Online retailers devalue printed books with aggressive pricing.

Text piracy threatens publisher profits.
Publishing is dying.

THE HEADLINES SCREAM apocalypse, but the truth is that wasteful practices have been devaluing book publishing for decades. For savvy publishers, the digital- revolution delivering Kindles, iPads, Kobos and other new gadgets is actually leading to a more sustainable future – economically and ecologically.

Books today travel a long way. Many begin life in China, are shipped across oceans to warehouses, are loaded onto trucks and then delivered to stores. Retailers return those that they don’t sell to the publisher (for a full refund) to be slowly resold or, as a last resort, to be pulped. On average, returns constitute 30 to 40 per cent of the print run. It’s even worse for a bestseller that bombs, which can result in 80 per cent of the print run being returned unsold. Thanks to new technologies, though, this picture is quickly changing, and both publishers and bookstores stand to benefit.

The e-book is the biggest new factor. Last December, US chain Barnes and Noble reported that its online e-book sales outstripped sales of hard-copy books for the first time. Critics rightly point out that e-readers, which contain heavy metals and consume multiple resources during production, are a long way from sustainable. The devices are also shipped around the world. However, proponents say the carbon footprint can be offset if enough e-books are purchased instead of physical books. (Market research firm Cleantech Group says a Kindle has a carbon footprint equivalent to that of 22½ books, but that figure is difficult to verify as Amazon declined to provide information about its manufacturing process.) Still, as electronics manufacturing improves, life-cycle impacts will likely improve too.

There is room to lighten paper’s footprint as well. With print-on-demand (POD) technology, a book is made only after it is sold. That means less or no physical stock-on-hand, lower warehouse costs and fewer returns. One device, the Espresso Book Machine, can print, cut and bind a book in less than five minutes at about a penny a page. While that is considerably more expensive than large-run printing, these units are turning- up at university bookstores and we will eventually- see a POD-only bookstore.

Industry insiders expect paperbacks to be the first to disappear from physical existence since they tend to be mass-marketed to people more interested in reading than in physical books. The average mystery and romance reader consumes two or more books a week. For these readers, access and price – fields in which e-books shine – are hefty considerations. Indeed, the romance community has formed one of the first digital publishing imprints, Carina Press.

The last bastion of tradition is the book-as-objects aficionados. Like vinyl LPs, certain books will always be collectors’ items. Faced with the thrifty allure of e-books, though, publishers will have to create more beautiful hard-copy editions to justify the purchase of an object. Environmentally friendly paper and ink, and local production will matter.

The Internet, meanwhile, helps level the field for authors and independent publishers everywhere, enabling them to reach an international readership. There will still be blockbuster books, but there will also be a more equitable distribution of sales among other titles. Using social media, authors can build and maintain a global audience.

While digital delivery transformed music and news consumption, it won’t change how we read books. When music went digital, you no longer had to buy an entire album for one song. The Internet delivered news as it happened, not only at 6 and 11 o’clock. But reading a digital book is no faster than reading a physical one; chapters, unlike songs, don’t often stand alone; and immediacy isn’t much of an issue for books, especially fiction.

The change has been societal. Early e-book readers like the Apple Newton – introduced in 1993 and dumped by 1998 – failed because we had not yet become addicted to having content at our fingertips. With the advent of smartphones, our new buying habits have conditioned us to live digitally. We expect the content we want, when we want it.

Publishers will respond. Exciting authors will be easier to discover. Digital titles will find physical form at the corner POD kiosk. And since book lovers will still want nice objects, there will be a new age of book craftsmanship. Paper waste and print runs are dying, but long live the book!

Find out if there’s an Espresso Book Machine near you by clicking on “locations” at ondemandbooks.com

By day, Nic Boshart is the digital services manager at the Association of Canadian Publishers. By night, he is coordinating editor at Invisible Publishing. A busy guy, he swears he will email you back soon.

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