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The Book Shortage Of 2021 | Ex Why Zed

Posted on 19 January 2022

The year 2021 saw increased demand among consumers for physical books. However, the climate surrounding the pandemic also resulted in a shortage in their supply. While some authors chose to commission a short run of hardcover book printing to fill the supply gap, shipping issues also impacted the time it took for the products to reach stores and ultimately the hands of eager readers after soft and hardback book printing.  


According to the executive director of the Book Manufacturers’ Institute, Matt Baehr, the shortage of physical supplies such as paper and ink is the main reason why books have become in shorter supply. The process of getting items from A to B has also been hampered.

The pandemic is the primary reason for supply shortages and delivery delays. But that’s not to say this has been the sole problem. Even prior to the pandemic, the supply chain was already in hot water. But when you add in the shortage of labour and paper globally – as well as increased demand for books from people forced to stay at home during lockdowns – you have the key factors behind the book shortage.

You may not have noticed empty bookshelves at your local bookstore over the last few months. That’s because the nature of the publishing cycle dictates that book releases are planned many months ahead of time. 


What has suffered is the printing of surprise bestsellers. Publishers tend to print some books only when demand creates a need, and these can then be shipped out immediately. And therein lay the problem in 2021. If books sold out fast, publishers were not able to replenish the stocks at such short notice. In some instances, it was the new year before they were able to send new copies.

Printed book sales typically increase by 3-4% year on year. But in 2020-21, sales increased by 13.2 per cent, according to industry tracker NPD Bookscan. And overall, they stated that the period from 2019 to 2021 saw an increase in book sales of around 21 per cent, a growth rate that according to Kristen McLean, an analyst at NPD Bookscan, was unprecedented.

The data makes it clear that it’s been the pandemic that has driven the sales of physical books up. Moreover, it’s illuminated to authors and publishers which types of books are selling well and which are not, informing new release lists. 

When the global lockdowns began back in 2020, traditionally high-performing categories like self-help and business books suddenly slumped into a decline. Instead, sales of educational books and first aid books rocketed due to people keen to learn new skills and prepare for emergencies in the climate at the time.

Trends in book sales during the pandemic followed a certain pattern. Early on, people bought books on how to make bread. After a period, books on social justice and politics rose to the top of the pile. And once the US election period was over, sales of adult fiction titles began to take off.


When people buy nonfiction books, they’re usually investing in them as a reference tool to inform a decision they have to make. They may also be interested in finding out more about a particular topic. But when someone buys a fiction book, it’s generally just to read for pleasure. According to McLean, the growth in sales across certain categories is a good indicator that people are now really reading and engaging with books again.

Reading is one of the top hobbies that people have adopted during the course of the pandemic, and another notable trend is that they are leaning more towards printed books than ebooks. In fact, ebook sales have not risen at all, with readers only buying these versions if they’ve found printed copies of a book have sold out. According to McLean, printed books are back in favour. 

If the world was in a different situation, the increase in the sale of printed books would be a welcome positive for the publishing world and other associated industries. But even that has turned into something of a negative because of the many factors that have come into play.

In essence, printing books is not as simple as it once was. Paper, ink, and printing presses can only be found at a premium at present. 

The paper shortage began with a shortage of pulp worldwide. According to reports, the price of wood pulp rose to $1,200 per metric ton in 2021 from just $700 to $750 per metric ton in 2020. The main reason for this increase is an environmental initiative in China that has closed 279 pulp and paper mills. There is also a global backlash against plastic and the rush to use paper as an alternative for all manner of applications.

The price of cardboard has also increased as more people move towards ordering products online. Paper factories have shifted production to cardboard manufacturing, taking resources away from fabricating book-grade paper.

In terms of ink, there are shortages in supply here, too – the Chinese environmental initiatives are affecting the manufacture of this as well. With the closure of wood-pulp factories, there is also decreased availability of resins, photo-initiators, monomers, oligomers, and additives. 

Another contributory factor in the shortage of books is the ongoing difficulties surrounding shipping, something that’s affected the majority of industries. 

The distribution network across the world is massively congested, and containers are not moving out of ports and into land transportation vehicles as fast as they would otherwise have done. On top of that, goods storage warehouses are still full.

The added complications of Brexit and the incident in which the Ever Given container ship inadvertently blocked all traffic on the Suez Canal in Spring last year also contributed to dramatic disruption to global supply chains. Then include a shortage of truck drivers, without whom products cannot be picked up and transported around the world, and it’s no wonder problems have arisen. 

Print Your Book Locally


While all these factors have heavily impacted the publishing industry, some bright spots remain, such as the increased interest in reading, and of physical books rather than electronic versions to boot. If you’re an author here in the UK, you can still easily have your book printed locally. Working with a reliable and experienced printing company, you can commission short run hardcover book printing services, booklet printing services, and more.

When it comes to printing, there’s no better company to work with than Ex Why Zed. We use state-of-the-art, industry-leading printing machines that guarantee the best possible quality for your books. Not only that, but we also offer a wide range of customisation options, allowing clients to choose everything from the finish of the cover to the type of paper they want.

We are proud to have worked with many reputable companies over our years in the business, including Disney, Skype, BBC Sport, and more. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us today. We would love to talk to you and give you an accurate and reasonable quotation for your softback or hardback book printing project.

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