A leaner book publishing sector would be a greener one

The weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner

Decades ago George Orwell, he of Animal Farm fame, bemoaned the state of British book publishing. He said something along the lines that there were far too many books published and that only one in ten were any good. If he were around today he might want to consider upping that ratio to one in one hundred. There has never been such a volume of books published, but so many are trashed that the whole business model is surely something that should be reviewed in the interests of the planet.

The argument goes that we need all these books in the interest of the market and of readers. But consider that according to the Publishers’ Association ten years ago 61 million books were returned annually in the UK and that of 86,000 books published back then, 60,000 sold no more than 20 copies. And that was a decade ago. Modern technology has made it ever easier to take a risk on dodgy titles and to self-publish, giving DIT vanity publishing a massive boost. Latest data suggests that some 180,000 books are published in the UK alone every year.

Printed books are readily recyclable, they last for a very long time and once printed they have zero carbon footprints. They are also desirable objects so people keep them rather than junking them. These arguments favour publishing’s current model. But does the argument for diversity in topics and supplying the market with sufficient volume, really stand up in an environmental context? Is the current model whereby blockbuster titles support more niche and specialist titles sustainable?

Within the printing industry it’s a no brainer that of course those arguments and the current model stand up. We want as many books published as possible because that feeds the whole print production supply chain. Many livelihoods depend on it. Yes, this is a good thing because print is recyclable and people need jobs. But no, it is not a good thing because in anticipation of blockbuster potential too many books languish in remainder bins, so maybe some of them should never have seen the light of day in the first place. Publishing is a massive and profitable business for the big names: in the US book publishing generated $29,3 billion in 2021 according to the Association of American Publishers. Within the US, retail channel trade revenues rose by 40,4% reversing the declines of the previous five years. Bloomsbury has seen a 22% rise in revenues in the last six months.

The best we can hope is that the titles that only sell twenty copies are digitally printed on demand and that all those celebrity bios and cookbooks are truly treasured. But books about railway track gauges or casein volumes in cheese should maybe get reconsidered.

– Laurel Brunner

This article was produced by the Verdigris Project, an industry initiative intended to raise awareness of print’s positive environmental impact. This weekly commentary helps printing companies keep up to date with environmental standards, and how environmentally friendly business management can help improve their bottom lines. Verdigris is supported by the following companies: Agfa GraphicsEFIFespaFujifilmHPKodakMiraclonRicohSplash PRUnity Publishing and Xeikon.