Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thursday Soapbox. Pulp Fiction: Books and the Environment (Part 1)

Part of our Wilderness Week series.

I volunteered to do a piece about books and the environment for our Wilderness Week. I thought it would be relatively simple. I usually think a bit about what I want to say and then my fingers pretty much type it out for me. I’ve heard a fair amount about this subject over at the Litopia Podcast (where I write fabulous show notes) and I was quite blasé to tell you the truth.

Well, it’s now 7pm Wednesday night, the kids and husband are out swimming (I don’t like communal bathing – yuk!), this has to go up tomorrow and I’ve been staring at a blank screen for hours. And I’ve been thinking, Googling, typing and deleting all week. It’s just dawned on me what the problem is. Like one of the contestants on Mastermind who chooses “Books” as their specialist subject and then gets 0 points, this subject is just far too enormous to write about in one article. So I’m zooming in on just one aspect – sale or return, pulping and the environmental costs. (Watch out for future fox articles tackling other aspects of this massive subject).

When a bookstore buys in their books, they really don’t have to think particularly long and hard about how many they’re going to sell. Unlike almost every single other shop on the high street, the bookseller is allowed to send them back and get a refund. So while the shoe shop next door has to consider how many gold sandals they think the night-clubbers might be into that season since they have to sell them all to make a profit, the bookshop can just say, ‘gimme fifty’ knowing that if they only sell thirty five the rest can go back. (Disclaimer: I know I’m simplifying this and most bookshops will be pretty responsible, it’s the system that’s wrong!)

Emma Barnes from Snowbooks blogged about this very subject last year from the perspective of a fuming small Publisher.

I am seriously furious about them today – because of the sheer, utter, bloody wastefulness and stupidity of this industry to still be operating in such a mindless, thoughtless, incompetent way. It’s SO RETARDED to print thousands of books, send them on a lorry somewhere, let them sit unboxed in the back room, send them back, pulp them, raise a credit note, publisher doesn’t get paid.

So what happens to all those left over books? Do they go to hospitals or old peoples homes or schools? According to this article in the Daily Gazette they’re chucked in the bin.

Donating them to charity is usually against the publishers’ rules, so bookstores have to either recycle or trash the books, magazines and calendars, O’Meara said. But some recycling companies, including the one that services the Saratoga Springs store, won’t take new copies of some magazines and books because of their high glue content.

And on there are some very scary statistics…

What with production and transport, the average paperback has eaten its way through 4.5kWh of energy by the time it gets to a reader. In terms of climate impact, this is equivalent to about 3kg of carbon dioxide emissions for every glossy new textbook. So, for a print run of 10,000, there is a cost of 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide not mentioned on the dust jackets. But this is a best-case scenario. The sale-or-return system virtually guarantees that the damage is much more severe. If half the books delivered to bookshops then have to be trucked back to the publisher and pulped, there’s yet another great belch of greenhouse gases to ultimately heat up the cheeks of both publisher and author…

Even with JK Rowling insisting on recycled paper and other authors following suit…

To protect ancient forests in Canada, Finland and south-east Asia, authors have agreed to work with Greenpeace to ensure that their next books are printed on recycled paper or paper produced from forests that have been certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Sustainable forestry relates to growing policies which stipulate that, rather than clear-fell woodland, trees are selectively logged so that the wildlife is not destroyed and the people living in the forests do not lose their homes or their livelihoods.

Pledges have also come from Charlotte Bingham, Ben Elton, Helen Fielding, Anne Fine, John King, John O’Farrell, Maggie O’Farrell, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, William Sutcliffe and Penny Vincenzi.

But it really doesn’t change the fact that so many books are never even read. And that all amounts to waste. Wasted money, wasted natural resources and most appalling of all wasted words.

So what’s the solution? The new e-readers that are being introduced all over the place? I don’t know about you but there’s a certain unique beauty and distinctive smell about a new book that may be difficult to re-create with a piece of plastic. Not to mention the swearing when you drop it in the bath!

