What Is The Environmental Impact of Book Publishing? - Publish Your Purpose

What Is The Environmental Impact of Book Publishing?

Brown tree stumps on green grass. Learn the environmental impact of book publishing with Publish Your Purpose. Photo: Artur Łuczka

The US publishing industry sells approximately 900 million books a year. Have you ever wondered what the environmental impact of all that printed paper is? From shiny, glossy color-printed children’s books to hardcovers that never get sold, the environmental impact of book publishing is significant. Here’s what you need to know and some ways that publishers are reducing their impact—and if you’re an author, your publishing choices and demands matter.

The Environmental Impact of Book Publishing

According to Green Matters, the US publishing industry emits over 40 million tons of carbon dioxide and cuts down 32 million trees a year to turn into books. And that’s just the United States. The Independent estimates that 8.5 billion books are sold each year in the world (with 4.7 billion coming from Western countries). 

When it takes one entire tree to print only 25 books, statisticians estimate that over the next decade, 3.4 billion trees will be cut down to meet the demand for book printing

These estimates don’t even include the books that are printed but never sold! And what about books that are thrown out? With 640,000 tons of books being thrown away each year, which comes out to around 320 million books, it’s clear we have a printing waste issue.

When we cut down trees, we disrupt entire ecosystems. Trees provide food and shelter to all kinds of living things. But even beyond this, every tree that is cut down releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere because it disrupts the tree’s natural carbon capture.

How To Improve The Environmental Impact of Book Publishing

Environmentalists have lots of ideas when it comes to ways to mitigate this excessive waste in the book publishing industry. 

Use 100% Post-Consumer Recycled Paper

The #1 best way for publishers to reduce their carbon footprint, according to Greenpeace, is to replace virgin fiber with 100% post-consumer recycled paper. 

The Green Press Initiative (GPI) is a nonprofit program that focuses on preserving forests by helping US book publishers maximize their use of post-consumer recycled paper. The impact of this can be seen in the printing of the New York Times bestseller Stillness Speaks by Eckhart Tolle. By using recycled paper for 200,000 copies, Tolle was able to save around 1,300 full-grown trees. Using recycled paper also reduced the amount of paper in landfills.

Dear Environmentally Aware Author: Consider asking your publisher to print your books on post-consumer recycled paper. 

If you’re publishing with a traditional publisher, you won’t be able to influence the number of books that are printed of your new book. But pressuring the publisher to use 100% post-consumer recycled paper can make a big difference.

Print On Demand

One benefit of publishing your book with a hybrid publisher is that because they are a smaller publisher, with a unique publishing model, it can be easier to change some of the hardline policies of traditional publishers that contribute negatively to the environment. 

As a hybrid publisher ourselves, we are committed to a print-on-demand printing policy. 

This means that we only ever print books that are guaranteed to be sold—reducing the likelihood of excess, unsold books being thrown out significantly. 

When we publish a new book, we usually start with a limited print run of between 500 and 1,000 books. Then, we print books on a purchase-by-purchase basis. If we can reduce the number of pages that are printed unnecessarily, we can prevent a lot of the waste that is fueling this environmental crisis in the publishing industry.

Dear Environmentally Aware Author: Make sure that print-on-demand is included in your contract when you are vetting a potential publisher. Check out our 9 Questions to Ask a Publisher with more publisher vetting recommendations.

Read E-Books

There’s nothing better than holding a new book in your hands, turning that first crisp page, and diving into the world the author has created. And if you’re anything like us, you prefer to hold a physical book in your hands than to scroll through the pages symbolically on a screen tablet. But could reading on an e-reader save trees?

Well, it depends. To make an e-reader, no paper is used, but plastics derived from petrochemicals and minerals and metals are, some of which are toxic to the earth and people. The process also produces 66 pounds of carbon dioxide and an estimated 299 liters of water.

The total carbon footprint of an e-reader is 370 pounds. When a printed book’s carbon footprint is around 16.5 pounds, that means that you would need to read 22-23 books on an e-reader to offset the environmental impact of a printed book. 

All this to say that you can reduce your carbon footprint by reading over 23 books, ever. This offset “clock” resets when you purchase a new e-reading device, so limit yourself to one if you can. And don’t buy an e-reader, and never use it. 

Dear Environmentally Aware Author: Whether you’re self-publishing or working with a hybrid publisher, make sure you factor in time and resources to convert your manuscript into e-reader format (ePUB). Check out our Book Cost Blueprint, which can help answer questions about the different cost requirements of different book formats

Work With a Local Printer

Our publishing house works with local printers to prevent unnecessary carbon emissions caused by shipping. For example, if an author is interested in selling copies of their books at conferences or client events, we can find and partner with a printer in their area to have the copies available for pickup by the author. 

Dear Environmentally Aware Author: See if your preferred publisher has a local printing option. 

Your Publishing House Matters

If you’re an author trying to decide which publisher to go with, do your research into the publisher’s printing policies and ask questions about their environmental stewardship.

Are you an environmentally aware author looking for a print-on-demand publisher? Apply to publish with us!

As a small hybrid publisher, we make it a priority to print only the amount of books that will be used. We’re also a Certified B Corporation, which means we must meet high standards of transparency, social and environmental performance, and accountability as determined by the nonprofit B Lab. The certification process is rigorous and ongoing (with a recertification requirement every three years). 

Yet, we recognize that there is still a gap between our reality and our environmental goals. (We were even hesitant to even write this blog post!) Ultimately, we decided that knowledge is power. While our imperfection runs deep we also know we have lots of room to grow and create a better future—and we want to do that with you. By sharing where we are on this journey to make our printing practices more sustainable, we hope to motivate ourselves, authors, readers, and other publishers to continue to do better.

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