I have been invited to so many conferences on "The Death of the Book" that I suspect it is very much alive.
- Robert Darnton, Harvard librarian
How can I claim here at "Books in Northport" to provide news from the world of books if I say nothing of this week’s announcement from Google that their e-books are going to be available in (some) independent bookstores? It’s big news! It’s the Clash of the Titans! (Or, as one of my husband’s art students said, memorably, years ago in class, “the clash of the Titians.”) After all, this news could change the whole book world, from publishing to reading.
I am not a Luddite (she said, somewhat defensively), and I do not oppose all change simply because it is change. There are lots of changes I would like to see, e.g., drivers in Leelanau County suddenly deciding to use their turn signals at each and every appropriate opportunity. (Get a clue, folks! Signaling turns is not just a concept!) But I have serious questions about e-books and e-readers, beyond the accessibility of texts. Since environmental impact is a big question for me, I set out to look for some answers about how e-books and printed books compare in this regard and found a complex landscape to be surveyed.
This first site I looked at gives statistics for energy used in producing and transporting books vs. energy used reading an e-book, but I could not tell whether the energy to produce the e-reader was included, and I noted that this blog includes links to the online giant selling the e-reader the blogger uses. Conflict of interest? I also noted that the comparison was made strictly with new books--used books are not discussed--and that the blogger opens by talking about how bookstores have to over-order (hardly the case at Dog Ears!) and return books which may be pulped. Comparison of waste and recycling issues were not, however, gone into in depth.
The next online article I read might well be suspected to contain conflict of interest, since it appears under the aegis of the Independent Book Publishers Association, a group with a vested interest in continuing to sell books. To my surprise and delight, the beginning of the article promised a life cycle analysis (LCA) to make energy comparisons between the two kinds of reading packages. Unfortunately, the writer couldn’t come up with a lot of hard numbers because manufacturers of e-readers, with the exception of Apple, refused to provide information. I’m not going to try to summarize this article but would love to have other people read it and give me some feedback. What do you think?
Steven Levingston, in an article in the Washington Post, also writes of the difficulty of making the comparison but in the end relies on an analysis made by Daniel Goleman, who measured units like gallons of water used, kilowatts of energy required and adverse health effects. (This is not an all-inclusive list.)
Goleman’s rule of thumb: You must read 100 books on your e-reader for the environmental costs to break even. If an e-reader is upgraded before those 100 books are read, the environmental impacts will multiply.
You can read Daniel Goleman’s entire article here. His LCA includes materials used, energy required in manufacturing, transportation and reading, and disposal issues.
Finally, I skimmed quickly through an article claiming that printed books are faster to read than e-books. Comments left on the site by other readers criticized the original question, as well as sample size, and I realized I didn’t care much about which way of reading was faster. I’m a slow reader myself, and I appreciate slow books. How long did it take an author to write a book? Isn’t it worth more than four hours to read it?
Full disclosure: I am a bookseller as well as a reader, and while last year (2009) I read 102 books, the vast majority of them were used. We brought ten cartons of used books home from our winter in the South, books destined for resale at Dog Ears Books, but many others I read in Florida came from the library. I did buy one new book as a gift for a friend, and if I were in a higher income bracket, I would undoubtedly buy more new books, but it only makes sense to buy new selectively when there are so many used books available in readable or better condition. How does reading like mine affect the LCA of printed books?
David, when I was telling him what I was writing in this post, explicitly brought up the question of how many people will read any given printed book—not a book of the same title, but one physical book--in that book’s lifetime, and it occurs to me now that a more apt comparison would not hold books and e-books up side by side but would focus on readings. Each e-book reading will be singular, while the multiplying effect of printed books will reduce their energy requirements for each successive reading. Or—have all the costs been figured into the first reading, making subsequent readings zero impact? This question needs to be answered before any serious discussion of comparative environmental costs can get underway.
There are a couple of other issues having to do with how costs of printed books can be cut in future:
(1) Materials: Several comparisons between e-books and print books remarked on how using “fewer” trees from “sustainably managed forests” (i.e., industrial woodlots) will reduce the environmental impact of printed books. That’s true enough as far as it goes, but here’s a reminder from the Cradle to Cradle folks (see my Dec. 8 post): Books don’t have to be printed on chemically bleached paper! CtC was printed on a high-grade, recyclable kind of “plastic,” not the kind that can only be downcycled—once--into ugly and not very durable lawn furniture but a kind that can be used as “paper” over and over and over again.
(2) Publishing, distribution and sales: I am an advocate for the abolition of returns. If booksellers, either online or in a bricks-and-mortar store (as they’re called), could no longer return books, they would be much more careful and conservative in their ordering. A no-returns policy would result in more careful and conservative print runs, which in turn would be better for publishers and distributors, who would be able to count on books sold as books sold. It would also help small booksellers by leveling the playing field. As the business works now, giant retailers can order huge numbers of books for deeper discounts than small retailers get, but if those books don’t sell, they can be returned to the distributor, in turn sent back to the publisher, remaindered or pulped, generating a lot of unnecessary transportation, accounting headaches, business uncertainty and disposal worries.
Imagine what these two differences alone could mean for the future of printed books!
Here’s my bottom line: There’s no way to avoid using energy either to print books or manufacture e-readers, to transport books or to transport e-readers, and disposal issues crop up in both cases, as well, so why would I elect to read in a format that requires additional inputs of energy? Why not just take my book out under a tree or to the beach or read it on the front porch or under the lamp that’s turned on in the winter evening, anyway, so I won’t be tripping over my dog when I get up from my chair to go to bed?
It will be a while before all the dust from the new e-reader revolution settles, and the final settling may not come in my lifetime. Meanwhile, I’m watching the dust storm with interest and sticking with my old-fashioned books. As the Water Rat said of his old riverbank. “It’s my world, and I don’t want any other.”
About that Luddite business? I do have enough Luddite in me to prefer jobs to unemployment and recyclable materials over toxic waste.