The future of sustainable publishing in the EU: the voice of a bookseller from Central Europe

Karina Horitz
Opinion - Publishing Wednesday, 25th November 2020

Publish global but print local, Karina Horitz from Budapest urges UK publishers exporting into Europe

The question of sustainability in publishing was highlighted for me in late 2019 when, as book buyer for the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, I tried to order a large quantity of a book on the work of Rubens for our museum shop (pictured). We were about to open the exhibition Rubens and the Dutch Golden Age, which ran over the busiest time of year for our museum, between Christmas and the New Year.

The title was unfortunately not available in the UK warehouse, having only just been reprinted (in Slovakia).  There wasn’t time to wait for the stock to be shipped to the UK distributor and back to us in Hungary, so I ordered the book from the UK publisher and our warehouse colleague drove to the printer in Slovakia to collect it, saving thousands of miles on the journey from the printer to our museum shop.

This example made me question to what extent our small Budapest-based business, which is part of a successful cultural institution, is having a negative impact on the environment through the use of diesel haulage. The lockdown period was an opportunity to investigate this, and more broadly the role of the UK publishing industry within Europe. Before the pandemic our main concern had been the impact of Brexit, given that our consolidated shipper and other logistics partners were predicting three month backlogs if a no deal Brexit happened, not to mention the extra customs tariffs, but now clearly our industry must focus attention on how to reduce the environmental impact too.

Looking at four months’ data, from September to December last year, from our main UK distributor (from whom we order 58% of all our UK titles), I collated information on where each title was printed. With this information we can calculate what percentage of titles were printed in the UK, Europe or elsewhere in the world, and trace the distance travelled by each title as it arrives to Budapest from our consolidated shipper in the UK.  

Fifty one per cent of books were printed in the UK, with twenty four per cent printed in the EU and then sent to the UK for onward distribution. Listed in descending order of volume, these EU-produced publications were printed in: Slovakia, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Netherlands, Slovenia, and Poland. On average each title printed by a UK publisher in the EU travels 1,102km to reach the UK and then another 1,531km to Budapest, giving a final average distance of 2,633km.

I discovered twenty one per cent of the books were printed in non EU countries, with China producing seventy-three per cent of these, followed by Hong Kong, Singapore, India and South Korea. The average distance travelled from these international printers to the UK, then onwards to Budapest, was 10,422km. Books and games produced by international printers are most economical for publishers when ordered in large quantities: however, given the urgent climate crisis, the impact of moving goods for these distances is, I believe, no longer sustainable.

In relation to both the climate crisis and Brexit, huge benefit could be made by encouraging publishers to develop a warehouse hub based somewhere in EU, to serve the EU market.  If an EU distribution hub existed for at least the twenty four per cent of our books printed in the EU this would result in a transportation reduction of fifty eight per cent from 2,633 km to 1,104 km. Booksellers and publishers would save costs and reduce their carbon footprint.  Some trade and fiction publishers have already set up an EU distribution hub, but as a book buyer of mainly art books for us it would be important to have a range of publications, not just bestselling fiction.

Although some UK publishers’ titles are already distributed in the EU, the discount offered is half the trade terms I currently receive from the UK, so this is not currently a viable option despite the reduced transportation costs. In addition, we will have to consider the extra costs likely to be due to Brexit (when it becomes clear) before we decide how to continue buying UK publishers’ books.  

Fast-forward to the 2020 pandemic when, like many cultural institutions globally, our chain of Museum shops in Budapest closed for three months. Our lockdown started in mid-March and the pandemic resulted in a reduction of tourist numbers in April of ninety seven percent.  After the first wave of infections seemed to stabilize, we reopened our museums to the public again on June 20, although from September we halved our opening hours to try to focus our Hungarian visitors into a more concentrated few days.

However, without the international tourist trade, and relying solely on local customers, our turnover is so far half the previous year’s. We too are again in complete lockdown for a month, so relying now solely on our webshop sales, which have grown considerably.  We are doing our best to adapt to this growing online business, particularly in the run-up to Christmas.

Here’s a little history as to how our English language book sales have grown over the last 15 years. Our museum shop retail company in Budapest was set up back in 2005, coincidentally just after Hungary joined the EU.  (I had worked in the museums and galleries sector in London prior to moving to Budapest, just when this sector was beginning to flourish with the opening of Tate Modern and the renovated British Museum.)

So it was in our first shop in the Museum of Fine Arts where we started to seriously increase, year on year, the number of English language publications stocked, both reflecting our collections but also focusing on our temporary exhibition schedule. We now have four museum shops as well as a distribution branch which serves other independent literary bookshops and smaller museum shops which don’t have the infrastructure of weekly shipments coming from the UK.

