“The problem is pharmaceuticals”

The situation is all the more delicate as the shortage of paper is directly linked to the cardboard boom, caused by the explosion of mail-order sales (Amazon, Deliveroo) since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. “The global order via the Internet has exploded the demand for cardboard. So much so that there is much less to make books”, worries Julie Alinquant, production director of Bragelonne editions.

But “Amazon is only a drop in the water in the transformation of paper into cardboard”, nuance Philippe Bretagnolle. “The problem is pharmaceuticals. Considering the quantity of what the pharmaceutical companies have bought as paper to package their medicines, it is worth more for the papermakers to transform the paper into packaging than to make paper to make book. Because these people buy it more expensive.”

Stora Enso is one of the papermakers to switch from paper to cardboard. According to a group spokesperson, the paper industry is no longer “a strategic growth area”. With fewer producers on the market, lead times are getting longer. From 3 to 4 weeks before the crisis, the delays went from 6 weeks to six months of waiting. “And everyone is in the same boat”, reports Philippe Bretagnolle:

“We all end up not having enough paper, making choices, taking papers that don’t match. Even the biggest customers like Hachette or Editis – who buy and supply their printers with their own stock of paper – found themselves having to juggle between several papermakers to get by.”

“Creativity costs even more”

In this context, delays accumulate. They are more or less long, depending on the size of the publishing house. The independent Meian was forced to postpone its perfect edition of Karakuri Circus by Kazuhiro Fujita. It will finally be available on July 22, instead of March 21. Backed by the Hachette group, the publisher Marabout will publish only a week late, on May 11, Cross Lovesthe first comic book by successful author Laura Nsafou.

Only the behemoths manage to maintain an almost normal production rate, remarks Philippe Bretagnolle: “Glénat [l’éditeur de One Piece, NDLR] is lucky to have a fairly strong cash flow and to be able to pay the papermakers immediately, who are reassured and who supply them. It doesn’t happen quickly, but they have priority. Others will try to place orders and since they are not going to pay right away, but at 45, 50 or 60 days, they will end up with much longer delays.”

If European publishers still rely exclusively on Scandinavian papermakers, all refuse to deal with China, whose paper mills are for the moment the only ones not to have increased their prices. But the increases are such that some might give in to temptation. “The increases are colossal, especially on specific papers”, recalls Philippe Bretagnolle.

The papermaker Fedrigoni offers highly sought-after paper, for exceptional editions, ideal for standing out on the market. But his prices are too high. “Right now, creativity is even more expensive,” says the commercial director. “On lambda paper, for manga, where we are at 70 or 80 grams, we are around a 20% increase. On low grammages, when we approach Bible paper, for dictionaries, the increases are in the order of 40%.

“We eat our margin”

Paper is not the only raw material necessary for the manufacture of books to have to increase its prices. The ink has taken between 12 and 15%, transport problems have increased and aluminum is a collateral victim of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Russia is one of the biggest suppliers of aluminium, while it is in Ukraine that the aluminum is transformed into plate for printing. “With the war, the situation has changed a bit,” comments France Moline.

In this context, the rise in prices is inevitable to absorb this surge in costs. It will be effective from July 1. However, this system has its limits, argues Julie Alinquant: “We can absorb part of the increase, but not all.” “For bound books, it’s impossible to do that.” “We are eating our margin”, is in despair France Moline. “At some point, there will be no more interest in producing!”

For the independents, the price increase is not the miracle solution. “We have increased to compensate a little, but that is not enough either”, corroborates Marc Moquineditor-in-chief of Reviewed & Corrected, a magazine dedicated to heritage cinema. He could reduce the pagination of his journal and choose a cheaper and lower quality paper, but it would be difficult to justify the price increase, especially since “one of the qualities of the journal is to be well made” .

“An impact far beyond publishing”

The situation is all the more difficult to regulate as prices continue to rise, and quickly worries France Moline: “Time to pass on the increases, the price has already increased!” “The estimate for the new number has increased compared to the last time, and it itself had already increased compared to the previous time”, abounds Marc Moquin. “We print between 2,000 and 3,000 copies. 2,000 copies in March 2021 cost me around 5,000 euros. In March 2022, it costs me 6,200 euros.”

The editor-in-chief has appealed to the CNC to urgently reassess its support for film reviews. In 2021, thirteen independent film magazines (including cinema teaser, The 7th Obsession and Schnock) shared aid of 64,000 euros. Reviewed & Corrected received 3000 euros. “The envelope is getting smaller and smaller each year. In 2020, the aid was more than 80,000 euros.”

Marc Moquin nevertheless managed to complete a new issue of Reviewed & Corrected for June, but he does not know “if we can continue like this.” On the publishing side, Bragelonne is thinking about paperback works without cardboard. “We are looking for solutions,” insists Julie Alinquant.

Limited editorial offer?

In bookstores too, the first effects of the crisis are already being felt. Publishers encounter more difficulties in setting up their books. “Before, we waited to have information from booksellers to establish our prints,” says Julie Alinquant. “Today, we can no longer. We are obliged to define print runs before even knowing if it interests booksellers.”

A paradigm shift that pushes publishers to be cautious. “My fear is that it limits the editorial offer”, warns Julie Alinquant. A real revolution in the publishing economy. And the announced death of the independents, whose catalogs are mainly made up of works often little known to the general public and requiring the help of booksellers. “There may be authors that we won’t launch,” says Julie Alinquant. “For little-known titles, the financial risk is now double.”

“Printers will disappear”

And if an improvement is envisaged for next year on the side of printers and cartonniers, the edition knows full well that prices will never return to normal. “It will not completely subside,” guarantees Julie Alinquant. “But on the other hand, we can save in terms of supply.”

“And maybe people will read less, because they will find themselves saying that it is very expensive”, dreads Philippe Bretagnolle. “The paper was still holding up a bit. If there is even more increase [des prix], people will go digital even more. Printers will disappear. Large printers in Italy have died in recent years. There are already not many left in France.”

In this context, the survival of independent publishers can be counted in months, warns Philippe Bretagnolle. “It’s dramatic. I think that at the end of 2022, many will die.” “What are we going to do by the end of the year?” asks Marc Moquin. “If it stagnates, it will be fine, but if it continues to increase, it will get worse and worse. And you feel very alone to face all that.”