Sustainability in publishing

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Meaningful change can and must happen faster in publishing

In the fight against the climate crisis, it is time the values so many writers and illustrators express on the page were matched by the physical values of the page. From the tree in the ground to the book in your hand: we want publishing to clear up its act.

Piers Torday, SoA Sustainability Working Group

Working in partnership with the publishing industry, authors can play a key role in ensuring meaningful, measurable action on sustainability in the book sector.

The industry is talking about the issues and knows it needs to change in order to help limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and protect biodiversity – but change is not happening fast enough.

We believe that will only happen when authors, their representatives and their readers start holding the book industry to account. We can be the industry’s strongest critics, but also act as its most vocal advocates as it develops sustainable practices.

Tree to Me

My books shouldn’t cost the Earth

In April 2023, we launched Tree to Me, a new campaign to add authors’ voices to the drive to make publishing more sustainable. By starting a conversation with their publisher, based on ten focused questions, authors can urge their publisher to act now – in the materials it uses and the energy it consumes, in its investments and emissions targets, and more – and to raise awareness among readers as they improve their environmental practices.

In 2023…

The existential threat of climate change and loss of biodiversity across the globe are the greatest challenges we face today.

The publishing industry is part of the problem.

The processes involved in manufacturing and distributing the books that carry your words and images are resource hungry: from harvesting raw materials to manufacturing paper and packaging, from producing books to bulk distribution to readers, from unnecessary foils and toxic inks to the uncontrolled pulping of unsold volumes.

By its nature, the publishing industry is a mass consumer of raw materials and energy. Its manufacturing processes can be polluting. Many of the products it creates become waste.

Unchecked, these processes and the waste they generate contribute to irreversible climate change and biodiversity crises, threatening the survival of life on Earth.

The publishing industry appears to have a growing awareness of the issues and is attempting to balance the impact of some of its operations. However, while it is everyone’s responsibility to adapt for a more sustainable future, the industry’s traditional approach and drive for profit is at odds with the need to protect the planet for future generations.

With no single standard approach or system for delivering and monitoring change, no one is holding this complex industry to account.

Many people are talking about it, but change is not happening fast enough.

Opportunities for change

The good news is that the knowledge and technology to change practices and processes already exist. Building a sustainable publishing industry around those practices and processes is about adaptation, not reinvention.

Trade organisations are developing powerful resources and sharing knowledge to enable the organisations they represent to commit to, plan for and measure change. These include Publishing Declares from the Publishers Association, the Book Journeys Project from the Independent Publishers Guild, and BIC’s Green Book Alliance, which looks specifically at supply chains across the industry.

And in May 2022, we became founding partners in the Sustainability Industry Forum – a collaboration with the Association of Authors’ Agents, Book Industry Communications, the Booksellers Association, Independent Publishers Guild and the Publishers Association. This is the first cross-industry initiative designed to tackle the negative impact of the book business, opening essential lines of communication between authors, publishers and booksellers.

Barriers to change

Change has never happened easily or rapidly in the publishing industry, even when there is a will. Fostering a sense of urgency on this or any other issue is not straightforward, but this sense of urgency is essential.

As with any industry, decisions in publishing are driven by profit. Sustainable change is not necessarily profitable, at least not in the short term.

Publishers are unlikely to work in partnership with each other to drive mutual cross-industry changes to practices. Sometimes they are even prevented from doing so by competition law. To date, the industry has rarely attempted to engage with authors as key partners to help drive the change that is so urgently needed.

What authors can do

Authors do not have direct power over industry decisions on energy usage, raw materials or resource management, but they do have influence.

Much of this is public – in what you communicate to readers and other authors. But it can also be contractual – in the partnerships you form with publishers, the terms that govern those relationships, and in the conversations that you and your agents are able to have with publishers when they commission, edit, design, manufacture and distribute your books.

At the SoA, we have formed a Sustainability Working Group, made up of SoA members, with the aim of taking part in industry forums and exploring ways to help authors influence positive change both individually and as a union.

We are reviewing our own practices and commitments to green our offices.

We are also working on launching a members’ network in 2023  to involve authors beyond the Sustainability Working Group, and on initiatives for authors to use their voice to call for positive change.

Working with publishers

Where we can most impact change as a union is through focused campaigns, with measurable engagement.

We are preparing a set of key asks to put forward in our cross-industry work with publishers and other organisations.

Further reading

  1. Authors campaign for more sustainable publishing — SoA launches Tree to Me campaign (April 2023) to start conversations about sustainability between authors and publishers
  2. Publishing Declares — launched by the Publishers Association, Publishing Declares is a practical industry commitment to protecting the planet’s resources
  3. Sustainability Industry Forum — Britain’s leading trade associations for publishing and bookselling working together to reduce environmental impacts
  4. Read The Bookseller‘s article on the launch of the Sustainability Industry Forum