Tag Archives: ebooks

e-Books and the Environment

Recently, someone I know rather well challenged me to a verbal (and intellectual) duel about the merits of e-books over paper books. My opponent is a vocal supporter of e-readers and electronic books (as well as technology in general), and can’t understand why I am stuck, as they put it, in paper-ville.

‘Well,’ I said, as if it was an obvious point. ‘One reason I love paper books so much is because of the environment.’

This almost caused a meltdown.

Photo Credit: Ian Sane via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ian Sane via Compfight cc

I was accused of being an imbecile who didn’t understand the first thing about the environment. ‘What about all the trees cut down to provide pulp for the paper that goes into your beloved books?’ I was asked. ‘You can’t tell me you believe that’s environmentally friendly!’ Now, I am an avid recycler, and have been for over twenty years. I love washing and squashing my plastics, sorting my old newspapers, making sure every tiny bit of recyclable material is separated from the non-recyclable bits, and put back out to use. I am one of these earnest hand-wringing types who worries about the state of the polar ice-caps and rising sea levels and global warming (and who has firm opinions on the latter, but I won’t go into them here for fear of generating another typhoon of derision), and so to think I don’t care, or don’t know, about the environment is a bit galling.

The other party in the e-book discussion is a person who lives and breathes technology and computers and – this is important – younger than me. Not by a lot, chronologically, but enough for us to belong, just about, to two different ‘groups’; digital migrants (me) and digital natives (them). Perhaps my interlocutor believes computers, and by extension e-readers, come out of the ground fully formed, wrapped neatly in plastic, with a friendly-looking user interface which says: ‘Me? I couldn’t possibly harm the environment! Come on, now. Not a single tree died to make me!’ For this person, ‘dead-tree’ technology is almost offensive in its backwardness, like expecting us to live in caves huddled around campfires instead of in houses, huddled around the TV. I completely understand why they, and so many others, think like this – but I couldn’t agree with them less.

What irritates me (can you tell I’m irritated?) is that there is such naivety when it comes to the reality behind producing e-readers. Sure, you can store hundreds of books on one device. Sure, you can use it for a good long while before it becomes ‘obsolete’ – or unfashionable, or broken. It all sounds good, that’s true. But in every single device, there are heavy metals, toxic chemicals, non-biodegradable circuitry and metal and plastic and glass and goodness knows what else – and these things not only do harm when the device is thrown away, but also when they are being mined, or manufactured, in the first place. They do harm not only to the environment, but to the people who work in the mines and factories from which we get our neatly-packaged, clean-looking, ever so modern pieces of sleek reading equipment. It’s too easy to convince ourselves when we open up our brand-new machine that no harm was done to anything or anyone else in order for us to buy it, but I just can’t believe that’s actually the truth.

In the EU, most if not all paper books are produced using wood pulp from managed forests. Sure, I will accept that printing causes environmental damage – water run-off, the dye used in ink, diesel used by log-cutting machinery and so on – but trees are an infinitely renewable resource, and it is far easier to control and monitor the damage done from pulping and printing than it is to control the damage done by mining and working with heavy metals. When a paper book has reached the end of its usable life, it can be recycled with ease – turned back into paper pulp which can be used for all manner of things. Books are so easy to recycle that you can do it at home, through your municipal waste collection. Not many people recycle their old e-readers, and even if they did, it’s no easy task to reclaim the useful components from each device. It’s a lot more wasteful of time, energy and resources to manufacture, use and finally recycle the average e-reader compared with the average book. I don’t have statistics to hand but I will defend this viewpoint to the cold, bitter end, dagnabbit.

So. Phew. That’s me. I feel very passionate about this topic (no! Really?) but if anyone wishes to chime in with refutation, information, argument or interested debate I’d really welcome it. I’d love to get others’ opinions on this issue, and to gauge if I’m totally off the wall with this. I promise to remain reasonable, polite and respectful (Girl Scouts’ honour), and if anyone out there has any actual, verifiable data about the environmental impact of e-reader production, I’d be charmed to make its acquaintance.

(And if the environmental argument can’t sway you to the paper book cause, maybe this article about how reading them is better for you will do the trick. If not? Well, I did my best. Adios!)


Paying for e-Books

Last week I read a blog post which was, in the main, a book review. I’m not going to link to it (for reasons which will become clear), or identify the blogger. I have largely forgotten the review itself, but what has remained fresh in my mind is the following (abridged and most definitely paraphrased) declaration:

I still feel weird about paying for e-books, though, you know? Because I’m so used to getting them for free, or maybe it’s because I object to paying for something intangible, but I just don’t think it’s right to pay for something you can’t touch.


