The bookseller – Commentary – The planet before profit


A recent Twitter thread asked what could be done to change the edit. I read the responses, and many mentioned good ideas, including restructuring, advances, and better salaries. But I haven’t seen anyone mention sustainability or the environmental impact of our industry on the natural world. So I added my own answer which said “Stop overprinting books just for profit”. This kind of talk always arouses astonishment and questions, mainly: why do we still do this in the 21st century?

We know the industry is essentially a lottery where publishers take risks on titles. Sometimes it pays off, but often it doesn’t and they end up with thousands of unsold books being destroyed, many of them printed overseas. You must be thinking, why are publishers overprinting books? The answer? Profit margins. The truth is that it is much cheaper to print a large run compared to a smaller run. Once the presses are configured for an individual title, they can run for hours at low cost, keeping the unit price low. Because of the cost of setup – each book requires a different paper, weight, binding, lamination – if they print thousands, the price per unit is much lower than if they print, say, 100.

A few years ago I set up SRL Publishing, a small independent publisher based in the UK. Sustainability runs through our hearts and dictates how we operate. As my tweet said, over 77 million unsold books are destroyed each year in the UK alone (imagine what that figure is for the US). This statistic is ten years old, but the structure of the industry hasn’t changed much since then, so the number could now be much higher. Around the same time, the Publishers Association said 61 million unsold books were returned each year, 16 million of them from abroad. Nielsen BookScan also reported at the time that, of 86,000 books published, about 60,000 did not sell more than 20 copies. Many of these would have had large print runs in anticipation of sales, but most copies would not even see a shelf before being destroyed. According to the latest data, around 180,000 books are published each year in the UK.

At SRL we have promised to only print what we sell. Although this means much lower profits for us, it also means that we are 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 on deforestation. A children’s picture book where a gibbon loses its home (a tree) to deforestation got us thinking about the direct impact industry has on our natural world. Trees are vital to our collective survival as they regulate the Earth’s temperature, improve air quality, store carbon and give us shade, oxygen, food and shelter for animals. . We partnered with The Rainforest Trust in 2019 and were able to save 500,000 to 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.

To take part

There are two main things we do as a company. First, we calculate our emissions and offset them by financing highly verified projects. All projects support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals so we can track how many goals we have supported. After two years of constant research, we believe we are the only publisher to do this, and the only publisher to currently offset more shows than it puts out. Second, we calculate the number of trees used for our products. Of course, this is never 100% accurate as each tree is a different size, but we calculate an average so we can be sure that we will always plant more than we use. Again, we are the only publisher that currently calculates how many trees it uses and ensures that it plants more to replace them. There just might be an editor who hasn’t publicly stated they’re doing the same, so if one does show up, we’re happy to retract. Last month, we planted 14 trees for every tree used.>

We are a member of the United Nations Publishers Compact, a signatory to Publishing Declares and part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation community. Last year, we were invited to join the Publishers Association’s Sustainability Task Force, working to develop industry-standard tools for the continued evolution of our industry and to continue our contribution to a sustainable future. low carbon. We have won numerous awards for our environmental ethics, including Sustainable Business of the Year and Small Regional 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.

This all looks great and shows our passion for an environmentally friendly industry, but imagine if more publishers were to operate in a more sustainable way. Yes, switching to green energy is good. Using less packaging is also great. The use of Forest Stewardship Council paper is excellent. But the biggest problem in our industry is the fact that we (as a collective) cut down millions and millions of trees a year for absolutely nothing, and yet no one seems to be talking about it. That £77 million a year I mentioned? If we said they averaged 350 pages each, that’s over 1.6 million trees each year. One person cannot change the world, but they can hopefully influence and inspire others to change.


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