The development of our English language book business has reflected the growing number of tourists to Budapest, reaching 61 million in 2019, up by 20 million over the past 10 years, as well the growing expat community and international students studying in Hungary. In the pre-pandemic world of 2019 our shop turnover had exceeded 1 million Euros, our best year ever, as the result of a successful exhibition schedule collaborating with other European Museums. It seems ironic that 15 years on from Hungary joining the EU the UK is now leaving, just when our business, which sells a significant amount of English language books, has never been better!

During lockdown I began to study our profit margins, particularly looking at the consolidated shipping costs from the UK to Hungary, costs not calculated by weight but rather the cubic meterage of the boxes and pallets. I started a discussion with suppliers about how to reduce the unfilled space in boxes, which not only costs us money but means that empty spaces within containers are being driven across Europe.

I have also analysed our total number of shipments over the last 4 months of 2019, the busiest period of the year for us, and now I’m beginning to see the impact of our business in terms of its carbon footprint and  looking at ways to reduce it, particularly in a post-Brexit Europe where small bookshops like us will have to carry the burden of extra customs tariffs.

We’ve just had one of the most significant dates in the publishing year, the Frankfurt 2020 Book Festival, and the global publishing industry adapted well, offering an online virtual space with live presentations and discussions on a variety of themes. After some technological hiccups and teething problems at the beginning, this new online world gave me the opportunity to see presentations I maybe would not normally have had time for.

I was able to research and focus in on subjects of interest to me, particularly by attending The Future of Sustainable Publishing. This live discussion was hosted by Jo Henry, the managing director of BookBrunch, and finished with Manos Kapterian, senior vice president of International Operations at Pearson, who outlined how they have been using cloud-based content management systems, enabling an automated global production of print on demand. This is part of their commitment to building the foundations of a sustainable business, respecting human rights and minimizing environmental impact across the supply chain. It is crucial that all publishers meet the business ethical standards as defined by The Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI).  

As a book buyer this had been one of my main concerns and I was unaware that already major headway is being made to develop further a climate-friendly supply chain, through carbon footprint reduction, manufacturing closer to the consumer point, reducing air freight and carbon emissions from logistics and paper.

This online presentation with key players from the various aspects of the publishing industry also included Paul Randall from Hewlett Packard Publishing Solutions, who outlined their part in revolutionising the future of publishing with their print on demand technology. I was unaware of these major steps in book production, offering printing solutions in over 18 different countries worldwide. Their Cloud based content management system also enables automated Global production for print on demand. This way of publishing was what I had been dreaming of as the future of our industry!

My feeling of responsibility as a book buyer, importing and shipping books across Europe, comes as a mother of a child who has suffered from asthma throughout her childhood. Asthma has increased globally and it is currently estimated that more than 339 million people suffer from asthma.  The strongest risk factors for developing asthma are a combination of genetic predisposition along with environmental exposure to particles that may provoke allergic reactions or irritate the airways, and one of the key factors is air pollution, of which diesel haulage is a considerable player.

Let’s think radically.  As a target for creating a more sustainable export of all UK publishers one could consider a print on demand facility in each EU country.  If that is not feasible, then at least one could start at a regional level, serving each export territory.

If print on demand EU hubs are not appropriate for high quality art books yet, then Plan B could include a central EU distribution hub to receive all those EU printed books which can then be distributed through the EU export market. With the delays and extra tariffs of sending books back and forth from the EU to the UK and back to the EU, this move seems economically as well as ecologically the way forward.

Let’s not forget that in 2009 many UK based publishers committed to the Forest Stewardship Council’s guidelines when they signed the Book Industry Treatise on Environmentally Responsible Publishing, a turning point to ensure that paper and printing technologies were sourced from sustainable companies, following strict guidelines.  I suggest an amendment to this Treatise could be that publishers should provide information about where the book has been printed alongside the ISBN, so that buyers and customers can understand the book’s journey from the printer to the retail shop.  For at least the last 10 years in our museum shop, international customers have been requesting information about where our products are made. This "made in" information is becoming fundamental to shopping habits as customers increasingly want to buy locally.

Clearly it is a tough time for all industries now; however, these green decisions must be at the forefront of any new steps to economic recovery. As David Attenborough has highlighted, the coronavirus pandemic has become a serious threat to tackling the world’s spiralling environmental crises.  So we must act now to revolutionize the sustainability of the publishing industry.

So please, UK publishers, take a lead on making the distribution of your titles in the EU more sustainable, so we can encourage a healthy book industry moving forward in a post-Covid, post-Brexit, future.


Karina Horitz
Book Buyer
Hungarian National Gallery
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest: