Trash Talking

Musings on Writing & Publishing

Trash Talking


No, I’m not here to trash paper. I’m here to discuss different usages of paper and the ones that are more likely to become quick trash.

The recent Digital Book Printing Conference hosted by Book Business was a very interesting event with plenty of great presentations, facts, and figures. In particular, Marco Boer of IT Strategies kicked off the event with interesting slides about the trends for printed paper. Among other things, he noted that there were 16 trillion printed sheets/pages in 2007 and that number as measured more recently is 11 trillion. These pages are the pages we encounter in our daily lives as newsprint, magazines, books, and direct mail (catalogs, etc). Newsprint and magazines fell precipitously during the recession but have hit a plateau in recent times in what could well become a new level of manageable stability.

This was an event about digital printing, which means in many cases printing lower quantities economically to improve efficiencies and reduce waste across all business segments. And Marco’s research estimates an ongoing 3% annum decline in this overall page count (11 trillion pages is still huge). His research also estimates that by 2020, 16% of all books will be printed digitally versus the favored and familiar offset method. Personally, I think a lot of that depends on what happens with major retail book distribution. If megastores fade away sooner than later, then smaller runs become more of the norm for what will also be smaller publishers.

The current trending towards digital book printing seems to be driven in part by the widening gap between the occasional blockbuster, which clearly needs to be printed offset, and the rise (or decline) of many more titles selling in smaller numbers, which makes digital printing economical. Stated conversely, this is precisely what helps keep those titles alive and in print. Much of the conference talk was about how inkjet book printing is now the rapid growth segment for printers and equipment providers, which included Canon, Kodak, and HP at this meeting.

What I found myself pondering following this presentation was the distinction between paper that is used for a sustainable amount of time, versus paper that is quickly trashed. Let’s call it Quick Trash Paper (QTP for all you acronym lovers). I’m talking about the actual consumer time spent with the printed paper. This thinking is partly shaped by my time in the defunct 35mm film and photo era, where we could make money producing lots of mass consumer prints (50,000 a night in one of ten plants alone in the U.S. on a busy summer night), but where the consumer actually only liked a handful of the 72 photos printed (double prints, remember?). This is some serious global Trash Talking! Quick Photo Trash (QPT). And it’s gone.

So let’s try and rank the waste of the remaining 11 trillion sheets of printed paper by category of usage. This is speculation, I have no stats. Worst has to be direct mail and catalogs, right? This is the only item of the four categories (books, magazines, newspapers, and direct mail) that in many instances has not been requested by the consumer. It’s push marketing, old-school mass-market style. It’s still effective and used as a driver of substantial business to the online store. The main uncontrolled variable for the marketer is the cost of postage, which the postal service tends to raise frequently. But from an environmental impact point of view, it just feels lousy emptying my P.O. Box, as I lean over the blue recycling bin at yet another post office (full circle recycling), depositing 99% of it into the trash. But I understand, all it takes is a 2-3% response rate and that catalog is paying back and covering a lot of fixed overheads. My hunch is this is one of the more stable paper sheet categories out there now, but one that may fall precipitously with the next recession, whenever that is. It’s real out-of-pocket money that can shift in cash-starved times back to ecommerce and social media drivers.

Next up in terms of consumer lifespan for a printed sheet is newsprint. Daily newspapers have contributed the most to the five trillion pages of lost print, and sadly journalism may have gone into the fire with much of it. But, again, it typically enjoys a consumer lifespan of one day, maybe a few days, but then is tossed, recycled, or if you live up north as I do, burned. (I have discovered some great articles while rolling paper for my woodstove, only to spare that sheet for subsequent reading.) But it’s far better than direct mail, because the customer actually asked for it. Paid for it.

Magazines have been in steep decline yet they at least hang around longer. Glossy printed magazines can be found months later. Old issues of Life and National Geographic are highly treasured items. So one might think magazines would hold the current plateau, same as what is happening with the printed book. This has a lot to do with the content of the magazine, ever-present and fast changing news faring far worse than an excellent foodie or style magazine.

Which brings me to the best usage of paper of these four categories: the printed book. People don’t buy print books and burn them in woodstoves. If a book is being burned, well, that’s a whole other sad story. No, print books are cherished possessions that last for years, that are carefully shelved and moved time and time again, the better ones with emotional attachments eventually passed along to heirs.

Five years ago, when I started what was to be an ebook-only literary fiction publisher (Publerati), I quickly heard from readers that they wanted a book to hold. “Can’t you just hold your Kindle?” I begged. The Espresso Book Machine provided me an immediate early-adopter solution, one scaled to my “narrow-casting” needs, and one I feel has tremendous potential as book retail changes. The good news for me as an entrepreneur writing checks from my own account is it appears that digital book printing of lower quantities is now opening even more new doors. I expect I will walk through some of those doors in maintaining low inventories of our books.

So many thanks to Book Business for hosting this event, where I learned a great deal, including some things that will help me grow my small publishing business. Printed books do make good sense, and digital book printing promises to reduce waste and create a more sustainable business model across the entire supply chain.

Do you agree that consumer time spent with the printed page will eventually dictate its usage by business category? Will there be a coming uproar against prospect mailings of catalogs over the holidays or will economic conditions determine its fate? Will some newspapers make it as digital dailies with Sunday and Wednesday print editions? Same for magazines? Ten years from now. What do you think? Does the amount of time spent with the paper produced matter?

— Caleb Mason