Saturday, August 09, 2014

The Future of Books in a Green World

Did you know that 40% of all books printed in the United States are destroyed each year? That means of the 15,000,000 (15 million) books printed in 2012, 6,000,000 (6 million) books were destroyed. They are put into landfills and your new house in that new suburb may be sitting on top of all pulped books, books that were printed and sent to retailers who then sent the books back to the publishers' warehouse to be remainder for a short time and eventually destroyed, bulldozed into landfills among garbage and detritus. That is the past, present, and future of all the trees that were cut down and pulped to make the books that were not sold.

Recyclers say they cannot recycle books because of the glue that binds books together along the spine. They have neither the technology nor the equipment to separate glue from paper so the paper can be recycled. I'm going to have to cry foul on that because it would take very little effort to slice off the spine and pulp the rest. I could do it with a paper cutter, but it would be a slow process, and yet I'm certain that a forward thinking recycler could invent or build a machine to slice off the glued spine to recycle the paper and make a whole lot of profit. It's common sense.

I worked in a company a long time ago where I stripped the covers from paperbacks which were then sent back to publishers for credit and the rest of the book was sent to be destroyed. At that time, the books were either fed into the furnace to keep us warm during the winter or later sent to landfills to be bulldozed into the trash that eventually became a new plot of land on which to build hospitals, houses, and businesses. It still seems wrong to me, but I grew up in a land just 10 years post World War II and book burning just did not settle well with me. Nor does building land on top of destroyed books. Don't believe that your green plans for recycling and repurposing books will end up in any other way but the landfill. Only the rare books end up in a dusty shop on the shelves of towering bookcases with little stick-on tags with expensive prices. Few books ever reach that level. Most end up on the dollar and 50-cent table outside some run down bookshop just before they too are sent to the landfill. This cannot be the future I envision and still hope to see. 

In this green conscious age in which we live, I see that as unconscionable, especially when there is an alternative that doesn't waste trees, paper, ink, and books. We all know what it is -- digital books, e-books, The Future.

I received this email this morning from Kindle because many of my books are on KDP. Take the time to read it and then ask yourself this question: When all is said and done, who cares about readers?

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We've quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch:

Copy us at:

Please consider including these points:

-          We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
-          Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
-          Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
-          Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at

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