The Common Good
May 2009

Are Books Obsolete?

by Molly Marsh | May 2009

A rough economy, changing reading habits, and a planet in peril are forcing book publishers to retool the way they do business.

Although you may have watched your house value decline and your rainy-day fund dry up, there is still the sweet experience of crawling into the pages of a really good book. Reading is one of the best—and cheapest—sources of comfort, entertainment, and escape around.

But the industry that produced that book carries a story of its own. As with every business in these recession-challenged times, economic, environmental, and technological forces are requiring publishers to come up with new ways of packaging ideas and launching them into the world.

Economically, the pain is evident in layoffs and reductions at publishers across the country, from behemoths such as Random House and Simon & Schuster to Christian publishers such as Thomas Nelson and Augsburg Fortress, the Minneapolis-based publishing arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Thomas Nelson, in Nashville, Tennessee, cut 10 percent of its staff last December. Augsburg Fortress laid off 55 people, reduced the number of book proposals it accepts, and closed its nine bookstores.

The financial challenges are compounded by other forces bearing down on the industry. Our increasing consciousness about climate change means that the practices and products of the publishing industry haven’t escaped environmental scrutiny; the ways books are created, manufactured, distributed, consumed, and even discarded all impact the environment. Add to that our changing reading habits, as more and more people gravitate to Web sites, Blackberrys, and electronic readers to consume their reading material, and you have an industry in deep transition.

“Up until very recently, we would ask, ‘What does a publishing company look like in 10 years?’” says Mark Tauber, senior vice president and publisher of HarperOne, which publishes titles on religion, self-help, and spirituality. “That’s still a good question, but it’s more like, ‘What does it look like next year?’”

MANY PUBLISHERS—and readers—hope that it looks much greener. The environmental impact of each step of the mass book-making process packs a wallop—from the harvesting of trees to the production of pulp and paper, printing, and then schlepping those books to stores and mailboxes across the country. Consider also that a huge number of books eventually end up in landfills, where they decompose and help produce a troublesome greenhouse gas called methane. Overall, the entire industry emits 12.4 million metric tons of carbon each year, according to the Green Press Initiative (GPI), a nonprofit that helps publishers develop more environmentally responsible practices. That’s 8.85 pounds per book.

Getting into the nitty-gritty of book-making requires seeing the forest and the trees, because it’s the cutting down of trees and the use of paper that creates the biggest environmental impact. A forest contains scores of carbon-absorbers, so when a tree is cut down the impact on climate change multiplies; greenhouse gases are released as trees travel through the pulp and paper industry. So you eliminate the good stuff—the carbon the forests absorb, along with existing biodiversity—when you harvest the trees, and multiply the bad stuff when you put it through the manufacturing process. To make books sold in the United States, according to the GPI, we cut down about 30 million trees every year.

It’s also important to note where those trees come from, as in some cases the land on which they grow is under dispute. The Environmental Paper Network, a group that helps the pulp and paper industry adopt more socially responsible practices, reports on a number of ongoing legal battles that involve indigenous groups around the world. For example, in Ontario, Canada, the provincial government gave big paper industry corporations forestry permits without the consent of the Grassy Narrows First Nation, to devastating effect. More than half their land has been clear cut, and the plants and animals they relied on for their traditional livelihoods are gone. In Brazil, a long-running land dispute has pitted indigenous tribes against the world’s biggest producer of eucalyptus pulp. There are similar cases all over the world.

But a green-focused cadre of book industry leaders hopes to change many of those practices—and save about 5 million trees every year in the process. Roughly 220 of them have developed and signed the “Book Industry Treatise on Responsible Paper,” a GPI initiative, whose goals include protecting endangered forests, preventing illegal logging, increasing the industry’s use of recycled paper, and supporting human rights—including fair wages and working conditions for laborers involved in producing books overseas. They also want to see an increase in the use of paper that is certified by groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which works to create forestry practices that are responsible and sustainable. And this seal of approval isn’t just for industry insiders—President Ba­rack Obama’s 1 million inaugural invitations were printed on FSC-certified paper.

But the most environmentally friendly step publishers can take is to use more recycled paper in their books. Dwight Baker, president of Baker Publishing Group, a Christian publishing house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an early member of the GPI, had been looking for recycled paper to use in Baker’s books for years. He credits John DePree, president and CEO of Bethany Press Inter­national—Baker’s printer—with ultimately finding a paper that worked.

Now virtually all the company’s nonfiction books are printed on post-consumer waste paper. Making the switch costs more, but only because more publishers and paper buyers—and readers—haven’t increased the demand for it.

