The Bookseller – Comment – Planet over profit

A recent Twitter thread asked what could be done to change publishing. I read the replies, and many mentioned great ideas including restructuring, advances and better pay. But I didn’t see anyone mention the sustainability or environmental impact our industry has on the natural world. So, I added my own answer which said “Stop overprinting books just for profit”. This kind of statement always brings about surprise and questions, mainly: why do we still do this in the 21st century?

We know the industry is basically a lottery with publishers taking risks on titles. Sometimes it pays off, but often it doesn’t and they are left with thousands of unsold books which are destroyed, many having been printed abroad. You have to think, why field publishers overprinting books? The answer? Profit margins. The truth is it is a lot cheaper to print a large job run compared to a smaller run. Once presses are set up for an individual title they can run for hours at a low cost, keeping the unit price low. Because of the set-up cost—each book requires different paper, weight, binding, lamination—if they print thousands, the unit price is much lower than if they print, say, 100.

A few years ago, I set up SRL Publishing, a small UK-based indie publisher. Sustainability runs through our core and dictates how we operate. As my tweet said, more than 77 million unsold books are destroyed each year in the UK alone (imagine what this figure is for the US). This statistic is a decade old, but the industry structure has not changed much since then, so the number could now be much higher. Around the same time, the Publishers Association said that 61 million unsold books are returned each year, with 16 million being returned from overseas. Nielsen BookScan also reported at the time that, of 86,000 books published, around 60,000 sold no more than 20 copies. Many of these would have had big print runs in anticipation of sales, yet most copies would not even see a bookshelf before being destroyed. According to the latest data, there are approximately 180,000 books published a year in the UK.

At SRL we made a promise to only print what we sell. While this means much lower profits for us, it also means we’re doing something for the environment. The chances of our books being stocked in national retail stores such as Waterstones are slim, but we know the way we operate is the right thing to do.

For us, it started with a book about deforestation. A children’s picture book where a gibbon loses his home (a tree) to deforestation made us think about the direct impact the industry has on our natural world. Trees are vital for our collective survival as they regulate the Earth’s temperature, improve air quality, store carbon and give us shade, oxygen, food and homes for animals. We partnered with The Rainforest Trust in 2019, and were able to save 500,000–750,000 trees in Peru from deforestation. In 2020, thinking about what else we could do, and how our industry needs trees for its products, we started planting trees and calculating our carbon emissions. In June 2020 we officially became climate positive.

Taking action

There are two main things we do as a company. Firstly, we calculate our emissions and offset them by funding highly verified projects. All the projects support the UN Sustainable Development Goals so we can track how many goals we’ve supported. After two years of constant research, we believe we are the only publisher that does this, and the only publisher currently offsetting more emissions than it emits. Secondly, we calculate the number of trees used for our products. Of course, it is never 100% accurate as every tree is a different size, but we calculate an average so we can rest assured we will always plant more than we use. Again, we are the only publisher who currently calculates the number of trees it uses and ensures it plants more to replace them. There could well be a publisher who hasn’t publicly stated they do the same, so if one comes forward we are happy to retract. As of last month, we had planted 14 trees for every single tree used.

We are members of the United Nations Publishers Compact, a signatory of Publishing Declarations, and part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Community. Last year we were invited to join the Publishers Association Sustainability Taskforce, working to develop industry standard tools for the continuing evolution of our industry and to further our contribution towards a low-carbon future. We have won a number of awards for our environmental ethos, including Sustainable Business of the Year, and regional Small Press of the Year at this year’s British Book Awards. Personally, I was recently featured by BusinessGreen as one of the UK’s top environmental, social and governance pioneers.

All of this looks great and shows our passion for an environmentally friendly industry, but imagine if more publishers were to operate more sustainably. Yes, changing to green energy is great. Using less packaging is also great. Using Forest Stewardship Council paper is great. But the main issue in our industry is the fact that we (as a collective) cut down millions and millions of trees per year for absolutely nothing, yet no one seems to be talking about it. Did I mention 77 million books a year? If we said they were an average of 350 pages each—that’s more than 1.6 million trees every year. One person cannot change the world, but they can hopefully influence and inspire others to change.