Publishing Paradox: Environment, A Hot Topic, Addressed In Fewer Books

August 15, 2008


The new SEJ book award, along with plans for an increased emphasis on environmental books at this year's SEJ annual conference in Roanoke, VA, are reflections of an increasing interest in environmental book publishing among SEJ members. Yet trends in the national marketplace of ideas seem paradoxical.

Two environmental books have topped the bestseller list in recent years—Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Glenn Beck's An Inconvenient Book. (See page 11). That both would rise to the top of the market may seem to be a bit of a paradox.

But here's another puzzle.While environmental awareness is at or near a peak, the number of new non-fiction environmental books published each year has declined. The apparent high-water mark was 2001, with 3,571 new books. In 2007, only 2,840 new environmental books were published. (See page 8).

The slight declines may be temporary, or even irrelevant, given the creativity, range and depth of recent new environmental books. In recent years, new titles have reached from the comic to the cosmic, from highly personal to social, and from individual narratives of exploration to hardnosed scientific exposition. (See Environmental Books of the Year 2007 page 8).

Slight as they might be, the numbers are a concern. It's not just a reflection of the overall book market, according to Chuck Savitt, president of Island Press, a non-profit publisher that specializes in environmental areas.

"One would have thought, given the attention to climate and the resurfacing of environmental issues, that there would have been a lot more interest in books on the subject," said Savitt. "Unfortunately, we haven't seen it."

Comparing the environmental book trends to overall trends in the book industry is not easy. The U.S. Census reports a modest one percent annual increase in overall book sales for the past few years, but the Book Industry Study Group estimates that overall book sales fell from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006.

And according to the Department of Labor, the average American household spent more on reading ten years ago than today ($163 in 1995 versus only $126 in 2005).

There are various theories for the mossbacked market in environmental book publishing. Savitt believes it may be due to issue fatigue and the easy availability of reference information on the web.

Literary agent Amanda Mecke of Litchfield, Conn., thinks there might have been a peak of interest around Al Gore's book and movie. Now, the market may be going back to more of an equilibrium point.

Photographer Gary Braasch has another perspective. "Environmental books are always a hard sell — unless you are Al Gore," said Braasch, whose book Earth Under Fire takes the camera to the front lines of climate change.

"I have noticed during the Bush administration a downturn in photo requests on environmental subjects from magazines when Mr. Bush started the war," Braasch said. "I also experienced this during his dad's administration when the GulfWar started, and then recently a slight uptick as the news about global warming and the failures of the Bush Administration in various programs are becoming better known.

A few bright spots stand out for environmental book publishers. Universities are ordering more environmental books, even as supplementary texts for courses outside environmental science. And environmental issues are getting more respect from reviewers at many major newspapers and magazines.

"There's definitely an interest in climate (issues), but people are not interested in reading more books that scare them," Savitt said. "They get enough of that from newspapers and TV and radio." What speaks to the market these days, Savitt and others say, are books about action and personal experience.

In short, hope sells.  Some examples:

Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argue in Break Through that the environmental movement must focus on building the politics of shared hope rather than fear.

• Jay Inslee's Apollo's Fire includes strong narratives of things businesses and communities are doing about climate.

• Penny Loeb's Moving Mountains presents a dramatic narrative about women leading the fight against mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

• And Thomas Friedman's Green is the New Red, White and Blue, due out next August, is expected to focus on the "greenest generation."

Personal narratives have also proven fascinating to readers. Julian Crandall Hollick's Ganga, about traveling along the Ganges River, and Peter Thompson's Sacred Sea, about a journey to Lake Baikal in Siberia, are recent examples of the environmental travel genre.

Some ideas seem natural, taking off so quickly that they become part of the language. Michael Pollan's book, Omnivore's Dilemma, led to a new word for local food preference, "locavore," that became the word of the year 2007 for the Oxford American Dictionary.

New 2007 books also included expos.s like Mark Schapiro's Exposed, about the lack of US regulation of toxic chemicals and how it affects U.S. trade relations. Also in the genre of investigative journalism and history are Devra Davis' Secret History of the War on Cancer and Cape Wind by Wendy Williams and Robert Whitcomb.

Inevitably, some environmental books are aimed by authors to sadden us or force us to contemplate elements of the natural world that are lost or at risk and, possibly, inspire action. David Wilcove's No Way Home: The Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations describes air, land and water migrations from Alaska to the Serengeti. Similarly, Calum Roberts' Unnatural History of the Sea describes the decline of the seas and fisheries through history.

Finally, if you are looking for a book that will evoke depression akin to a Eugene O'Neill theatrical production, nothing this year could serve better than Alan Weisman's The World Without Us— a book that frankly contemplates the end of humanity and the eventual recovery of natural systems.

But wait. If hope sells, why is Weisman's book doing so well? In February 2008, it had an Amazon rank of 236. It's the perfect paradox.

Bill Kovarik, an SEJ board member, teaches environmental journalism at Radford University.



This list of books was not selected through any comprehensive or methodical review process but rather with the assistance of open recommendation from SEJ members on the SEJ listserve, SEJ-Talk.

Peter Annin, Great Lakes Water Wars, Island Press

David Beerling, The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History, Oxford University Press

Mark Bowen, Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming, Dutton

Gary Braasch, Earth Under Fire, University of California Press

John D. Cox, Climate Crash: Abrupt Climate Change and What It Means for Our Future, Joseph Henry Press

Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, Knopf

Kevin Danaher, Jason Mark and Shannon Biggs, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots, Polipoint Press

Brangien Davis, Wake Up and Smell the Planet: The Non-Pompous, Non-Preachy Grist (magazine) Guide to Greening Your Day, Mountaineers Books

Devra Davis, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, Basic

Bill DeBuys, The Walk, Trinity University Press

Joseph F. C. DiMento and Pamela M. Doughman, eds., Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren, MIT Press

Josh Dorfman, The Lazy Environmentalist: Your Guide to Easy, Stylish, Green Living, Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

John Duffield, Over a Barrel: The Costs of U.S. Foreign Oil Dependence, Stanford Law Books

Kerry Emanuel, What We Know About Climate Change, Boston Review Books

H. Bruce Franklin, The Most Important Fish in the Sea, Island Books 

Eban Goodstein, Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction: How Passion and Politics Can Stop Global Warming, Vermont

Al Gore, The Assault on Reason, Penguin

Peter Grose, Power to People, Island Press

Paul Hawken, How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, Viking

Mayer Hillman, The Suicidal Planet: How to Prevent Global Climate Catastrophe, Thomas Dunne Books

Gary Holthaus, From the Farm to the Table: What All Americans Need to Know About Agriculture, Univ. of Kentucky