Publishing and the environment

Publishing isn’t a terribly eco-friendly industry. Trees are felled for making paper, inks are full of damaging toxins. Big houses doing enormous print runs can end up pulping books they don’t sell, which is incredibly wasteful. Like anything else, printed material can end up in landfill. Just because it can be recycled doesn’t mean it will be.

I’m also a big fan of books, and this is the industry I work in so obviously I have mixed feelings. I think books are a valuable part of our culture and they can and should be dealt with in more environmentally friendly ways.

If you know you’re only likely to read something once, get it as an ebook. If you also buy a dedicated e-reader, you only need to read about a dozen books on it for it to have a lower environmental impact than buying those as physical books. It’s not just the book production, it’s also the impact of shipping them around and dealing with them once they are read. 

If the author is dead, buy their book second hand – they don’t need your money. If the author is so deceased as to be out of copyright the odds are good you can find their work online and read it for free, and entirely legally, as an ebook. 

If you buy a physical copy of a book, keep it in use. If you don’t want it, passing it to a friend is a good choice – authors actually benefit from this more often than not as it’s an effective, word of mouth way of gaining new fans. People passing physical books around like this doesn’t really hurt authors, not in the way that pirating books and giving them away online does.

The second hand book market – especially as it exists around charity shops – is known to have undermined the sales of new books. This has not gone well for authors. However, there’s still a lot to be said for keeping books out of landfill and supporting charities by buying from them. Not everyone can afford new books, which is also a consideration. There are no clear cut answers on this one, navigate as you see fit.

Libraries are a good choice in terms of getting free reading material while not disadvantaging authors. In the UK, authors can get small payouts for library loans, and borrowing from the library encourages libraries to buy that author’s books, so that can be a good thing.

While there are a lot of things wrong with Amazon, one thing it offers is print on demand publishing. That means books are only printed when someone wants one. Many self published authors and small publishing houses use this resource. It radically reduces waste and means books aren’t taking up space in warehouses, which occupy a lot of land. I wish the whole industry would switch over to print on demand, it would save so much waste and the energy of long distance transportation. We could eliminate warehousing for book storage – which isn’t a good use of land. There would be no excess books getting pulped.

Author incomes are dropping at all levels of the industry. Increasingly it’s the case that to write, you need an independent income source, the willingness and energy to work a second job alongside writing, or support from someone else. If writing isn’t going to be just a nice hobby for the affluent, then supporting authors matters. I really don’t want to live in a world where only the comfortably well off and able bodied can tell stories, I think we’d be culturally impoverished if that happened.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “Publishing and the environment

  • TanekRune

    Great points. As someone with housing instability, my books were some of the first things I donated to friends and charities. I miss some of the books, but it’s been ultra-helpful for quick moves.

    Now I’m just thankful for my local library’s extensive ebook selection, Open Library, Project Gutenberg, and the like. I’ve also seen a number of short story, journalism, and newsletter projects going through monthly subscriptions with sites like Substack.

    Either way, good to think about your relationship to books and how you consume them.

  • K. M. Strange

    As an indie author I have similar feelings about a lot of the points you made. My books are sold on Amazon and I like that it’s more environmentally friendly than them being printed in stacks. I know it’s a big debate among authors about indie writers muddying the waters for ‘proper authors’ who go through the traditional process, and I don’t disagree with alot of the points made on the topic. However, there are so many talented writers out there who would never get a look in if they didn’t publish independently.
    Regarding the financial side of the industry, this is indeed a real problem. My hope for my books is that I can eventually use the money I earn to work from home and be as close to a full-time SAHM as possible. (I don’t think that’s the right path for everyone, but it’s right for me.) And it really is almost impossible even as an indie author since Amazon take a shocking percentage of my sales so thank you for the notion of support!

    • Nimue Brown

      I think there should be room for everyone, and I’m wearing both hats – trad published (small houses) and self published. What I’ve seen of the big publishers does not make me long to be part of all that.

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