Monday, April 05, 2010

The greening of the e-book

by Jane

One morning last week I, along with probably every other agent, received an e-mail from the Chief Executive Officer of Penguin announcing that because their company had been unable to reach an agreement with Amazon on the agency model pricing of e-books, all new Penguin titles would not be available on the Kindle until such agreement was reached. A short while later, I had a call from an executive at Amazon telling me essentially the same thing. And so another chapter began in the ups and downs of the publishing and distribution of e-books.

But one thing that I don’t think has been widely discussed in this whole e-book controversy is how environmentally friendly e-books are. Yesterday, I was enlightened on this subject.

An Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris called some very interesting facts to my (and hopefully many others’) attention. It turns out that even though one would think e-books would be more environmentally friendly because they don’t involve cutting down all of the trees it takes to manufacture paper books and fuel consumption in shipping them to their final destinations, they’re not.

I was really surprised by all of this--and actually found it somewhat comforting. I wonder what you think.


  1. It seems a little weird to me to call this a question of "is an ebook more environmentally friendly than a paper one?" What's really being compared here is the device the ebook lives on, not the ebook file itself. The piece even calls this out, by saying that it's focusing on just the reading aspect of a device and not anything else that that device might do.

    It also doesn't seem to take into account that a whole lot of people who have electronic reading devices are going to be loading them up with lots and lots and LOTS of books--because if you're affluent enough to be able to own this device to begin with, chances are high you're going to be dropping a lot of money on the books to go onto it. I have for example already bought a few hundred books to go onto my nook.

    So I think a fairer question might be, for which readers will an electronic device be more environmentally friendly than purchasing the physical books? If you're a heavy reader like me, at what point do the numbers tip over from favoring print to favoring electronic?

  2. Angela - that question is addressed somewhat at the end of the article. It's an interesting topic -- my guess is the technology will continue to develop much in the way of the Energy Star rated home appliances and will get even greener over time. For now, I'm still an old-school paperback girl.

  3. Kristin Laughtin5/4/10 4:30 PM

    The article seems to compare the manufacture of one ereader to the manufacture of one physical book, but as Angela pointed out, anyone buying an ereader will probably buy a lot of ebooks to go on it as well. The 40-50 book figure given at the end of the article is probably a safe, even conservative, estimate of how many ebooks an average reader might load onto the reader over a few years.

    Of course, as a library worker, I like the shout-out libraries received at the end. I'm eagerly anticipating the day we can check out ebooks to patrons as well.

  4. I'm always a bit dubious about the science of these sort of comparison.

    This claim: "If your book ends up in a landfill, its decomposition generates double the global warming emissions and toxic impacts on local water systems as its manufacture." for example, seems, at best, poorly phrased. If something is producing twice as much energy as was put into it then, to quote Douglas Adams, it's violating some of the more popular and important laws of physics.

  5. Jane, thanks for sharing this. To Angela's comment above - I think we have to include the e-book reader in this discussion, because without it, the e-book doesn't 'exist'. That said, we really have to compare multiple paper books to a single e-book reader (which can house many many e-books), but the issue of how to dispose of not just dedicated e-book readers but cellphones and batteries and laptops and whatever electronic device we decide to carry around next it likely to become huge over time.

  6. Kristin:

    I'm aware of some libraries that already DO let you check out electronic books; the technology is already out there. As a patron of my own local library, I'd definitely employ it if they put it in, assuming that they actually let you check out books that my nook or my iPhone can read.

    And yeah, the 40-50 book figure for an e-reader seems really low to me. I have about 160 books on my nook right this instant, and at least triple that on the iPhone; the only reason I don't have every ebook I own on the nook is because of file organization issues. I absolutely foresee myself loading the thing up with enough books to fill its wide capacity, and by then we're talking over a thousand books.

    I'm also expecting to get several years' worth of use out of both of my devices. I took a while to commit to buying both the iPhone and the nook and I will continue to use them until I've pushed them to the ends of their reasonable lifespans. It will certainly be important to me at that time to recycle them in environmentally friendly ways, if at all possible.

    Don't get me wrong, I love me some print books too--I have well over a thousand of those as well. ;) It's just that for me, given the volume at which I read and the number of books I buy (I bought well over 200 titles last year and am on track to do the same this year), I'm pretty sure the numbers will slant in favor of the electronic books being greener.

  7. I've looked over that article a couple of times, and I have to say - the writer has GOT to be kidding. Each reader will take the place of hundreds of books, plus magazines and newspapers.

    While it is important to point out that current ereaders are not as eco-friendly as they might seem, this writer has his thumb on the scale in a very heavy way.

  8. Even if the process of making a paperback book is as green as possible--no printing of manuscripts, electronic editing, soy ink, recycled paper--the ratio is about 100 books per e-book reader. That's a pretty good case to buy an e-book reader. I have to believe a lot of Kindle owners have 100 books or more.

    I found it curious that the authors of this article left out warehouse storage, packaging materials, and shipping of the product. We're to assume they are equal?

  9. My favorite room in my house is my library. I not only love to sit there and read, I also love looking at all my books and being surrounding by them, I love feeling and touching them, or opening one up randomly and rereading a passage or a page.... Nope! No ereader or ebooks in the near future for me!!!

  10. ....surrounded..... Note to myself: Don't post from your iPhone!!!