Want to Green Your Addiction to Books? Buy Ebooks

stacks of books -- black and whiteOK, I admit it: I’m a book whore (hardly a shocking confession for a former English professor). I’m most vulnerable to impulse buying in a book store. When a publishing PR rep contacts me about a book for review, I jump on it like an addict desperate for that next fix.

But, of course, I also know that book publishing takes a fairly heavy environmental toll: as our friends at EcoLibris have pointed out, “more than 30 million trees are cut down annually for virgin paper used for the production of books sold in the U.S. alone.” The WorldWatch Institute notes that the average American uses over 300 kilograms (or over 660 pounds) of paper annually. And Erika Engelhaupt, in Environmental Science & Technology, observes:

Reducing paper use does more than save trees. Pulp and paper mills are also a major source of pollution. They release into the air CO2, nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), carbon monoxide, and particulates, which contribute to global warming, smog, acid rain, and respiratory problems. In addition, bleaching paper with chlorine can produce dioxin, which is known to cause cancer. Paper mills also produce large amounts of solid waste and require a lot of water. The industry is trying to clean up, but anyone who’s driven past a paper mill has smelled the challenge.

Yep, that book addiction has quite the footprint. There are numerous approaches to dealing with this impact: “cradle to cradle” book design, Ecolibris-style offsets, used of recycled and non-toxic materials, and, of course, ebooks.

I started digging into the subject of ebooks after a phone conversation with Angela Wieck, co-founder and marketing guru at EcoBrain, a small company dedicated to selling ebooks on environmental topics (so green x 2). A division of OneBookShelf (founded by Angela’s husband), EcoBrain is on a mission to “to be the largest provider of educational material about green living and the environment. We offer quality material that is fairly priced, respects the earth and helps to educate our customers about living a greener life.” They currently list thousands of titles from a range of publishers, and, according to the American Association of Publishers,  have jumped into a growing niche: ebook sales are growing quickly!

Of course, there are environmental footprint issues here, also.  Engelhaupt’s article focuses on Amazon’s Kindle reader, and the notion of ebook readers seems to often come up when the concept is discussed. EcoBrain bypasses that element by only selling ebooks in PDF format because of their cross-platform functionality. I asked Angela about the Kindle and other readers; she told me “…the issue I have with them is that they use proprietary file types. That means if you buy a Kindle eBook, you can’t read it on anything but the Kindle. Sound like a monopoly?? Sure does. Same with Sony.”

From my own perspective, the issue of another gadget undermines the whole concept of ebooks as “greener” — the books don’t use as much energy as traditional paper books, but how much of that savings is offset and even overrun by the resources consumed in creating and operating a reader? And then there are end-of-life issues. What’s wrong with reading on the laptop or desktop you already own?

While the market for ebooks is growing, it’s a bit like the growth of renewable energy: the actual numbers were low to begin with, so even big percentage jumps represent relatively small overall numbers. As such, you won’t find the latest big-name green books on EcoBrain: searches for authors like Paul Hawken, Lester Brown and Hunter Lovins brought up no results.  I asked Angela about the title and publishers they carry, and the move toward ebook acceptance in the larger publishing industry. She noted:

Yes, a lot of our titles are smaller publishers. Smaller publishers seem to have a lot less bureaucracy to deal with and can make quicker decisions. Many of the larger ones are talking about ‘future ebook strategies’ and still doing a lot of analysis. Some of the larger ones actually sell some digital copies through a middleman, called Lightning Source, and then we get it through them. We are glad to see the titles, but it is much more fun and more rewarding to work with publishers directly. Further, sometimes the large publishers divide up book rights. So for example, North America gets some, Australia or the UK get others. This type of division makes it a challenge to sell ebooks because one of the great things about them is that of course you can buy them from anywhere. And with the smaller publishers (like New Society) we can do promotions together and that makes a big positive difference for sales too. I do think the big publishers get it, they just seem slower to react.

