Some of the most talked-about books — such as Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin — are printed on rich, touch-worthy paper that stands the test of time.
Are we giving print books the future they deserve?
There is a new, rising threat to print book production quality and longevity – the use of groundwood papers instead of freesheet, or permanent, paper. Historically, lower-quality groundwood papers have been relegated to mass-market paperback books, but not anymore.
Today, book publishers are using groundwood paper to print many hardcover first editions, including fiction and non-fiction bestsellers, literary prize winners and critically acclaimed works, textbooks, and more — all titles worth preserving. The practice is increasing at an alarming rate and seriously threatens book production quality and book preservation in the United States.
Why is it a problem?
Books printed on groundwood paper prematurely age and deteriorate. Within two to three years after purchase and after only one reading, the pages of a book acquired as part of a reader’s long-term book collection may begin to show yellowing, tearing, dog-earring, wear and degradation:
The first three images show what happens when a book on groundwood paper is left in direct sunlight for two days. The fourth image shows a book on groundwood paper that has been sitting on a bookshelf next to a book printed on permanent paper. The groundwood paper book is two years younger than the permanent paper book.
How big of a problem is it?
- More than 50 percent of titles on The New York Times bestseller list are printed on groundwood paper.
- Some 1 million new titles printed on groundwood are entering the Library of Congress each year — and that's only a fraction of the number of new books being added to library collections around the country. The cost to replace these titles when they begin to deteriorate will be staggering.
Why is it happening?
Until several years ago, groundwood paper was traditionally used for printing newspapers and other more disposable publications, and freesheet, or permanent, paper was used for printing books. As the newspaper industry faces declining readership, groundwood paper manufacturers have promoted their paper for lower-cost book production.
Some book publishers respond favorably to this lower-cost alternative. This is largely because of the pressure they are under to drastically reduce production costs, especially in this era of deep discounting by retailers, when every penny counts.
What's the cost difference?
It is important to understand that the cost of book paper makes up a very small percentage of the overall cost of publishing a book.
Money magazine estimates that printing makes up only about 10 percent of the cost to print a $27.95 bestseller. Of that cost, about 30 percent is for the book paper — about 85 cents.
Choosing to print on freesheet, or permanent, paper for higher book production quality costs about 10 cents more per book. The cost would be about 95 cents per book for permanent paper that lasts forever.