Bookseller – Commentary – Planet Outruns Profit

A recent topic on Twitter asked what could be done to change posting. I read the responses, and he mentioned many great ideas including restructuring, advances and better pay. But I haven’t seen anyone mention sustainability or the environmental impact of our industry on the natural world. So, I added my answer that says “Stop overprinting books just for profit”. This kind of statement always raises eyebrows and questions, mainly: Why are we still doing this in the 21st century?

We know that the industry is basically a lottery where publishers risk titles. Sometimes it pays off, but often it doesn’t, and you are left with thousands of unsold books that have been destroyed, many of which have been printed abroad. You have to think why be Publishers above print books? the answer? profit margins. The truth is that it is much cheaper to print a large running job compared to a smaller one. Once the presses are set up for an individual address, they can run for hours at low cost, while keeping the unit price low. Because of the setup cost – each book requires different paper, weight, packaging and lamination – if they print thousands, the unit price is much lower than if they print say 100.

A few years ago, I founded SRL Publishing, a small independent publisher in the UK. Sustainability runs through our core and dictates how we operate. As my tweet mentioned, over 77 million unsold books are destroyed every year in the UK alone (imagine what that number is for the US). This statistic is a decade old, but the industry structure 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 are returned each year, with 16 million books returned from abroad. Nielsen BookScan also reported at the time that of the 86,000 books published, no more than 20 copies of about 60,000 books had been sold. Many of these were printing a large number of copies awaiting sales, yet most copies would not even see a bookshelf before they were destroyed. According to the latest data, there are approximately 180,000 books published annually in the UK.

At SRL we are committed to printing only what we sell. While this means much less profits for us, it also means that we are doing something for the environment. The chances of stocking our books at national retailers like 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 Gibbon loses his home (a tree) to deforestation has us thinking about the direct impact of industry on our natural world. Trees are vital to our collective survival because they regulate Earth’s temperature, improve air quality, store carbon and provide us with shade, oxygen, food and animal homes. We partnered with the Rainforest Trust in 2019, saving 500,000 to 750,000 trees in Peru from deforestation. In 2020, thinking about what we can do, and how our industry needs trees for its products, we started planting trees and calculating our carbon emissions. In June 2020, we officially went climate positive.

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There are two main things we do as a company. First, we calculate and offset our emissions by funding highly verified projects. All projects support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals so we can keep track of how many goals we have supported. After two years of continuous research, we believe we are the only publisher doing this, and the only publisher currently offsetting more emissions than we emit. Second, we count the number of trees used in our products. Of course, it’s never 100% accurate because each tree has a different size, but we average out so we can rest assured we’ll always plant more than we use. Once again, we are the only publisher that currently counts the number of trees it uses and ensures that more are planted to replace it. There may be a publisher who hasn’t publicly stated that they’re doing the same thing, so if one of them comes forward, we’re happy to back off. As of last month, we planted 14 trees for every tree used.

We are members of the United Nations Publishers Charter, a signatory to publishing advertisements, and part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation community. Last year we were invited to join the Publishers Association’s Sustainability Task Force, which is developing industry-standard tools for the continued evolution of our industry and to advance our contribution toward a low-carbon future. We have won a number of awards for our environmental ethics, including Sustainable Business of the Year, and Regional Small Press of the Year at this year’s British Book Awards. Personally, I was recently recognized by BusinessGreen as one of the top ESG leaders in the UK.

This all sounds great and shows our passion for an eco-friendly industry, but imagine if more publishers would operate more sustainably. Yes, the change to green energy is great. Using less refills is great, too. Using a Forest Stewardship Council paper is great. But the main issue in our industry is the fact that we (as a group) cut down millions upon millions of trees annually for absolutely nothing, and yet no one seems to be talking about it. Those 77 million books you mentioned a year? If we say it was an average of 350 pages each – that’s more than 1.6 million trees every year. One person cannot change the world, but it is hoped that it can influence and inspire others to change.

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