The printed book is facing its share of challenges in the digital age. But one of the big­gest problems facing the future of the book has gone relatively unnoticed by book lovers—the quality of paper being used in many first edition hardcovers is declining, saddling consumers with inferior products and presenting libraries with a looming preservation crisis. "We are at a critical crossroads in publishing," says Melissa Klug, a marketing director at Glatfelter, a Pennsylvania-based permanent paper supplier. "As the attention of the publishing world turns to e-books, a trend toward lesser quality print versions of books could become a landslide."

In fact, that landslide may have begun. Klug notes that over half the books on the current New York Times bestseller list are printed on inferior paper. But Klug and Glatfelter are part of an awareness effort, called Permanence Matters, that seeks to reverse this trend. Launched in 2010, Permanence Matters is bringing together librarians, consumers, and other stakeholders in the book business to call attention to the growing use of inferior paper in books. They've exhibited at BEA, launched a Web site and blog, and have been active in social media, garnering nearly 23,000 "likes" on the Permanence Matters Facebook page. And on May 10 of this year, Glatfelter and the Johns Hopkins University libraries held an all-day symposium that brought together more than 100 librarians and conservationists to discuss professional preservation issues, something they plan to do again in 2012.

Maybe paper quality isn't the sexiest issue facing the publishing world today, with the constant deluge of cool new devices, apps, and services blowing minds, changing reader habits, and disrupting old business models. But as publishers concentrate on the frontier of e-books, Klug says, they mustn't ignore the quality of physical books.

Not Again

So, what's the problem? Over the past decade, Klug explains, there has been a spike in usage by book publishers of what's called "groundwood" paper instead of "freesheet," or "permanent," paper. Groundwood paper is any paper in which the pulp is made by a mechanical grinding process, as opposed to the chemical process used to make higher quality "permanent" paper. In the mechanical grinding process, some nasty components remain in the pulp, such as lignin, for example, the component that causes paper to yellow and grow brittle. The mechanical grinding process also yields shorter fibers, which means the paper tears easily. (Recycled paper, used in some mass market titles, is also weaker, and more easily degraded.) Historically, groundwood paper has been relegated to newspapers and mass market paperbacks—products that consumers don't reasonably expect to last very long. But today, a growing number of publishers are using groundwood paper in their hardcover first editions—and it's beginning to show.

Librarians have seen the effect of past paper crises, such as the "acidic" paper era of the early 20th century, and are not eager to grapple with a new one. "The rise of acidic papers in the history of printing coincided with the rise of graduate education and the rise of the many academic research disciplines that now exist today," says Sonja Jordan-Mowery, a conservation and preservation expert at Johns Hopkins University. "Because of the proliferation of publishing during this period, millions of books are now deteriorating," she says, including many important primary sources from one of history's most intellectually fertile, creative eras. Because the paper of this era was uniformly acidic, Mowery says, buying secondary copies printed on nonacidic paper was not an option. "More books are deteriorating now than can be saved," she adds, "and the more industrialized a nation, the more absolute the demise."

Almost all paper used today is de-acidified, Klug notes, including groundwood paper. But just because paper is now acid-free doesn't mean it is permanent. Librarians and conservationists note that a book printed on permanent paper can easily last hundreds of years, depending on storage conditions. Books printed on groundwood paper, on the other hand, can begin to yellow, ripple, deteriorate, tear, and generally degrade within just a year or two of purchase.

For consumers, the shift to groundwood means the books they love—and shell out $25 or $30 for—are becoming less durable, less usable, and less collectible. And for libraries, there's a sinking feeling of here-we-go-again. Roughly a million new titles printed on groundwood paper now enter the Library of Congress each year, Klug notes, and that is just a fraction of the total books being added to public and academic library collections nationwide.

Pulp Nonfiction

With libraries still grappling with the disastrous effects of the acidic paper era, you may wonder why publishers would once again choose to print on inferior paper. Part of the shift, not surprisingly, is driven by economics. Despite the rapid rise of e-books, print books still dominate the marketplace. But with print sales in decline and those gaudy triple-digit surges in e-book sales not quite making up for lost print revenue, publishers are looking more closely at costs to maintain profit margins.

But the savings from groundwood paper, Klug says, are actually minimal, as paper costs are one of the smallest parts of the publishing process. Your everyday $27.95 hardcover bestseller will use about 85 cents worth of groundwood paper, she explains, citing a recent Money magazine estimate. Permanent paper, meanwhile, goes for about 95 cents per book.

It seems like a no-brainer to spend the extra dime to give book lovers and libraries quality books and head off a more costly cultural disaster. But it's also understandable why publishers are choosing inferior paper: these days, every dime counts—and every dime saved on paper falls right to the bottom line. After all, savings from cheap paper are not passed on to consumers in the form of lower book prices. As one publisher told PW on background, it isn't as if many consumers are writing a lot of letters two or three years after purchase to complain that their books' pages have turned yellow. Nor are most consumers aware that cheap paper might be why their books are fading. Some publishers might note on their copyright pages that a book is printed on acid-free paper, but that doesn't mean the paper is permanent, and most publishers don't widely tout the use of permanent paper.

The other part of the shift, meanwhile, is driven by the march of technology itself—the thought that digital will so completely supplant printed books that permanent paper simply doesn't matter. "The seduction of digital is real," Mowery notes. "It is the seduction of ease of access, remote access, and that leads some to think that because material can be generated and copied so readily, it is stable. But there is no evidence to suggest this, and the only evidence is time. To date, strong rag content paper has proven its longevity. Permanent paper has proven its longevity. No one knows what new technology will be out there in 500 years, but we know that's the life of good, quality paper."

It Matters

No one in the Permanence Matters campaign is denying the power of e-books or digital resources, and digitization is clearly a major component of any good preservation strategy. But digitization is not a fail-safe answer to preservation and access questions, especially as digital formats change constantly. "Libraries are dynamic places and their collections and resources will reflect change and dynamic content," Mowery says. "But it would be foolish to think all content will go digital, or that the format of use will necessarily be the format of storage."

E-books are the future, Klug says. But the past matters, too. "Even as a paper person, I believe e-books are critical to the future of the publishing industry," Klug notes. "I want people to read however they want to read. But printed books are culturally significant objects, and ensuring that they are available to pass down for generations is vital." So the Permanence Matters campaign takes a simple stance: if you are going to print a book, why not print it on permanent paper?

Although, she concedes, not every title requires such treatment. "Snooki's next title, for example, probably doesn't require the long-lasting properties that permanent paper has to offer," Klug says. "But things like nonfiction, biographies of world leaders, and leading fiction are culturally important and deserve longevity." For example, Ted Kennedy's memoir was printed on permanent paper, she notes. So, too, was Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

"We believe these are books that many people will want to keep on their bookshelves," Klug says. "We believe that high-quality paper is a selling point for physical books, and that consumers appreciate that quality, because they tell us so."