Brave New Book World: Digital Printing and Electronic Readers Will Save Published, Not Kill It

By Boshart, Nic | Alternatives Journal, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview

Brave New Book World: Digital Printing and Electronic Readers Will Save Published, Not Kill It


Boshart, Nic, Alternatives Journal


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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 22 1/2 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. …

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