Sustainability – a challenge for all.

At the 2022 London Book Fair there were four separate sessions devoted to sustainability in the industry, making it one of LBF’s most debated topics. At the start of the second panel discussion, Stephen Lotinga, CEO of the Publishers Association, summed up the common theme that bound them all: “We want our industry to be around for as long as possible,” he said. “This is clearly the challenge of our time.” The question is, how do we all rise to meet it?

Open book with a tree growing from its pages

The answer, as those LBF panels attested, is complex, and comprises a huge range of potential initiatives and strategies. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on, however, is the importance of taking action now. As EJ Hurst and Julie Raddysh from New Society Publishers said in a recent interview, “It is imperative. Business will only thrive on a stable, healthy planet”.

Where once sustainability might have been primarily a moral or ethical consideration, or something multinationals might add to their Corporate Social Responsibility statements, it is now a commercial imperative too: consumers are demanding ‘greener’ products, just as much as environmental groups are urging root-and-branch changes to the way products are made and distributed. This means sustainability is no longer something to be deferred: everyone, from boutique house to corporate monolith, is implicated and impacted.

In software company knk’s Publishing and Sustainability 2022 whitepaper, two key areas of concern were identified: one, the polluting nature of physical book fulfilment; and two, the problem of power consumption from data centres. While the latter can be mitigated by using providers who provide more renewable energy and better systems, industry responses to how best to print, store and ship books will come to define how sustainable the publishing world really can be.

There are many disparate factors that need to be addressed here – from paper stock to print on demand; from where books are printed to more effective warehousing and distribution channels – but for many, the decisions taken on a daily basis are the ones which will ultimately shape the future. One of the most important of these is pre- and post-publication reading copies.

Exact figures are hard to come by, but, were publishers in the UK and US to produce the same number of physical ARCs as they made digital copies available on NetGalley, this would equate to around 3 million books*, the vast majority of which are packaged and mailed to individuals around the world. Notwithstanding the huge cost of printing, then sending these books, the ‘book miles’—the environmental impact of their shipping—accrued by this strategy are staggering. Reducing the number of ARCs produced and sent is a quick and easy way to increase sustainability—but at the same time, it requires a mindset shift from all stakeholders in the process. Publishers must reiterate to influencers that physical ARCs are not the norm, while authors will have to understand why only a small number of ARCs are being printed. Influencers might need to accept that they need to read at least some of a book digitally before requesting a physical ARC, while publicists might have to change the decades old practice of stuffing envelopes with books and press releases. It is a small part of the puzzle, but one that will reap huge benefits if taken seriously by all players.

*Total number of digital review copies approved on and from March 2020 to February 2021

A former bookseller, editor and marketer, Stuart Evers is Director of NetGalley UK. He is also an award-winning writer of short fiction and novels. 


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