Battle for Books: Texts and Tariff Exemptions

The written word only matters insofar as it is made available and accessible—and in this case, insofar as it can be taxed. With the Trump administration dealing with the aftermath of a trade war with China, many consumers and publication producers are licking their wounds. In an unprecedented tariff implementation, almost every form of publication is being exposed to a 10 percent tax increase that started September 1, 2019. A second wave of taxes will come in December 2019.

There have been moves to grant pardons to specific products, with only one significant publications exemption: religious texts. After religious groups made (and won) their case to have the Bible, Quran, and other similar texts exempted, independent publishers and bookstores were hoping that such clemency would trickle down to other publications. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Most publications were rejected from exemption, including fiction, nonfiction, scientific texts, coloring books, maps, atlases, dictionaries, textbooks—basically anything bound in the form of a book.

There was, however, a short reprieve granted specifically to children’s books, which received partial clemency until mid-December so as to escape a price increase during this year’s holiday season. However, the new year will usher in a new economy. According to ProPublica, after December 15, “importers will pay 10 percent of the value of whatever they bring in from China.” Dan Reynolds, CEO of Workman Publishing, notes that China is exceptionally useful when “producing affordable children’s books with all kinds of bells and whistles, like pop-ups and textures.” It will get increasingly more challenging to market the tariffed book prices when buyers like school districts and libraries already have set budgets that do not account for these new tariffs.

The extra 10 percent tax is especially substantial for independent publishing houses and bookstores, who now need to revisit and revise their budgets, acquisition schedules, and hiring plans in order to compensate for the increase in importation costs. Furthermore, it is not just the physical books and book-like materials that are being levied, but also bookmaking equipment. Publishing Perspectives notes that “bookbinding machinery, including book-sewing machines” and equipment parts, are also being taxed.

China is an important player in American publishing, and these changes in taxation cannot be ignored. According to Derek Stordahl, executive vice president of Holiday House, “there are good color printers in the US and Canada, but they don’t have the capacity to service the entire industry and their prices are usually twice what you might pay.” Plus, with publishing houses scrambling to get out of China, neighboring Asian facilities have limited amounts of space to take on new customers, with the majority of that space going to publishers within the “Big Five.”

With September 1 having passed and December 15 rapidly approaching, consumers and producers alike are feeling the ramifications of the tariff increases. Budgets, proposals, and schedules are being overhauled in attempts to keep businesses afloat in the face of the influx of taxes imposed by the Trump administration. Both nationally and locally, the unprecedented fiscal pressures are shifting not only the market, but also the institutions. The very foundation of publishing houses and bookstores is under attack.

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