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August 17, 2016
By Brooke Warner
The publishing industry's stigmatization of POD is hurting the environment and smaller presses' bottom lines.

As the founder of a hybrid press, I'm concerned with the publishing industry's role in deforestation and climate change. So I was pleased when Brazil sent a strong environmental message during the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony. That its heavy-handed global warming themes were seen as controversial by most U.S. media outlets shows that climate change is a contentious topic -- or one people prefer to ignore. And this, of course, extends to the publishing industry, which rarely acknowledges books’ impact on global warming.

Despite the digital revolution, paper is king. Our industry requires paper to survive, and deforestation is one of the major contributors to global warming. Online searches about book publishing and climate change mostly lead you to Amazon to purchase books on the topic. But persist and you will find that there are people talking about this subject, although the noise is not reverberating loudly enough. When I gave a keynote earlier this year to the Publishing Professionals Network, I mentioned that we should be disturbed that we work in an industry that consumes so much paper. Lots of people in the audience were nodding their heads, but several people came up to me or emailed me afterward and said they’d never considered the ways in which book publishing might be contributing to global warming.

The homepage for the Green Press Initiative lists some startling facts:

  • Each year more than 20 million trees are consumed for production of book papers and about 95 million trees are consumed for newsprint;
  • Deforestation is the source of 25% of human caused greenhouse gas emissions;
  • The pulp and paper industry is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases among U.S. manufacturing industries.

"The publishing industry rarely acknowledges books’ impact on global warming."
As a new publisher starting a press in 2012, I came to the table with progressive values. I’m from Berkeley, after all, and my publishing company has a nontraditional business model. We called ourselves a hybrid, so already there were echoes of sustainable thinking, given the automobile industry’s line of more environmentally friendly cars of the same name.

I assumed I would be able to print what customers demanded. This is the point of print-on-demand (POD), although the technology was created in response to people’s economic rather than climate concerns. Nevertheless, we have this technology, and while it’s hardly a complete solution to deforestation caused by our industry, it can at least play a role in cutting back the vast number of books that have to be pulped each year. Yet, a number of problems stand in the way of POD being adopted as an industry standard.

First, POD is looked down upon by the industry. Bookstore buyers, reviewers, and other industry folks consider POD to be a euphemism for “self-published,” even though all publishers use the technology and flip their backlist books to POD at some point in a book’s lifecycle -- typically sooner rather than later. Because of this stigma however, publishers looking to make an impact within the industry will be steered toward offset printing.

Second, POD costs are going up. Just two years ago I could print 500 units via POD at a lower per-unit cost than the offset printer could offer me -- but not anymore.

Third, POD printing technology is inconsistent. Mostly it looks amazing, and on par with its offset counterparts. But even the handful of books in the marketplace not measuring up has been disconcerting to our authors. And so we’ve largely stopped doing first print runs POD, though all backlist books eventually become POD titles. 

As a publisher who wanted to be POD-centric, I’ve been pushed by industry pressures, economics, and my authors to opt for offset printing 95% of the time. We typically have one or two authors per season who print POD. And while Ingram has the technology, systems, savvy, and capacity to get a POD book into the marketplace in record time, that’s not enough for bookstores. When a bookstore sees a book with low inventory, or if the book they want is not in a local warehouse, they simply won’t order. This is the primary reason self-published books are not ordered by bookstores. Small publishers like us, however, are forced to print more units of a title than we know we will probably sell in order to have it readily available in warehouses across the country to meet the needs of a handful of bookstores that are hosting events for our authors. This needs to change, and it starts with the destigmatization of POD.

Amazon has long been seen as a threat by bookstores, but Amazon doesn’t discriminate based on POD. Order a POD book on Amazon today and you can get it two days later. This means that they get the order, produce the book themselves (via CreateSpace) or order it from a third party (like IngramSpark or Edwards Brothers or another POD printer), and ship it to you that quickly. The power of POD.

As an industry, we need to be addressing these issues collectively, and my sense is that indie authors and new publishers will lead the way, not only because we’re penny pinching in a way big publishers don’t have to be, but because we’re invested in overhauling an industry in dire need of change. Our future quite literally depends on it.

Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of Green-light Your Book and What’s Your Book? This is the sixth installment to a new monthly column she is writing.