Sarah Palin and David Suzuki. Both bestselling authors. One can expect shoddy environmental practices from a US politician/celebrity who can’t figure out how dinosaurs existed before Adam & Eve, but did anyone think superstar Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki would also be contributing to wanton waste of natural resources and the release of megatonnes of greenhouse gases?
The common link – and alleged indiscretion – is both celebrities’ books are being published by companies who sell books to retailers on a consignment basis. Within the book trade the practice is called “selling on a returnable basis.” Unlike electronics, groceries, clothing and most other consumer goods, unsold books can be returned to the manufacturer for refund or a credit. Despite sounding environmentally friendly as if it were one of the good Rs, ‘returnable’ selling has been linked to massive overprinting of books and the associated extra warehousing, transport and other costs. Across the industry over 40% of all copies printed are never sold, and subsequently discarded. In some mass market genres, the waste is in the range of 80% to 85%.
Dr. Suzuki’s books are published through Greystone Books of Vancouver, an imprint of Douglas & McIntyre. On the surface all seems gloriously green: Greystone makes this environmental statement on its website: “Reflecting its commitment to protecting the environment, Greystone uses ancient-forest-free, chlorine-free, 100% post-consumer paper in the majority of its books.”
Ex-governor Palin’s publisher is the giant HarperCollins, which recently increased the number of copies in print of her book “Going Rogue” to 2.5 million on the strength of early sales of 300,00 copies. Although sales have now purportedly broken the 1 million mark, Palin’s book could have 1.5 million copies headed for the pulping bin.
The website www.BookIndustryBailout.ca pegs industry waste at over $300 million annually for Canadian publishers, and over $3 billion annually in the USA. Analyst Bruce Batchelor believes the book industry is, “shooting itself in the foot, losing about 20% of gross revenues to this wasteful and totally unnecessary inefficiency. No wonder publishers and booksellers are going broke left, right and center.”
Jeffrey Trachtenberg of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL wrote, “Returns are the dark side of the book world, marking not only failed expectations, but the crippling inefficiencies of an antiquated business. It’s a problem that’s only getting worse.”
Consignment selling of books in Canada is blamed for over 50,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, although the real figure might be “as high as 200,000 tonnes,” according to Batchelor, who says he is a big fan of Suzuki. “But on this issue, he’s definitely on the wrong track and losing credibility fast. Using recycled paper is good, but selling on consignment is so wrong.”