Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Green Options: Want to Green Your Addiction to Books? Buy Ebooks

As part of Eco-Libris' ongoing content partnership with Green Options Media, we feature a post that was originally published by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg on October 27 on Sustainablog. Today's post talks about one of our favorite topics: ebooks.

OK, 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

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