So, this blogger was reviewing a book which was not self-published; it was a novel from a major publishing house. It was actually a novel I’ve read in hard copy, to the best of my recollection. I have nothing against self-publishing, I want to state right at the outset – I do feel that the tendency for self-published e-books to be free through some of the major online retailers does a disservice to the book industry, but that’s an argument for another day. The point of the current discussion is: this blogger felt it was ‘wrong’ to pay for an e-book, just because she couldn’t touch it. I can’t understand her logic.

Hmmm. Maybe if I sit here and scratch my chin for a bit, it'll all become clear... Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

Hmmm. Maybe if I sit here and scratch my chin for a bit, it’ll all become clear…
Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

It drives me crazy when people try to argue that e-books should be free just because they’re digital. I have little time for the mindset that anything you can download should come at no cost; simply making a piece of creative work available digitally doesn’t mean that it cost nothing to produce. The book this blogger was reviewing represented an investment by the publisher in the author, the cover artist, the copy-editor, the proofreader, the agent, the rights people, the legal team, and anybody else who was involved in the creation of the book. Just because it’s not printed, or stored, or shipped to a warehouse, or sold to you over a counter by a human being, doesn’t mean that nobody deserves to get paid for the creation of this work. It doesn’t mean that the reader deserves to get it for nothing.

I do accept that e-books should be cheaper than physical books for all the reasons I’ve touched on above – the fact that they don’t need to be shipped and stored, and so on. But free, if it’s not by the choice of the writer? No.

I felt that the blogger was trying to make a larger ethical statement, too, in the way she phrased her objection: it wasn’t that she didn’t want to pay, it was that she felt it wasn’t right. It wasn’t right to charge a person for something they couldn’t touch. But surely she’s paying for the use of the book, the right to read it, the temporary immersion in its story world? When you go out for dinner, you pay for your meal. Sure, you can touch your food if you want (and if your mama never told you not to play with your dinner), but you don’t get to keep it forever. You pay for the ‘use’ of it, and then that’s it. If you’re the sort of person who downloads music, you pay (or, at least, you should pay) for the right to play the music whenever you want, and listen to it as often as you like. You don’t have a physical album, but the music is yours to do with as you want for as long as you want. You’re paying for the use of it, too. The thinking that because you can press a button and have something delivered to your computer, or your ‘devices’ (a word I am coming to despise) means it has no intrinsic value is anathema to me.

If you’re not willing to pay for something you can touch – i.e. the physical book – why do you think you should get the contents of it (essentially, the same experience) for nothing? If this blogger’s problem was the ethics of paying for intangibles, shouldn’t she have felt obliged to buy the physical book?

Okay, you’re going to have to allow me a little soapboxing. I’ll keep it to a minimum, I swear.

*deep breath*

I can’t bear illegal downloading. I can’t bear piracy. I can’t bear the idea that music and books should be free because they are available online, particularly without the permission of the copyright holder. Some try to argue that they should be free because they’re ‘art’, and art’s for everyone – art is for everyone, yes. But there are libraries, and art galleries, and museums, and places you can rent books online if you really can’t engage with the physical world. In my opinion, nobody can or should work for nothing. Writers and musicians shouldn’t work for nothing just because what they do isn’t tangible. If you want to engage with or immerse yourself in or otherwise enjoy a work of art, then it should be instinctive to pay the person who created that art for their service. Perhaps the system we have now isn’t ideal, and it probably suits an outdated model of commerce and creativity, but that doesn’t mean we just get to chuck it out wholesale. We need something to replace it, something that people can get on board with, something that makes sense to everyone, both consumers and creators alike.

Part of me hates what I’m saying here. Part of me subscribes entirely to the ‘art is for everyone’ way of thinking, and would love a world where everything is available to everyone, borders be damned, and artists could just create art out of sheer love of what they where doing. But I don’t want to see a world where creatives are pushed out of existence through economic necessity, or where the creation of art is placed back into the hands of the wealthy, as was the case in the past. Even if all we pay is a pittance, whatever we can afford, a few cents or pennies here and there, it should be a given that art needs to be paid for by the people who use and rely on it. Surely that way it can keep going, and thriving, and we can all get used to paying for stuff that’s intangible – but nonetheless vital to our lives.

*clambers down off soapbox* *straightens clothing*

I thank you. Normal service will resume tomorrow.

Photo Credit: MonsieurLui via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: MonsieurLui via Compfight cc

Sort of related to this topic is this book, being published in November in the US (I’m not sure about the rest of the world). If I have the pennies, I’ll get a copy, because I think the model set forth by this particular artist may be the ‘right’ one, or at least the most acceptable to a modern audience. Interestingly, I don’t think the payment structure she has put in place for her music is the same one her publisher will be using when it comes to this book – and doesn’t that say a lot about our world and its relationship to art? Anyway. Adios!