Green publishing revisited: Rethinking paper & ink

From Ooligan Press in Portland, USA, comes Rethinking Paper & Ink: The Sustainable Publishing Revolution, by Jessicah Carver & Natalie Guidry. The Authors’ Note explains that the book evolved from a booklet, also published by Ooligan (1999), written by Melissa Brumer and Janine Eckhard.

The text provides a concise examination of sustainability issues in publishing. The book as a whole is divided into three parts, dealing respectively with the life of a book, out-of-house production, and in-house production. The frontmatter includes an environmental audit of the book itself, provided by the publishers – apparently a standard feature of the Open Book series to which this book belongs. The endmatter includes a glossary and a directory of resources.

The book has many strengths. Much discussion on so-called green publishing is long on expressions of concern and short on information (witness the ‘Greening the book’ session at this year’s London Book Fair). This book, in contrast, provides, so far as space constraints allow, detailed treatment of  major questions – such as the environmental impact of printing (including a consideration of paper and ink) and a comparative assessment of printed books versus e-books.

A particular strength is that the book does not reduce environmental impact simply to a matter of climate change and carbon emission: “impacts are monitored by measuring toxin accumulation, observing the health and behaviours of wildlife (especially indicator species), studying climate changes, and measuring the health of the different functions of ecosystem services” (p. 8).

The standard of exposition is high. The text is written in direct, uncluttered, syntax. The glossary is helpful, especially for newcomers to publishing. The organisation of the text broadly reflects the organisation of publishing houses (with sections on acquisitions, design, marketing, etc.) – a feature that should facilitate the application of the book’s analysis to industrial practice.

Rethinking Paper & Ink does, however, exhibit some weaknesses too. The authors clearly appreciate that an assessment of sustainability requires assessment not only of products but also of behaviour – what people do with those products. Yet the point could have been stated more clearly – as a principle, that is.

Of the three spheres of sustainability – social, economic, and environmental – entailed in the triple bottom-line approach, the authors focus firmly on the last. They do, however, occasionally, comment on the other two. Where they do so, the prose becomes less careful: the text seems, for example, to treat ‘equity’, ‘equality of income’ (no mention of wealth), and provision for ‘basic needs’ as if distinctions between ‘these types’ of thing are self-evidently unimportant. They aren’t.

The weakest sections are, I think, those on acquisitions and design, where there is a certain vagueness. Acquisition editors, according to the authors, “might begin asking: What is the societal value of the potential book?”: yes, they might – but I think it  is more likely to begin by thinking, “How would this book help me to my revenue targets?” Some of advice in these sections seemed to me to verge on the prissy, while the authors ignore the potentially important issue of travel. In my experience, in the professional and academic sectors, long-distance travel often functions as a status symbol, with the result that attendance at conferences in attractive locations often far exceeds what would be optimal – simply from the point of corporate productivity, let alone environmental impact.

The book rather ignores the question of overall corporate management. For  example, do employees such as editorial and marketing staff need to work in the office, or can they work at least as efficiently from home? Overall, though the book helps the reader to asses what factors are important in terms of environmental impact, it has little to say on how to effect change. Perhaps that would require a different book.

Looking back at the above, I see that I have devoted more space to the book’s weaknesses than to its strengths. If that gives, overall, a negative impression of the book, that was not my intention. In fact, I welcome the book, which to my knowledge is the best resource on the subject. I hope that Ooligan will, in time, publish a further, expanded, edition.

PS: O’Reilly Radar has an interview (15 July) with Dennis Stovall (publisher at Ooligan): ‘Sustainable publishing is a mindset, not a format‘.







2 Responses to “Green publishing revisited: Rethinking paper & ink”

  1. […] piece for  Rethinking Paper & Ink: The Sustainable Publishing Revolution (Ooligan Press; reviewed  4 June), which deals with the impact of the publishing industry in general (not only its use of […]

  2. […] Jessicah Carver & Natalie Guidry, Rethinking paper and ink […]

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