“If enough publishers were buying recycled, it would cease to be an exception. It would be the commodity. Then it’ll regulate itself, based on supply and demand, just like other paper does,” Baker says. “Clearly you’ve got to hit critical mass, and then publishers’ alibis for not using recycled paper—‘it’s hard to get, it costs more’—disappear. Printers serve what publishers ask for, so if enough publishers pitched in, we would see change. That’s where the Green Press Initiative is trying to get publishers to switch over, and they’re making fine progress.”

Indeed, GPI’s goals include increasing the use of recycled fiber in the industry to 30 percent by 2012 and increasing the use of certified paper to 20 percent. But there is clearly a long way to go: Right now, they say, the publishing industry uses less than 10 percent recycled fiber for its paper.

“The more acreage we can keep in indigenous and native forests and the less we can have in tree farms, the better,” says Baker, who works on conservation issues in his spare time. “What I really worry about is high-quality native forest land. If the paper industry is encroaching further on that, that’s tragic, because it can be avoided.”

But what if publishers produced more books that didn’t require paper at all? Wouldn’t it solve a bundle of environmental problems if we did away with printed books altogether? With increasing Internet access and a number of electronic readers on the market, such as Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader, plus the ability to read books online and—coming soon—via cell phones, Black­berrys, or iPhones, it’s a logical question. As the prices come down and the perks of digital reading grow—download extra ma­terial in seconds, get confusing words defined in a heartbeat, and read anywhere, anytime—publishers are having to retool the ways they conceptualize, produce, mar­ket, sell, and distribute their material to meet a small but growing demand.

“It’s a huge ground shift for publishing,” says Harper­One’s Tauber. “You have to sustain what you’ve already built, which means you can’t just abandon everything you’re doing—traditional pub­lic relations, traditional marketing and advertising, ways of selling books—because otherwise the bottom drops out. But at the same time, you’ve got to put a whole lot of energy into figuring out the future.”

Publishers have digitized many of their practices by, for example, e-mailing book catalogues to clients and potential buyers instead of sending hard copies, or skipping extra steps such as printing galley copies of a book in favor of sending electronic books to sales representatives, publicists, and book review editors.

Many now release their books in print and electronic form simultaneously, putting part or all of the book’s content on their Web sites as well as making it available for use in electronic readers. Berrett-Koehler, a San-Francisco-based publisher whose books focus on sustainability, stewardship, and social and economic responsibility, “chunks up” some of its business books and sells chapters in individual PDF documents online. They’re finding that the strategy is expanding their audience and reach, especially overseas.

“If I’m in India and I need to get something today, I can’t wait two or three weeks for it to come through the global mail system—and in many cases the book may not ever come,” says David Marshall, BK’s director for digital communities. “By offering our books digitally, we’re opening up the global market for our content a lot more rapidly than we would otherwise by sticking with print.”

Instead of trying to create a market for a new book on sustainability, a publisher can find a social networking site that’s focused on sustainability, join, and post information about the book. Linking authors and readers digitally also provides a quicker feedback loop, in that readers can respond to a book’s content and offer suggestions for a sequel.

Publishers can also target potential readers with more precision—14-year-olds read differently than 49-year-olds, so which medium works best for each? A teenager might be interested in a publisher’s latest book, though not enough to get to a bookstore or to read the whole thing online. But she might pay $2.95 to get the highlights, says Tauber.

Still, it’s easy to overestimate the difference technology will make in the publishing industry, and easy to underestimate the time it will take for these transitions to occur on a big scale. “We’re adding our content to Kindle as aggressively as any publisher,” says Baker. “But last month Kindle sales amounted to less than 1 percent of our total revenue. Is it going to grow? Yes. Is it going to displace some print somewhere? Yes, by all means. Is this going to solve the problem on resource management? No. It would be hopelessly naïve to wait for that to occur. E-books will grow but they’re not going to displace massive quantities of print. It’s usually a both/and, not an either/or.”

And although paperless books are much less harmful to the environment, the components of electronic readers, cell phones, iPhones, and other reading gadgets still carry social, economic, and environmental impacts of their own. Kindle’s $359 price tag may come down, but that’s still a steep price for most people, and it’s not hard to imagine broken or outdated e-readers lying alongside cell phones in landfills all over the world.

For now, the printed book is far from obsolete, though its story will continue to evolve—hopefully in physical forms and processes that are far greener. The digital revolution brings a host of new ways to enjoy a book, and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about: good, fresh ideas and new ways of looking at the world. Whether it’s on paper or onscreen, good books will always comfort, delight, and sustain us—especially during the bad times.

Molly Marsh is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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