The current sustainability revolution has effects on the book publishing industry in all its diverse forms. From the supply chain to digitalization, publishers have the power to make a huge impact in contributing to a sustainable future. Microsoft has committed to being carbon negative by 2030, and as a Microsoft Gold Certified partner, knk has decided to also turn our attention to the sustainability issues facing our industry.

What Is Sustainability?

We thought it would be a good idea to start off with a definition of “sustainability” so that everyone is on the same page.

In this instance, we’ll look to an expert source, Oxford University Press’ Dictionary of Environment & Conservation – (Park & Allaby). The authors define sustainability as “A concept that is used to describe community and economic development in terms of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”.

This notion of “future generations” is particularly important because there is little question that Millennials (those born 1981 – 1996), Generation Z (also known as “Zoomers” and born between 1997 -2012), and Generation Alpha (born early 2010’s – mid 2020”s) have a keen appreciation for the damage older generations and industries have done to the environment and are fully committed to preventing further damage and reversing wherever and whenever possible. The publishing industry is not immune to this scrutiny, so now is the time to ensure that you are doing your part in addressing the concerns of your consumers (and Mother Earth).

Sustainability & the 21st Century Supply Chain

There is no better place to launch a discussion about sustainability and the book publishing industry than with the supply chain. For purposes of this discussion, we’ll define the supply chain as starting with the print decision and ending with the sale of and/or disposal of the publisher’s unsold inventory.

The traditional publishing supply chain has been under examination for some 25 years. Starting with the first tentative steps toward a new vision of the supply chain, R.R. Donnelley and McGraw launched print-on-demand operations in the late 1980s. Slow but steady progress ensued the next 35 years, prompted in large part by Amazon’s entry into the market and the innovations in process, programs, and print-on-demand brought to market by the Ingram organization.

This said, and while progress has undoubtedly been made, the pace of change has been agonizingly slow, for a variety of reasons. Not the least of these reasons is the industry’s long-standing obsession with driving unit manufacturing cost as low as possible – largely by printing more units than the market could possibly absorb.

Events of the past 15 months as the world fought, and in many places continues to fight, Covid 19 made it patently clear that a new supply chain model, one that takes into account the dramatic changes in the book publishing marketplace, was urgently needed.

I am pleased to report that much like the pharmaceutical industry’s response to Covid 19, the book industry’s supply chain responded well to the crisis. Book sales in 2020 were almost uniformly above 2019 numbers, and in many categories, sales grew over 20%. (Publishing Research Quarterly). At the same time, we were forced to confront many of the supply chain’s shortcomings and clearly, much work remains to be done to design and implement a more resilient and transparent supply chain.

Let’s Not Forget Digital!

Covid 19 re-energized the business of e-books and added additional momentum to audio books. Sales of audiobooks on sites like Audible, Barnes & Noble, and others saw a 16.5% increase in 2020 with some publishers releasing titles in audio format before print (Wall Street Journal). We would be remiss if we did not consider the implications of these gains for these product types and the implications for print.

Two of the most significant developments in this space are the gains made in the library market (both public and academic libraries) by digital delivery. Covid restrictions made delivery of and access to traditional print product virtually impossible for the past 15 months.

Similarly, the Higher Education market’s shift from in-class delivery to online delivery under the banner of institutional access accelerated the shift from print to digital and certainly accelerated the adoption of digital alternatives by instructors and institutions alike.

Why is this important? One would think that digital delivery has certainly had a favorable impact on the book publishing industry’s traditional sustainability footprint and to be clear, it certainly has.

But we would be remiss if we did not consider the sustainability footprint of digital delivery.  Truth be told – the absence of paper, ink, overprinting, returns, and obsolete inventory is certainly a vast improvement, but digital delivery is “not without sin” and deserves consideration in its own right.

knkPublishing’s Commitment to Going Green

The book industry supply chain and its implications for sustainability deserve close consideration, and you have knk’s pledge that we will give the subject all the attention it so richly deserves.

In the months ahead you can look forward to events and discussion of the key issues around sustainability, conversations with sustainability thought leaders in the publishing community, their supply chain partners, and key players in the distribution channels.

We will happily share resources that will help you and your colleagues understand the terminology, workflows, and processes so fundamental to sustainability and the supply chain. Additionally, we’ll introduce you to thought leadership resources that can help us all identify and implement a supply chain vision that is appropriate for the 21st Century and yet flexible enough to respond quickly and competently to new opportunities and challenges.