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Thursday, December 9, 2010

I Am Not a Luddite

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.


Gerry said...

I figured, when I saw McLean & Eakin's Google e-Books release, that you'd have some interesting thoughts on the subject. I'm ambivalent. I like to hold books. I like to wander around in bookstores to find books. (Someday somebody is going to devise a Wandering Around App for the iPad.) I like to photocopy bits from books for research projects. I like bookstores and libraries. But I like stories, too, and I suspect that very soon now they will be accessible mainly on gadgets fated to become toxic waste.

P. J. Grath said...

We are story-telling animals, that's for sure. As for what the future of our story-telling will be, that's hard to say at this juncture. You notice I haven't taken a stand against blogging--but I don't "mobile" blog, either. When I go for a walk, I go for a walk.

Mike Shatzkin said...

I'm afraid it's a weak rationalization. I read ebooks on devices I already have for another purpose: in my case primarily an iPhone but also, sometimes, on an iPad. It isn't necessary to use a dedicated device to deliver the consumer benefits -- and environmental benefits -- of ebooks.

Mike Shatzkin

P. J. Grath said...

There are many issues involved in this debate, and I realize I have only touched superficially on one of them, but I do take it seriously. I have a laptop but no other fancy electronics. My former laptop lasted four years. Multiply number of devices, divide by working life--well, the jury's still out on this, I believe, as well as other aspects of reading on screens. Here's an interesting look at what the experts say and how people comment on what the experts say when it comes to books and brains:

Thanks for your comment, Mike.

Greg said...

I have one issue with the lack of returns that you suggest: risk. As a smaller bookstore it is hard to take the appropriate risk on titles that are of interest, on sale, or a new release.

This risk helps the publisher because a full display that is promoted is much more likely to sell that the 1 or 2 books that would be order so a bookseller is not stuck with books that didn't sell...

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Greg. Thanks for stopping by Books in Northport.

I am sympathetic to the issue you bring up, but in my considered opinion the risk is far greater to the publisher with a returns policy. I am a very small bookseller, carrying only a very select offering of new books, but when I find a book I believe in and want to promote, I go all out for it. This means blogging, reviewing and handselling, not just piling up a mountain by the door. It's true, I may only order two copies at a time until the demand is such that I can order half a dozen or a dozen at once, but I DO NOT RETURN BOOKS, unless they are damaged or unless a customer requested something and what we got didn't fit the bill.

Huge stores, on the other hand, can and do put in huge orders--and then, often, they return books to the distributor, who returns them to the publisher, who ends up never getting paid for books printed and "sold" and shipped out. No, I think it's a very wasteful system and encourages waste.

As for your concern, I have many writer friends, and I do want to see good books find an audience. That's part of my life's work. I would simply like to see publishing and bookselling be sustainable activities, not wasteful, risky and dependent on outdated systems and methods.

P. J. Grath said...

I've had another thought in response to Greg's concern. It seems to me that the huge mountains of a single title you sometimes see in new bookstores are usually books by already best-selling authors published by big publishing houses. These books usually have a lot of advance attention, and the demand for them precedes their availability. Big risk to the publisher? Well, sometimes they overprint and have to remainder and/or pulp, but wouldn't it be better if they started with a smaller first printing?

Darcy said...

Hi there! I read this post from a link posted on my bookstore's intranet, and a few days before I read it, I had just posted something on my blog called "I am not a sellout!" in defense of getting a Kindle!!!
It was written independently of reading your post, so nothing in it refers to you, but I thought it was funny to see a link to your article so soon after I wrote mine! Check it out if you are interested!

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Darcy. I am interested in what you have to say but am not having much success getting to it this morning from my slow dialup connection. Will try again tomorrow when I can get to a high speed connection.