In an ideal book world, every book would find a home in the hands of a reader delighted to find just that book. Alas, we don’t live in that world. While they have to be good at it to stay profitable, publishers and booksellers aren’t always able to perfectly figure out what readers will want to buy. So what happens then?
Booksellers have agreements with publishers and distributors on returns so they don’t bear the cost of unsold inventory. For hardcovers and trade (larger, better quality paperbacks) the general practice is that the actual books are return after a certain period of time. In turn, unsold books are “remaindered,” that is sold off at a steep discount to various online discounters (Hamilton Book and Daedalus Books are examples, as well as third-party sellers on Amazon–but beware of counterfeits!) and discount outlets like Half Price Books. The buyers for these companies purchase books for 20 percent or less of what they think they will sell them for, rarely more than half the retail price and often less. The publisher gets rid of inventory, which can be a tax liability, and while losing money, gets at least something for the book. And hopefully, there is someone out there who has just been waiting to buy that book at a steep discount. Often, about the time I get around to buying a title, I find I can get it as a remaindered book.
Of course, the one thing a buyer has to live with when you buy a remaindered book is that slash of ink on the bottom of the pages that signifies it is remaindered. That is done so that the book cannot be re-returned to the publisher.
The practice is different with mass market paperbacks. What happens with them is that the front cover is stripped off the book and returned to the publisher for credit. The bookseller is supposed to turn the “stripped book” over to be pulped, which allows the paper to be recycled. Perhaps you have noticed a warning like this inside a trade paperback:
NOTE: If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
Sadly, there are unscrupulous people out there somewhere between bookseller and pulper who sell off “stripped books,” often at flea markets. You get a very cheap book, but you’ve only enriched unscrupulous people.
Less frequently, books are donated. The challenge here is that the cost in time and expense often doesn’t warrant whatever tax benefit there is, and some places, like prisons are becoming increasingly restrictive in accepting donations.
One way around this, primarily of use to online retailers are e-books and print on demand books. The latter may be more costly, but for many indie published books, this limits the loss incurred with unsold inventory.
One other tweek to this system is one Inc. reported on with regard to Barnes & Noble’s new CEO James Daunt. Publishers often pay for placement of books they want to push. At Waterstones, Daunt decided to forgo those payments so that his booksellers could make the decisions about which books they’d feature. He figures his booksellers should better know the interests of their patrons than the publishers. In return Daunt slashed fees charged to publishers for returns, which could be on up to 20 percent of inventory. It will be interesting to see if this reduces returns, and if they use this system in the U.S.
It is sad to think of books being destroyed. Publishers are increasingly skilled at determining print runs. Booksellers are becoming more skilled and empowered in matching inventory to their patrons, and new technologies match books and buyers. There is a robust market for remaindered books. And those that aren’t destroyed can be recycled. It’s not a perfect system. But if anything, it is getting better.