Still, I found some real gems on EcoBrain, and ended up using the credit they graciously extended me to purchase How To Re-Imagine The World: A Pocket Guide For Practical Visionaries, Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose, and Superbia!: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods. The buying experience was painless, and comparable to any larger online store. In general, the prices were better, too — Angela claims that, on average, ebooks are 30% less expensive than hard copies. Haven’t had a chance to start reading yet, but looking forward to that.

I think ebooks have real potential.  I know some claim that the sensory element of reading a paper book is important (and I enjoy that, too), but I’ve found sitting down with the laptop in a favorite coffee shop, or on the living room couch, works just as well for me.

What are your own experiences with purchasing and reading ebooks? Can this work for a large percentage of the population? Is this approach a viable way to reduce the environmental impact of books and reading while still maintaining the pleasure of reading?

Image credit: austineven at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

  1. Robin Shreeves

    I don’t know – Jeff. I have such a hard time reading from a screen. If I’ve got something more than two pages to read, I need to print it out (usually on the backs of the hundreds of announcements that come home from my boys’ school). I don’t think I could really comprehend everything in a book if I were reading it from a screen.

    I’m not sure if it’s a case of not being able to teach an old dog new tricks or if my brain really doesn’t work well reading from a screen.

    And I can’t imagine getting any pleasure from curling up in bed to read with my laptop or a kindle-type reader.

    But I do buy used as often as I can, borrow from the library and friends when I can, and I have significantly cut back on my impulse book buying at book stores.

  2. Bobby B.

    – “Reducing paper use does more than save trees.”

    First, unless you are a tree worshipper, there is nothing spiritual about a tree. It is a crop. It can be harvested, replanted and harvested again at a later date. What will be the next big revelation? “Reducing ethanol consumption does more than save corn.” Is there any commodity that is off-limits to the green propaganda machine?

    Second, the paper industry practices sustainability on a scale that the average green blogger would envy. They have planted millions more trees than any carbon credit shell company ever will. Please visit Tappi’s Paper University to learn something about the business, and visit a mill to be amazed.

    – “The industry is trying to clean up, but anyone who’s driven past a paper mill has smelled the challenge.”

    The smell eminating from a paper mill has little to do with pollution. Some processes just stink. Would you complain about the smell from an environmentally friendly manure-to-fuel or bagass facility? Probably not.

    Lastly, being a slow reader, I believe that the paper version would be more environmentally friendly in my case. I would probably burn more electricity logging on and off of my favorite e-books site to finish a title than the publisher would have spent just printing a book. Plus, if I read a book multiple times, it still only accounts for one of these so-called, negative environmental impacts.

  3. Rosie

    I agree with other readers that I just cant read from a screen. I do prefer to buy used books. There are a couple of used book stores that I love where I can find great books for $1. The book gets a second life (and often a third when I loan or give it to a friend) and I save money.

    Also in regards to the ebooks, I actually feel like my migraines have become worse and more frequent now that I have a job that has me sitting in front of a computer screen all day, so I don’t want to increase that screen time any more.

  4. Justin Van Kleeck

    Sorry, Jeff, but I have to side with Robin and Rosie on this one. E-books and screen reading cannot compare to holding a book (hardcover or paperback) and flipping the pages. I made the case against “starving a bookworm” a while ago in my post Starve a Bookworm, Save a Tree. If you want to go paperless, there are many better things to “electrify” than books! And libraries are by far the best option, along with used-book stores.

  5. Nancy Norton

    I ‘discovered’ ebooks last month when I needed a book ‘immediately’ for a book group discussion. I found the book online and I downloaded ereader (the software program) to use on my iPhone. I did some research and almost universally, users of ebooks report satisfaction with the process, a typical comment is, “after the first five pages, I forgot I wasn’t holding a paper book.” The iPhone is easier to hold than a book. It is always with me, so I can read whenever I have a few minutes. I can read at night in bed without disturbing my partner by turning on a light. I’ve read nine books on my iPhone in the last month. When I travel I can carry a library with me and not have to worry about additional fees for heavy luggage. I don’t make extra trips to the library . . . Our solar panels provide the power for the computer and recharge the iPhone, so this whole process seems pretty benign. The only problem is that not all the books I want are available at this point . . . and I am tempted to spend too much time now browsing the web for more books.

