Among editors, agents, writers, and others associated in one form or another with the publishing industry, you can’t have a conversation or open a industry journal or blog post without encountering the varying debates on what e-books will do (are doing) to transform the medium of how reading materials are presented to the consumer. Every sort of argument is posted, from the economic impacts, the contractual language of book deals, the future for publishing houses, the role of gatekeepers, to the very structures and contents of books themselves. Forgetting aesthetics, personal preferences, individual fondness (the heft of a good book, the pace of turning real pages, the portability, the possession of a library built over years and years of reading…), e-book technology is here, it is growing exponentially, and it is quickly gaining real aficionados among serious readers and techies alike. For the first time in its history Amazon reported that last month the sales of e-book titles surpassed sales of physical books. According to Eco-Libris, e-reader sales saw a 176.8% increase in 2009. The world moves on. E-books will continue to become a growing presence in the publishing marketplace and likely will one day dominate book sales.
One question often lost in the debates among industry insiders is whether this explosion of e-books is good for the environment. The more studies one reads, the more unclear the answer often is, due in large part to most all of the voices weighing in on such debates having vested interests one way or another on the answer. (In the spirit of disclosure, I must reveal my own interests here, for as a writer, the price-per-item of initial e-book titles vs. physical books will almost certainly reduce my future earnings significantly should e-books outpace physical books.) While likely imperfect, a study put out by the Cleantech Group would seem to indicate that e-books can have substantial positive environmental impact. Their study finds that the carbon footprint of an e-reader (factoring in manufacture, energy use, delivery to consumer, raw materials, etc.) is equivalent to that of 22.5 physical books (which do not use vast quantities of paper but have extremely high transportation costs). There is a good deal of statistical data to weigh through in the full report and a good deal of base point assumptions about the reading habits of those who own e-readers, etc. but their initial findings seem to be generally corroborated elsewhere. Whatever may happen in the commercial market, and we probably would be guilty of mimicking ostriches if we don’t see the inevitability of this growth, e-books hold tremendous economic and environmental savings in large niche markets such as college textbooks (removing the paper waste associated with multiple editions with minimal changes) and medical texts, among others.
What we can know is that the traditional publishing industry hasn’t exactly been environmentally conscious, and only in recent years have major publishing houses made much of any push to increase their use of recycled paper. Even among those publishers who have made such commitments, we’re still talking about 25 – 30% recycled paper usage at best. Estimates vary, but even towards the conservative side, the book publishing industry alone is responsible for the harvest of 30 million trees annually (and this grows explosively once the newspaper and magazine publishers are added).
More hard evidence is needed, for the manufacturers of e-readers aren’t exactly forthcoming on all the component materials that go into the construction of their devices and the environmental impact of those materials. Debates continue; a good beginning place for further investigation is present at Eco-Libris (an organization with its own vested interests we must note) that offers links to a number of related articles about environmental sustainability and carbon footprints in traditional and in electronic publishing. As an aside, I will point out that Eco-Libris may be an organization lovers of physical books want to support, for their mission is to provide readers with easy means to plant trees to offset the physical books they own.
Like most issues, this one gets really complicated, and almost no scenarios for the future seem to bode well for local, independent booksellers or community libraries, to say nothing of emphasizing the quality of book content or the development of a serious literature. At the very least, it is my hope that consumers will become educated such that one of the leading questions they ask as they contemplate the purchase of a product or their participation in an industry is focused on the environmental impact of that decision. If the demographics among frequent book purchasers hold up and we are looking at consumers who tend to be highly educated, frequently urban, and typically upwardly mobile, the trickle-down effect of becoming environmentally educated consumers becomes even more critical. In a consumer culture, like it or not, where we spend our dollars matters a great deal. Our culture needs books. We need good books. And we need intelligent, curious readers. The medium by which we get those good books may mean a great deal to our collective future as well.
(This post also appears on last Wednesday's blog over at Earthstorys.org.)