The Book Is Dead--For Good Environmental Reasons

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Let us now praise the bound book and wish it well in the great artifact hearafter. We live in a world that has changed radically since we woke up in 2007 or 2008 when the first pronouncements of the death of the printed book made headlines. In many ways, those pronouncements were a set of trial balloons sent up to see what the level of objection to the premature death announcements would be.

Now, in 2012, we know with much greater accuracy what the levels of objection to this new world of digital publishing are and who’s objecting the loudest (hint: it’s not just publishers but authors as well).

Trying to inform and educate as to why the sustainability of all industries that rely on fossil fuels in most areas of production and distribution need to be reconfigured has set off a firestorm of misinformation as well as fear. The reasons for fear are obvious--changing an old paradigm is worrisome, anxiety producing. If you aren’t involved in the process of change and are only being offered it, the chances of you feeling uncomfortable are pretty high. However, treading on those feelings and alarms in book lovers, many publishers and authors have also resisted this change due to their own lack of knowledge as to what this paradigm shift can lead to and how it will benefit not just those of us in the book business but the planet as well.

Currently, the publlishing industry should be working towards the goal of decreasing (with their goal to be approaching zero) their reliance on fossil fuels to run their business. Financially, this is going to become more apparent. The business models publishers used necessitated all kinds of other investments that didn’t have anything to do with the production of books. They needed land for warehouses and buildings constructed to meet those needs. Roads had to be maintained, water and electric power hooked up, transportation costs that would be affected by the shifting price of fuel and paper, huge amounts of paper that had to come from forests and that had to be processed and the consequential pollution of all these processes whether it is in the air, water or land. Yet, none of these topics are addressed in discussions of the future of the book.

For good reason, I suppose. Then we would have to be talking about what it takes to create a bound book, what the steps are in its production and the natural resources required in order to sell massive numbers of books to recoup the costs of producing them.

Rather, discusions center on the sentimental and fetishistic reasons many people love bound books. I agree that bound books are a marvel. But, the real cost of producing books at these current levels is a horrible waste of resources that can’t be replaced.

You would think people in the book business would read some of their own books to see why this is so. Book publishers don’t pay attention to what they sell nor do they pay much attention to the people they are producing books for.

My wife and I took a long car trip this summer in our Prius (lest a reader wonders how eco-friendly we are) and talked to people all across the country. We were involved in a video project which opened up avenues of conversation about books and publishing. We have taken many such trips over a number of years. Our findings are anecdotal but consistent over time.

We found people had wonderful recollections of reading when children. Adults who do read, don’t read as much as they would like to. Though, they read to children and grandchildren and make time for that. They weren’t concerned about the death of the bound book. They were much more concerned whether their part of the country would survive. On two levels, these worries had to do with the environmental degradation of the area from industries that had disappeared. Or from the environmental damage of the changing weather patterns that affected their crops or other businesses. The fact that all of these concerns could be linked to how books were produced led us to some extremely interesting conversations about the real future of books in this country.

The drought stricken Midwest was filled with millions of acres of withered, brown corn stalks. Temperatures were at 108 degrees when we camped in Nebraska. By the time we got to the desert, the temperatures were even higher, 115 degrees in Las Vegas. By the time we were camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the monsoon season had begun. The new growth brought about by the water was such a relief from the parched earth we had been driving through, particularly the desert areas between Las Vegas and Reno. The smell of sagebrush and pine hit us like a perfume we could never forget.

Watching the dependence of the desert on that minimal amount of rain water at one particular time of year, it became a metaphor for what can be done in the publishing business that sees peaks and valleys in its own sales based on other forms of consumer weather.

Right now, the publishing business is dependent on resources from the planet and some are renewable and some aren’t. Electricity in particular is what we all rely on to keep the websites up and humming. In the e-book business, this is our main drain on the planet. 

It is possible to keep that energy drain to a minimum by using web design firms that are powered by wind or solar. And to also have the website powered by wind-powered hosting companies. This decision is easy to make once a company knows it has that option.

Small companies like mine, Sullivan Street Press, can reap enormous benefits from using renewable energy to run their companies. Not surprisingly, when the energy to produce the books is low, it contributes to the general lower costs of e-books throughout the life cycle of the digitized format. As we know, it is much easier and cheaper to update and/or revise an e-book than a bound book. With no inventory to keep track of, only sales, the accounting costs are also signficantly reduced. Keeping track of sales is also less costly. For those companies such as ours that don’t use third parties to sell e-books, the cost of doing business is lower and the eventual return on investment is thus higher.

A vibrant publishing culture is essential to a vibrant democracy. Using less financially risky ways to run e-book publishing companies, smaller companies will better weather the other aspects of publishing that aren’t as clear cut as where to get the necessary renewal energy from. 

The older publishing model has put too many good companies out of business. The mergers of many of the older companies so that only six major publishing houses remain also speaks to a model that may have lost its vigor and ability to survive the changes in global climate as well as dwindling natural resources. Not unlike all the administrative costs endemic to our health insurance system, the accounting practices necessary to keeping these enormous institution afloat eats up far too much human capital that in turn uses up too much of our dwindling natural resources. How much longer this type of old form publishing can be maintained is a question left for others to ponder. The better question is why are we waiting for it to die? Why aren’t we actively pursuing the means of production now that will help it to die a dignified death?  

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