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Archive for September 9th, 2011

Paper Books, eBooks, and the Environment

Indie author Melissa Douthit has decided not to offer print versions of her next book, The Legend of the Rai Chaelia, in order to reduce her carbon footprint.

For anyone who has read the first book and is looking forward to continuing on to the second, it is fairly obvious that there is a strong environmental theme running through the story, given the race of people called the Terravail, which in the story is an ancient word for “respect for the land.”  The Terravail are the people who have a special connection to the land and feel whatever the land feels so they have a vested interest in keeping it preserved.  I think anyone who has read the book will see where this is going in the story.

So the question remains, should I offer the books in print when it seems from the very nature of the story itself, that that would be something very wrong to do?  I know I have told several people, and also posted on my website, that the print version of The Raie’Chaelia will available in September but now I think I’ve changed my mind.  I’m sorry to anyone who was looking forward to the print version.  I know that this decision will more than likely hurt me as an author, as there are so many readers out there who prefer print books, but after having done some research, I don’t really care if it hurts me.

The nice thing about being an indie author is that you have the flexibility to offer books in any format you want—even if it kills one’s writing career. No doubt Douthit’s intention to reduce our dependency on paper products is an admirable one but like so many environmental decisions they’re designed to make the person doing the act feel good about themselves but do little, if anything, to actually help the environment.

When it comes to the environmental issues decisions we’re taught to think that there’s a “solution” for every environmental issue. In reality there are no solutions to any problem–environmental or otherwise—only trade-offs.

For example, every spring one of the trendy environmental things to do is to celebrate Earth Hour. To celebrate you turn off your lights of an hour to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (For the record, I turn on all the lights during this time.) Yet while that hour makes people feel like they’re doing something for the planet—good feelings is about the only thing this green publicity stunt accomplishes. Instead of sitting in the dark, many Earth Hour participants light candles which, as Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg points out, cancels any environmental impact these people were hoping to achieve.

When we switch off the electricity, many of us turn to candlelight. This seems natural and environmentally friendly, but unfortunately candles are almost 100 times less efficient than incandescent light bulbs, and more than 300 times less efficient than fluorescent lights. Using one candle for each extinguished bulb cancels the CO2 reduction; two candles emit more CO2.

And he’s not even taking into account all the particulate pollution that candles emit.

Douthit’s is trying to save trees and paper, but what trade off might she be making not only in terms of the environment and her career.

Ebooks obviously use less paper than paper book. However, using an eReader (Kindle, Nook, etc.) has its own impact on the environment via mining, manufacturing, refining, shipping, distribution, and electricity used over its lifetime. Maybe an eReader has a smaller impact on the environment than say buying 100 paperbacks, but what happens if someone upgrades their eReader every year or two owns multiple eReaders? Douthit has not control over other people’s purchasing decisions. Those who read her eBooks but upgrade their eReader every year might mitigate any positive environmental impact she hoped to make.

Besides, when it comes to their impact on the environment indie authors can utilize tools that the big six and other smaller presses don’t use much: print on demand (POD) technology. Most (big) publishers print thousands or millions copies of a title and ship them off to stores. If the books don’t sell, they’re returned and destroyed. But with POD a book is printed and shipped as soon as someone orders one. There aren’t hundreds or thousands of copies sitting around collecting dust or heading to landfills because no one wants them. Resource wise it’s about as efficient as you can get when it comes to printing books. I took advantage of this technology for the paperback edition of my Dating a Widower book. However, I made that decision not because of it lessens my impact on the environment but because it was less expensive than paying for thousand of copies of printed books. Plus, I don’t have to deal with the problem of storing or distributing them. It’s odd that Douthit doesn’t take advantage of that especially when you consider that trees are one of the most renewable resources on the planet and are in no danger of disappearing anytime soon—especially if our forests continue to be managed properly.

Despite the rapid growth of eBooks and eReaders, millions of people still enjoy and purchase paper books. Limiting one’s potential audience to those with eReaders limits one’s exposure. And since Douthit’s books offer an environmental message (one that she is very passionate about) it seems the best way to spread her word is to get her books into the hands of as many people as possible. Authors who limit themselves book to eBooks are only reducing the number of potential readers and, quite possibly, their careers*. Personally I don’t care if eBooks and eReaders are better for the environment or not. I prefer reading eBooks on my Kindle because they’re cheaper than print books, more convenient to buy, and don’t fill up my already overflowing bookshelves. If that happens to be better for the environment, so be it.

Douthit seems happy with her decision—and that’s fine. Like all writers she’s untimely in charge of her writing career and needs to make a publishing decision she can live with. However, considering Douthit dreams of being a fulltime writer, her choice to go eBook only seems to make that possibility a lot more difficult.

*For writers looking to sell short stories or novellas, the eBook only approach makes more sense. Going eBook only for full length fiction or non-fiction is also an inexpensive way to get a book into the market if you don’t have the time or money to spend on typesetting. However, if you ebooks take off, I suggest taking some of the profits and investing them into a POD paperback option. Considering where the book market is in complete flux and no one really knows where it’s going to end up, adding more ways for people to read your book is the best way to grow your audience.

(Hat Tip: The Passive Voice)

44 comments September 9th, 2011


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