Tuesday 9 May 2023

Stop buying books? — Anne Rooney

How, as authors, can we reconcile a deep and passionate commitment to the environment at the same time as relying for an income on the slaughter of innocent trees and processes of making and moving books that generate carbon dioxide? It's hugely troubling, but the publishing industry is trying to get to grips with the problems. 

There have been a number of initiatives to address the impact on the climate and environment of making and distributing books, most of which have been publisher- and printer-oriented. Authors have been largely left out of the loop. After all, we just produce a digital file, and have little or no say in how it is converted into a book and distributed. But we are ideas people, and we are communicators.

We can already do a little bit. The Society of Authors has just launched the 'Tree To Me' campaign, which encourages authors to talk to their publishers about sustainability. Tree To Me provides ten questions to ask a publisher so that authors know how the impact of their work is being mitigated or minimised. It aims to start a dialogue about sustainability and to nudge publishers towards initiatives such as Publishing Declares. Publishing Declares, set up by the Publishers' Association, asks publishers to sign up to sustainability aims. Authors and illustrators can sign, too. 

Producing paper and pulp generates as much carbon dioxide as the aviation industry (though of course not all that paper and pulp is used for book production), and 95% of a book's environmental impact comes from the paper it is made from. If we're producing paper books there will always be some impact, but it can be reduced. High gloss paper, shiny patches of plastic over parts of the cover, glitter and other eye-catching options all increase the environmental as well as the financial cost of books. They also make the books hard or impossible to recycle at the end of their lives. The colours of illustrations might not be as vibrant with a more sustainable paper, but with good design that can be a feature rather than a drawback. In children's books, it's easy to make these changes because new readers are always coming along, growing into the age range we produce for. A 40-year-old reader remembers the books they bought 15 years ago, with foil on the cover and high gloss paper and might grumble about the change. This year's 7-year-old reader hasn't read any books for 7-year-olds before so they're not going to know. Or at least, there will be a short overlap of people who've got books from an older sibling who might notice but overall the transition can be relatively grumble-free on the consumer's side.

Just as important as the production of books is extending their lifespan through re-use. Authors and illustrators are often paid a royalty on sales, which encourages them as well as publishers to aim for producing and selling lots of books. But re-using books is one of the most environmentally friendly things people can do. If instead of buying a book, readers borrow from a public library, the author/translator and illustrator (in the UK) can receive micro-payments for loans — this year it was about 11p per loan, which is often more than the royalty on a book anyway. If instead of buying a  new book, a reader buys a secondhand book they can make sure the author and illustrator get a royalty for that, too, by buying from World of Books. Each copy WoB sells is recorded and a micropayment made to the author and illustrator through a scheme called AuthorSHARE administered by ALCS (the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society).

Finally, a couple of suggestions. 

1. What if instead of just listing 'bestsellers' measured by sales, there was also a 'bestlenders' list? This would show the genuine popularity of a book, rather than 'popularity with people who can afford a brand new book'. The British Library, which organises the PLR (Public Lending Rights) payments could make a big splash about this and try to get the list published

2. And perhaps new books could be printed with a QR code to scan to make a micropayment  to the original publisher, author and illustrator when someone buys a book secondhand, is given a used book, or borrows a book from a friend? This would be entirely optional for the person who gets the book, but I'm sure many people would happily make a payment — say a default of 30p (10p each to publisher, author, illustrator), so close to a library loan? Perhaps this could be yet another task for ALCS, which already handles micropayments for photocopying and AuthorSHARE?

We need to think and act creatively to find ways of keeping books going without damaging the livelihoods of the people who make them but without them costing the Earth. 

Anne Rooney

Out now:

Baby Owl, Oxford University Press, 2023; illustrated by Qu Lan

1 comment:

Rosemary Hayes said...

Some excellent ideas here, Anne. Thank you for this thoughtful post. Now we need some joined up publicity!