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.
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 booktwo.org 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.