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Normally, I focus on timeless topics, which marketers call “evergreen” content. For example, my episode about Brandon Sanderson’s writing method to restfully write multiple books every year should be as relevant in ten years as it was two weeks ago.
But occasionally, I delve into current events and their impact on authors. In these days of wars, rumors of wars, spy balloons, and pandemics, what will be the impact on publishing?
I used to host a drive-time news radio show where I analyzed and discussed the news. I also spend an embarrassing amount of time studying history, and sometimes, I just need to share what I see.
The Four Horsemen
Historically, the four horsemen of the apocalypse have ridden together. War, famine, plague, and death tend to have a causal effect on one another. For example, war causes famine and plague, both of which lead to death. By the same token, plague could cause death, leading to famine and then war as people fight over what little food remains.
In the past several years, we’ve heard the hoofbeats of the four more modern horsemen.
“Pandemic” is the modern term for “plague,” and the Covid pandemic has led to Covid deaths.
War has visited Europe, and there are indications it may visit Asia next.
Famine has visited Africa. “Supply chain issue” is a modern term for what the ancients would have called “famine.” For example, an “egg famine” and “egg supply chain issues” mean fewer and more expensive eggs. Most people survive famines because food is still technically available but becomes very expensive. Another modern word for famine is “inflation.”
Modern Translations of The Four Horsemen
- Famine -> Inflation
- Plague -> Pandemic
- Death -> Population Decline
- War -> War Never Changes
This translation guide allows us to learn from our ancestors who lived through the same kind of hardships we experience today.
Whenever a politician or media personality says “unprecedented,” I roll my eyes. Current events are only unprecedented if you don’t know your history. There is nothing new under the sun.
Typically, hardships caused by the four horsemen are less intense than you think, but they last longer than expected. For example, everyone thinks the troops will be home by Christmas, and they are disappointed every December. We want to believe the next harvest will restore food supplies, but for some reason, the prices remain high.
Good Books Help Readers Plow Through Tough Times
Authors continue to write books, even during tough times. Famously, Florence Villani kept writing during the Black Death and died mid-sentence. He kept writing to the end.
More often, times of suffering give birth to enduring works of literature. C.S. Lewis’s most famous works were written during and shortly after WWII. In fact, one of his books was read over the air during the Blitz as bombs fell on London.
Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables after living through the riots he describes in his book. Frankenstein was written during the year without a summer, a massive global climate event that darkened the skies with a winter that lasted all year. The result was global famine and civil unrest.
Storytellers help us endure difficult times. Tales of dragons remind us that dragons can be defeated. Tales of suffering remind us that pain can be endured. We all need those reminders when the nights are long, and enemies gather beyond the horizon.
Your work as a writer is vital because the pen is mightier than the sword.
But in this age of the four modern horsemen, your pen may be at risk. The tools you use to write and record may be in danger.
Supply Chain Issues Could Mean Equipment Shortages for Authors
Every cellphone and laptop requires a chip, and 90% of high-end chips are created in Taiwan. While the chips are made in Taiwan, most smartphones are assembled in China.
China and Taiwan must work together for nearly all smartphones to exist, but they are also the two countries most likely to go to war.
Remember when you couldn’t buy a new car because of a chip shortage? Those chips were basic 80nm chips manufactured in many countries, and we still experienced the effects of the shortage. Imagine how much worse the effects of a smartphone chip shortage would be since the 3nm and 5nm chips used in smartphones are currently only made in Taiwan.
Your iPhone may have been designed in California, but it was assembled by Foxconn in China using chips made by TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) in Taiwan. A war between China and Taiwan, even an economic war, would mean that cellphone production for almost all cellphones would cease.
New cellphones would vanish from store shelves around the world as people would race to replace old phones before the new ones sold out. The price of a new phone would skyrocket. People are so addicted to their phones that they will pay thousands of dollars for a phone.
The days of buying a new smartphone for less than $1,000 will seem like a golden era to people who have to live through an economic war between China and Taiwan.
I hope China and Taiwan continue to get along, but we must face the world as it is, not as we want it to be. Currently, both countries are preparing for war.
What is true for phones is also true, to a lesser extent, for computers. Most computer chips are created in Taiwan, while most computers are assembled in China. But neither computer chips nor computers are manufactured exclusively in either country.
Apple is particularly exposed, though, since 90% of Apple products are made in China, and 100% of Apple laptops are assembled in China.
Guess who makes the new Apple Silicon M1 and M2 chips? TSMC in Taiwan. TSMC also makes the A-series chips for the iPhone and iPad.
One difference between phones and computers is Intel Corp. Intel manufacturers left China in 2021 and now manufacture chips mostly in the United States. An economic war between Taiwan and China would be good for Intel as it would step in to fill the gap.
Intel is not a big player in phone chips, but they are a big player in laptop and desktop chips. Apple might have to switch back to using Intel chips if the war was bad enough.
The Kindle Paperwhite and Kindle Fire use the ARM chip made by TSMC in Taiwan, and both are assembled in China. While demand for ereaders is lower, the supply chain issues that affect phones would also affect ereaders. In the event of an economic war between China and Taiwan, expect ereaders to go out of stock and stay out of stock.
Book and Paper Shortages are Less Likely
Popular, traditionally printed books are often printed in China, which is part of the reason for the delay in traditionally printed books.
Indie books, on the other hand, are printed on demand in local warehouses around the world. If you order an indie book in the UK, it is printed in the UK. If you order one in the US, it is printed in the US.
Traditionally published authors have more exposure to China-related supply chain issues than indie authors. But indie authors are still at risk.
