The threat of climate change and the role played by book publishing

Opinion - Publishing Thursday, 10th June 2021

Economy of scale is not sustainable for the business of book publishing—or the environment—of the future, says Paul Randall of HP Publishing Solutions

In a global climate crisis, the book publishing supply chain has a long way to go to become environmentally neutral. It’s time to shift to a use-what-you-need model and stop operating on a 'books-kind-of-grow-on-trees' mindset.

In the past thousand years books have evolved in many significant ways. Technologies have enabled content creators and scribes to move from hand-lettering to wood blocks to metal type to digital presses, but some innovations that allow for wide-scale distribution of ideas and entertainment—the democratization of information—have led to the depletion of natural resources and the release of immeasurable greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Though the fine-tuning of global supply chains allows for international trade of goods and ideas to flow with speed and precision, there is a tremendous cost that can be measured in direct and indirect contributors to greenhouse gases: the shipping of finished books across large distances, the harvesting and use of raw materials, energy consumption and carbon emitted in the manufacturing process, and the power required in the storage and management of unsold inventory. There is also an environmental cost in the recycling or destruction of unsold products and returns.

Trade and academic book publishers have long relied on economy of scale when it comes to printing both new and backlist titles, saving on the per-unit cost of larger orders which can contribute to the profitability or unprofitability of a title or a multi-title contract.

Publishers have grown accustomed to ordering more books than they need, often from facilities halfway around the world, and storing excess inventory until its required. That way, if demand for a book increases, the publisher is ready to ship from what’s on hand without delays in reprinting.

Sounds like a good way to do business? It’s not.

One might benefit upfront by the cost advantage of printing 100,000 units at a time, but if there aren’t 100,000 actual readers intending to buy those 100,000 books, over time those savings won’t be realized.  Consider, too, the costs associated with warehousing, shipping, and transporting printed books around the world. These add up, finding their way on to the balance sheet.

The good news is that companies heeding the call to transform their businesses can do so ethically and enjoy additional cost savings and potentially serve new markets with customized content.  Emerging networks of sustainable printers, such as HP’s global print partner network, are meeting the needs of publishers to satisfy their customers, grow their businesses, and act responsibly. Think printing to order instead of printing to stock. Large print runs are no longer needed to achieve attractive unit costs, and with printing on demand there’s no excess inventory to print, ship, or store.  

While paper recycling is an option in some geographies, it’s not an efficient use of energy or dollars; it does not absolve publishers of the guilt of printing more books than they are likely to sell.

When book files are stored in the cloud using a system like the HP Piazza Suite of solutions, print jobs of any size can be dynamically routed to the facility closest to the end user. It’s better for the environment to send a digital file than it is to ship a physical book. It also opens up the opportunity for publishers to reach new geographical markets by leveraging a localized print partner network.

HP Book as a Service provides access to a global network of print partners, allowing book publishers to more efficiently manage their content and print where needed, when needed. Operating in this way ensures publishers can maximize business potential, reduce inventory, minimize waste, and improve their environmental footprint.
The growth of e-commerce and direct-to-consumer retail point to the need for fast fulfillment and high quality; the notion that publishers can reduce their costs and make their operations more agile should be discussed in every budget conversation.

Printing to order with a network like HP Book as a Service just makes more sense. It eliminates unnecessary exploitation of natural resources; reduces the carbon emissions associated with the manufacturing, shipping, and storage of unsold inventory; and results in high-quality books in many commercial and academic formats that needn’t travel great distances from plant to purchaser.


Find out more in the latest HP Publishing Solutions’ White Paper, Reduce Your Carbon Footprint, available to download for free now.