But there may be another solution. Harper Collins have announced this month that they are to publish books under a new imprint on a ‘firm sale’ basis only. They will not allow returns.

The aim is to improve the economics of book publishing, which have historically been hampered by, among other things, the need to take back unsold books from retailers at full price. “The idea is to take all the things that we think are wrong with this business and try to change them,” says Miller. “We will try things and, if they don’t work, we will try other things.”

So every book printed, should be able to find a loving home and there’s no waste in that. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a whole new policy within the publishing industry which will not only save the expense for the small publisher but also go, in a small way, towards saving the planet.

P.S. If you’re now feeling guilty about your reading habits, (although for me, a read book is not a wasted book) then pop over to eco-libris where you can plant a tree for every book you read.

With thanks to Humanoide on Flickr for the wonderful foxy picture

About Eve Harvey

Eve Harvey is a bookaholic. She is forever to be found with her nose in a book. If there are none around then newspapers, magazines, the back of cereal packets, road signs or the tiny washing labels found on the seams of jumpers will do. Eve used to have full time job as a children's bookseller and she was the very first Waterstone's Children's Expert Bookseller in Scotland. Her first love was definitely literature for children and teens, about which she has nerd-level knowledge. However she has since become involved in grown-up books and has co-written her first adult novel with Cath Murphy. Eve and Cath Podcast, blog and have far too much fun on their website Domestic Hell. Eve lives in a field just outside Edinburgh in Scotland with her daughter and son and two dogs and two rabbits. She also has some tanks of tropical fish and vows one day to start up a marine aquarium. And the day she signs her very first publishing deal she is going to celebrate by buying a pair of Horsefields tortoises. You can find Eve through her Agent, Ella Kahn at DKW Literary Agency. She's also on Twitter or on her website :

17 comments on “Thursday Soapbox. Pulp Fiction: Books and the Environment (Part 1)

  1. Mhairi
    April 24, 2008

    The ‘Firm Sale’ basis makes a lot of sense to me … if it’s financially workable.

    Naive as I am about all things to do with publishing I had no idea that massive overprinting was virtually the norm.

    Eco-friendly as I try to be, I really don’t like reading books on screens of any description. The words just don’t go in, somehow. It’s a bit like your hearing going when you don’t have your specs on … weird, but true.

    PS: Wonderful picture … coochy-coochy-coo (it’d take your finger off as soon as look at you …).

  2. Lisa
    April 24, 2008

    Really interesting post, Eve. It’s something I’ve heard a lot about lately on various small publishers’ blogs. The idea of ‘firm sale’ does sound good, especially as on sale or return the books can be returned to publishers months and months after they were ‘sold’. Sometimes even after royalties have been paid on those sales.

    Eco-libris sounds like a lovely idea too. And yes, beautiful fox picture, but agree with Mhairi that tickling its nose might be a bad idea… Ain’t it fluffy though. Aww.

  3. Dingo
    April 24, 2008

    I had no idea that this went on. I suppose the “firm sale” is a good idea. I wonder if going to e-books likemay be the ecological way to go. I don’t own one and I prefer the feel and smell of paper. I like the heft and weight of books. The impact that discarded and non-biodegradable, non-recylcable, electronic gadgets like cell phones and iPods have on our environment, this may not be a workable solution either.

  4. Eve
    April 24, 2008

    Hiya guys and especially hello again Dingo 🙂

    The whole books and the environment problem is one that fascinates me. The utter waste of printing so many books because the bookshops say so and yet they can return up to half of them at no cost to themselves is actually quite horrific, I think. And the expense for small publishers must be enormous.

    But I agree that these e-readers are probably a nightmare and yet another environmental problem in themselves – power, non-biodegradable, e.t.c. And a book has a gorgeousness that just can’t be captured on screen.

    Ahhh the whole thing is a minefield isn’t it????

  5. Hamish
    April 24, 2008

    Good article. I don’t like the idea of those e-readers, but I thought I couldn’t love an iPod and now I can’t leave the house without it. I fear books will go the same way as writing letters…

  6. Emma
    April 24, 2008

    Very interesting, thanks for that, Eve.

    On firm sale, the whole of the UK’s biggest book group, Hachette Livre, is way ahead of Harper Collins, because from now onwards it’s going over to firm sale on backlist across the entire group – Headline, Orion, Hodder, Orchard, Little, Brown etc. etc.. The thinking is that it’s important for new titles to get into the shops in quantity and range, but by definition new books are a gamble because they have no track record, so you don’t want booksellers being cautious about ordering something new: they must know they can return it. On the other hand booksellers really should be able to get it reasonably right with backlist titles, because the demand for them is relatively predictable.

    If firm sale comes in across the industry (and where HL leads the rest tend to follow if they can afford to – few other groups are as profitable) we have to recognise, though, that the result will be fewer titles to chose from in bookshops, more times when your book’s out of stock because they’ll keep less stock of it, and a tendency not to take risks on less ‘safe’ books: smaller presses, newer authors, challenging fiction, obscure-but-fascinating non-fiction…

    It’s also interesting that while in the US, as I understand it, to get a credit for a paperback you want to ‘return’ all you have to do is rip out the title page and send that to prove you’re not going to secretly sell it, by rendering the book unsaleable and fit only for the bin, in the UK you have to send the whole book back. Less eco on transport, but in theory at least it should mean that the book could be sold elsewhere. Returns rates are much, much higher in the US – you can’t help wondering if it’s partly because their system for getting the returns is easier…

    Another aspect to this is that the big wholesalers – Gardners and Bertrams – only allow 5% returns, as opposed to 15% or 20% that UK publishers allow, on frontlist at least (hope I’ve got that figure right). It’s mainly independent bookshops who use them, and so they have to concentrate much harder on whether they want to buy a book or not, because they’ve got much less margin for error. Yet another reason to use an indie bookshop if you can.

  7. Emma
    April 24, 2008

    Talking of which, the peerless book trade commentator and journalist Danuta Keane did a piece on returns for The Author (the Society of Authors in house mag) which is also here:

  8. rosyb
    April 24, 2008

    “If firm sale comes in across the industry (and where HL leads the rest tend to follow if they can afford to – few other groups are as profitable) we have to recognise, though, that the result will be fewer titles to chose from in bookshops, more times when your book’s out of stock because they’ll keep less stock of it, and a tendency not to take risks on less ’safe’ books: smaller presses, newer authors, challenging fiction, obscure-but-fascinating non-fiction…”

    I was wondering about this too. Sigh.

    Interesting what you say about backlist versus frontlist, Emma. That makes a lot of sense. Any thoughts on what the best system would be? It’s so fiendishly complicated.

  9. Jackie
    April 25, 2008

    Like Mhari, I had no idea that publishers were contributing to such a wasteful practice. This doesn’t seem financially feasible, either, just a lot of excess. Anything they can try to help rectify this is good, though Emma’s comment worries me about it leading to less choice in the shops.
    In the U.S. there are several chain stores that sell remainders, such as Border’s Outlets and Half Price Books, the latter also sells used books, too. So there’s some that don’t end up in landfills.
    I hate the idea of something as pleasant as a book adding to the pollution problems.

  10. Emma
    April 25, 2008

    There’s another incentive to there being too many books in the system, which is that as you increase the print run for a book, the unit cost per book comes down dramatically. Since you sell the book for the same amount whatever the print run, you make a lot more money on selling the product of a print run of 20,000 than you do on a print run of 15,000, say – much more money than the extra 5,000 copies would suggest. So there’s a real incentive to print lots, sell lots into the bookshops and then… oops! Everyone was a bit over-optimistic, and they come trundling back.

  11. jj
    April 25, 2008

    Economies of scale. Yes. That makes sense. But it’s only economic if it works and you have a good seller on your hands, and how many books are that these days apart from the really gold-plated ones?

    It’s a subject I’ve never given any thought to before. Thank you.

  12. Eve
    April 25, 2008

    Wonderful comments Emma, taking this discussion on to a whole new level, fantastic 🙂 And thanks also to everyone else.

    I was thinking long and hard about this (in my slightly obsessive way!) and I wondered if the e-books idea might not be too far from the solution to this problem without lessening the market. In fact it may open it up.

    P.O.D books, as the technology gets faster and faster could be the answer to all those problems. For instance the Espresso book machine, although the technology is in its infancy, could be installed anywhere. It may be the end for the book retailers unless they embrace the digital age, I think. But since almost half of all online purchases are books, it may not be too long before books are not standing in warehouses anywhere but printed instantly to order. And Publishers may concentrate more on advertising, or even lose their business to advertising companies employed directly by authors to attract their readers…

    Interesting times lie ahead 🙂

  13. Dingo
    April 25, 2008

    The New York Public Library got an Espresso book machine last summer but I haven’t been down to take a look at it yet. Until your post, Eve, I forgot all about it. I may have to wander down there and see what they have.

    I wonder how ebooks would change reading habits. While I order many books online, I often find new authors and books I wouldn’t read while browsing through book stores. Would we become niche readers? How would companies, authors, and retailers market to us? I would love for all the new technology to make book ownership available to people who can’t afford them. Yes, we have libraries but book ownership is something altogether different.

    I agree that there are interesting times ahead.

  14. Dingo
    April 25, 2008

    Sorry, I should’ve said “I often find new authors and books I normally wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to by browsing through books stores.”

    Wow, my grammar and sentence structure is deplorable today. I think it’s from grading all my student papers. I’m starting to write like them instead of the other way around!!

  15. raz godelnik
    April 27, 2008

    Hi Eve,

    Thanks for mentioning Eco-Libris and for the very interesting post. I enjoyed reading it very much as well as the comments.

    I would like to contribute to the general discussion about the footprint of the book industry. Last month was released a new report ‘Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the U.S. Book Industry’, which is probably the most important report that was published recently on the environmental impacts of the book publishing industry. This 86-page report was prepared by The Green Press Initiative (GPI) and The Book Industry Study Group (BISG).

    The report analyzes the environmental impacts of the industry and its biggest contributor to the book industry’s carbon footprint is the use of virgin paper. According to the report, forest and forest harvest impacts have 62.7% share of total carbon emissions. Second is paper production at the mills with 22.4% share. Methan releases from landfilled books contribute 8.2%. btw – the total carbon footprint of the industry is 12.4 million metric tons or 8.85 lbs. of carbon dioxide per a book (2006 figures).

    Two more points from the report which are related to the discussion here:
    1. The report estimates that the amount of books that are printed but are unsold was more than 1 billion books, or about 25% of the total number of books produced in 2006 (4.15 billion books)
    2. According to the U.S. EPA, books are accounted for 762,000 metric tons of paper in Municipal Solid Waste – way too much!

    You are welcome to read a 3-part series I wrote in our blog on the report, including my review of the report and an interview with Tyson Miller of the Green Press Initiative, who is one of the people who led the work on the report. I gathered all the 3 parts here:

    You can also take a look at the summary of the report’s findings –

    Thanks again for the the discussion on this importnat issue!

    Raz Godelnik

  16. Pingback: Monday Guest Blog by Lisa « Two Ravens Press

  17. ME
    February 19, 2010

    Don’t worry. In a few short years we’ll all be downloading our books to our e-Reader, iPads, Couriers, and other digital devices saving in both publishing costs and natural resources.

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This entry was posted on April 24, 2008 by in Entries by Eve, Thursday Soapbox and tagged , , , , , .



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