China is the world’s largest producer of pulp and paper. The United States is the second largest producer, but China specializes in certain kinds of paper. For example, Bible paper is mostly made in China, whereas the US focuses on making cardboard for the billions of Amazon boxes.
The United States is a net exporter of pulp, so if trade is disrupted, domestic paper production would be relatively unaffected.
China, a net importer of woodchip (to make pulp), sources wood from Vietnam and Australia. China does not source significant timber, pulp, or paper from Taiwan, so an economic war between Taiwan and China shouldn’t directly affect Chinese paper or book production.
If the United States responded to a conflict by placing sanctions on China, those sanctions could include paper and or printed books. The US recently added a 7.5% tariff on Chinese printed books, and the war hasn’t even started.
Three Potential Possibilities
I should point out that the tech supply chain disruptions would happen regardless of whether the United States (or any other country for that matter) joins the war. Taiwan and China work together to make electronics. If they stop working together, no electronics.
As I see it, we have three potential outcomes:
Potential 1: China and Taiwan Continue to Get Along
The best-case scenario is for China and Taiwan to get along so the status quo will be protected. Hurray!
Potential 2: War Between China, Taiwan, and the USA
In 1943 you couldn’t buy a new Ford because the Ford factories were converted into tank factories. If you wrecked your car in 1943, you had to find a used car to replace it since Ford wasn’t manufacturing new vehicles.
If Taiwan and China go to war, and the United States joins the war, expect US chip makers to get busy making smart bombs rather than smartphones.
It’s hard to determine the probability of the USA entering a war between China and Taiwan. Historically, America has been hesitant to enter great power conflicts. Going to war with a small country like Vietnam or Iraq is one thing, but going to war with a major power is another.
When America does jump into great power conflicts, they tend to sit on the sidelines for a few years. If America follows the historical pattern, Taiwan (or Ukraine) would need to fight alone with American guns and bullets for several years before the US would send troops to help.
The British had to fight alone in both world wars before America joined them. Napoleon also had to fight alone for ten years before America joined the War of 1812.
That said, every time President Biden has been asked if we would join a war between China and Taiwan, he has said we would. However, after each statement, someone in the Whitehouse walked back the president’s statement.
Predictions about whether America would join a war depend on whether you think Biden is telling the truth and if you think he is calling the shots regarding foreign policy.
No American president can pull the country into a great power war without popular support. Roosevelt and Wilson wanted to join the world wars sooner, but they lacked popular support and had to wait for a casus belli.
Clearly, a war between China and the United States is the worst-case scenario.
Potential 3: Economic War Between China and Taiwan
The third possibility is some sort of economic war between China and Taiwan, which would shut down economic cooperation between the two countries. Global smartphone production would cease, but since the US would not be using its own electronics factories to make smart bombs, it could ramp up domestic smartphone production.
Building a factory and training workers capable of assembling cellphones takes a long time. The only smartphone manufacturer in the United States is already expecting long delays in sourcing parts, even though the war has not started.
Of the three potential outcomes, I see an economic war between China and Taiwan as the most likely. China really wants control over Taiwan, but the American military is really scary. One American aircraft carrier can hold over 75 airplanes. If one American aircraft carrier were its own country, it would have the 50th largest air force in the world. America always keeps at least one aircraft carrier patrolling around Taiwan. We also have ten more aircraft carriers “around.”
If the United States Navy were its own nation, it would have the second-largest air force in the world, and it would still be larger than China’s.
China does not want a war with America. As long as they are convinced that a war with Taiwan is also a war with the US, they should try to avoid it. But it only takes one misjudgment or misunderstanding to trigger a war. Not that China would do anything to provoke the Americans, like floating a spy balloon over our nuclear launch sites right before a major diplomatic meeting.
In the event of a war, people will want to read books, and the United States could continue producing paper books with our domestic sources of pulp and paper.
Authors with new computers that will continue to work amid massive electronics supply chain issues will be best positioned to thrive. Authors currently squeezing out the last few months of life from a half-dead laptop will struggle if an economic war between Taiwan and China breaks out.
If you don’t think your phone and laptop will last another five years, consider upgrading now while the prices are low. My wife and I just got new phones, and I got all new computers last year. I want to continue producing this podcast for years, even if I can’t buy new computer equipment.
Wars and rumors of wars abound. It pays to prepare, but it doesn’t pay to worry. As Jesus once said, “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things?”
So, buy a new computer or phone if you need to, and then get back to work. Your book isn’t going to write itself, and it may be just what people need in the coming years. Hopefully, nothing will change, and you’ll have upgraded a little sooner than needed.
If you want to connect with other authors, discuss these supply chain issues, or disagree with my geopolitical analysis, we genuinely want to hear from you. I love talking about geopolitics. Remember, I used to host a radio show.
So if you’re feeling lonely in your author life, visit AuthorMedia.social, where a whole community of authors talk and help each other with craft, marketing, and publishing, and occasionally discuss geopolitics.
Jonathan Shuerger, author of Shades of Black: In Darkness Cast
A young swordsman desperate to save his people turns to the only instructor he can find: the bitter champion of the Everlasting Dark. They know Light best…who first know the Dark.
Wow, Thomas. What a timely important piece. I’ve been trying to squeeze another year out of my iPhone and laptop. Guess it’s time to bite the bullet and buy new ones. Thanks so much for your good input.
Your ability to draw lessons from history is amazing, Thomas. I appreciate your modern twist on the 4 horsemen! And yes, maybe a new laptop is in order. I’m going to stick with my emergency flip phone and get new land line cordless phones 🙂 Keep up your excellent work.
This is one of my favorite episodes. Thank you. I am so happy that you spend “an embarrassing amount of time studying history…”