Publishing is special, with a unique set of business models, challenges, and values that lend particular difficulty to change and innovation. That is the lesson learned, often to their detriment, by numerous technology start-ups that came to save publishing dinosaurs from extinction in the past two decades by teaching us to universally convert our content to e-books.

What living through a pandemic has taught those of us privileged to be part of this special industry, with our record print sales in the past three years, is that predictions of publishing’s death have, in the spirit of Mark Twain, been erroneously predicted. What we have also learned from our forced contemplation during lockdown is that if we don’t want to follow the path of the literal dinosaurs, we must save this planet.

With increasing alacrity, the global scientific community has tasked governments, corporations, nonprofits, communities, and individuals to work together to make dramatic and immediate change to our environment. But what does that mean specifically for the publishing industry? What does that mean for each of us individually who are a part of it? And how do we join the global community to make change while grappling with those aspects of our business that make us special?

We cannot, like some industries that previously relied on printed media, simply go “paperless.” Print books are vital to the continued success of the industry and to achieving much of what publishing purports to do: educate, entertain, enlighten, and inspire. From reading aloud to a child on your lap, to ensuring retention of certain types of knowledge, to enjoying the completely immersive experience of story, print books have for centuries held a critical place in the society of language. And despite their sustainability benefits, the e-book itself isn’t a panacea when the vast amounts of energy required to power the exchange of data plus the creation, distribution, and disposal of devices are taken into account.

Higher priority

Although building a sustainable book supply chain has been a nominal priority for publishers for years, it is since 2019 that we’ve seen a remarkable re-evaluation of the need for sustainability in end-to-end production and distribution. The largest publishers now have designated roles and departments responsible entirely for their environmental impact activities, driven people who are forces of nature in their own right. Smaller companies within the publishing supply chain may not have the resources for dedicated staff, but industry organizations are stepping in to offer support, such as BIC (Book Industry Communication), BISG (Book Industry Study Group), and BookNet Canada with their Green Book Alliance; the U.K.’s PA (Publishers Association), IPG (Independent Publishers Guild), and BPIF; the US-based AAP (Association of American Publishers) and BMI (Book Manufacturers’ Institute); the global IPA (International Publishers Association); and countless others around the world with sustainability committees, special projects, and educational forums; plus publisher-funded private groups like the Carnstone’s Book Chain Project; and for-profit companies such as HP with our ConTEXT conference series.

What seems universally agreed upon in this alphabet soup is that the industry has expended tremendous time and energy discussing the problem, and finally we have reached a collective urgency to do something, almost anything, to demonstrate progress. One of the many challenges we face is determining what that something is, for each step we take has implications for other parts of the industry and, in fact, for every proposed solution there is a caveat in its wake.

For example, most publishers now insist on using FSC-certified paper, with some requiring recycled paper for a portion or all their printed lists. But FSC certification is uneven in the various geographies, in places underfunded and sporadically monitored. Recycled paper is expensive, in smaller supply, argued by some to be less environmentally sound because of the carbon footprint required to source, transport, and convert it, and not appropriate for highly colored, high-quality printing. Is either paper strategy the answer, some combination of the two, or something else altogether?

Educating book buyers

In addition to our internal industry quandaries, many consumers, who are gradually increasing their demand for greener products, think FSC actually means recycled. And when considering cost versus price, the academic consumer of a limited-edition, highly valued print book is already conditioned to pay more for that book than a grandparent on a fixed income looking for the perfect birthday book for a child. So simply educating the consumer to accurately define and evaluate what we are already doing is fraught with dilemmas.

Throughout the London Book Fair of 2023, building a sustainable supply chain will be a constant refrain. Presentations from people in the industry offering concrete answers to what we do and where we go from here will be in the LBF’s inaugural Sustainability Hub and on the Main Stage. Four of these remarkable doers–Rachel Martin (Elsevier), Amanda Ridout (Boldwood Books), Jude Drake (Bloomsbury), and Fabrice Bakhouche (Hachette Livre)–will engage with me in this debate on the Main Stage, today at noon. In the spirit of another American icon, Elvis Presley, it’s time for a lot less conversation and a great deal more action. I hope you will join us. Thank you very much.

Ashley Gordon is publishing market development manager, PageWide Industrial, HP Inc.