  6. Heidi

    I find that public libraries are a great source for books. They get reread over and over again, I don’t have to buy expensive technology to read them, and best of all, the library has lots of bookshelves, so I don’t have to store them in my home!

  7. Josh

    I purchased a sony ebook reader a few weeks ago. And it’s great. It’s not actually a screen, but a piece of electronic paper. It actually looks more like you are reading a newspaper, and you can read it from any angle. I can go hours at a time and not get any eye fatigue like I would with an lcd screen.

    For classic works, you can download in plain text format from project gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org). You can use any of the big formats with it, txt, doc, rtf, pdf, etc. There is I think a Sony format, but I intend to steer clear. There are several bookstores that sell ebooks in various formats, so it shouldn’t be a problem to find titles. In addition, if its one of the formats I have listed above, you can also open it on your computer, your phone, etc. I think that there is something to be said for having a physical book in your hands, but it is definitely something I would recommend trying out. They have them on display at many bookstores and some department store.

  8. Susie

    In addition to being a fan of free social book sharing (aka a “library”) I like signing my name in a book and passing it to a friend and asking them to pass it along.

    There are lots of cool ways to re-use books (such as websites you can subscribe to and get books free but just pay for shipping) instead of everyone buying a copy.

    I know that doesn’t answer your question. With e-books I have a feeling many people would print them, making the savings moot! (And more likely they’d throw out the printouts eh?)

    However hearing the iphone is that easy to read makes me want to look into that option…for cheap novels and non-fiction anyway!

  9. Raz Godelnik

    Personally I’m still more used to paper books, but I think ebooks will become more and more a preferable choice for people who grow up with computers and use them from an early age.

    My guess is also that many will prefer to use ebook reader and not to read their ebook on their laptop, mainly because of convenience reasons. Therefore it is important to have a better information on Kindle and the Sony Reader, as right now due to lack of life cycle assessment we can’t really tell if they’re superior to paper made books or not.

    Regarding the comment of Bobby B. – according to the Green Press Initiative, paper is the 4th largest industrial source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. You can read more about this Industry’s impacts on the forests of Canada, Indonesia, Southeast U.S., and South America on their website – http://www.greenpressinitiative.org/impacts/forests.htm.

    Most trees that are cut down for books are sourced from un-farmed sources (not to mention the fact that tree farms themselves have, in many cases, a devastating impact on native forests and indigenous communities).

    Mandy Haggith, the author of the new book “Paper Trails” explained this issue to the Independent recently: “No one likes to think of trees being felled, but many of us have a cosy image in our heads that it all comes from recycling or “sustainable” woodlands growing in neat rows, perhaps somewhere in Sweden. It’s a myth. Globally, 70 per cent of the 335 million tons of paper the world uses each year comes from natural, un-farmed sources. In Canada, the UK’s biggest source of pulp, 90 per cent of its output comes directly from its ancient forests.”

    All in all, the paper industry is definitely not the industry that will make the average green blogger envy.

    And last word about EcoBrain – I think what they’re doing is really great on all levels (Eco-Libris is also collaborating with EcoBrain), and I agree with Jeff that you can find there great gems so it’s worthwhile to check them out!

    Raz Godelnik

  10. Sommer Green & Clean Mom

    Robin and others thinking that is is harder to read from a screen, it’s something that you get used to. I read all day long from a screen for my blogging business and so it isn’t any different. It isn’t holding a book like I might be used to but my laptop just sits on my lap and it works out fine. I feel good about saving trees. Not that I use EcoBrain all the time for all books but it’s an alternative and if I just do it with 2 out of 5 books, that’s making a difference.

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