Publishing Paradox: Environment, a Hot Topic, Addressed in Fewer Books

May 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.

                                     ENVIRONMENTAL BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2007
           (From the Environmental History                                                


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


Julian Crandall Hollick, Ganga: A Journey Down the Sacred River, Island Press

Christopher C. Horner, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming, Regnery

Joy Horowitz, Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School, Viking

Mark Harris, Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, Scribner

Jay Inslee and Bracken Hendricks, Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy, Island Press

Jonathan Isham and SisselWaage, eds., Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement, Island Press

Eugene Linden, The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations, Simon & Schuster

Penny Loeb, Moving Mountains: How One Woman and Her Community Won Justice from Big Coal, KY

Bj.rn Lomborg, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, Knopf

Chris Mooney, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics and the Battle over Global Warming, Harcourt Inc.

Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Harvard

Bill McKibben, Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community, Holt

Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Times

George Monbiot and Matthew Prescott, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, South End Press

John R. Nolon and Daniel B. Rodriguez, eds., Losing Ground: A Nation on Edge, Environmental Law Institute Press

Michael Novacek, Terra:Our 100-Million-Year-OldEcosystem—and the Threats That Now Put It at Risk, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, Beacon Press

Dale Allen Pfeiffer, Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food And the Coming Crisis in Agriculture, New Society

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Penguin

Alan Rabinowitz, Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold and Greed, Island Press

Trish Riley, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Green Living, Penguin

Callum Roberts, An UnNatural History of the Sea, Island Press

Elizabeth Rogers , Thomas M. Kostigen, The Green Book: The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet One Step at a Time, Three Rivers Press

David de Rothschild, The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook: 77 Essential Skills To Stop Climate Change, Rodale

William Ruddiman, Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate, Princeton University Press

David Sandalow, Freedom From Oil: How the Next President Can End the United States'Oil Addiction, McGraw Hill

Debra Schwartz, Writing Green, Apprentice House Mark Schapiro, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power, Chelsea Green

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, Houghton Mifflin

Fred Singer, Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years, Rowman & Littlefield

Henrik Svensmark, The Chilling Stars: the New Theory of Climate Change, Totem

Peter Thompson, Sacred Sea:A Journey to Lake Baikal, Oxford University Press

UN Development Program, ed., Human Development Report 2007: Climate Change and Human Development—Rising to the Challenge, Palgrave Macmillan

Peter D.Ward, Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future, Collins

Thomas RaymondWellock, Preserving the Nation: The Conservation and Environmental Movements, 1870-2000, Harlan Davidson

Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, Thomas Dunne Books

David Wilcove, No Way Home: The Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations, Island Press

Wendy Williams and RobertWhitcomb, Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics and the Battle for our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound, Public Affairs.

E.O.Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth,WW Norton & Co. 

Twenty years of environmental book publishing

  • Year Trade only Trade & textbooks
  • 2007 1832 2840
  • 2006 1792 3109
  • 2005 1853 3165
  • 2004 2044 3287
  • 2003 2168 3326
  • 2002 2182 3376
  • 2001 2284 3571
  • 2000 2030 3287
  • 1999 1640 2875
  • 1998 1889 3287
  • 1997 1790 3112
  • 1996 1691 3016
  • 1995 1732 2898
  • 1994 1570 2777
  • 1993 1480 2323
  • 1992 1439 2141
  • 1991 1135 1801
  • 1990 755 1400
  • 1989 461 855
  • 1988 481 835

** (Search of the Global Books in Print database, BISAC for all markets, published in UK and US, in English, subject "nature environmental conservation" or subject "nature ecology," by year of publication. The second column includes both of those categories and a third category, the BISAC subject "science / environmental science" 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008 issue

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