Is it just me, or are damages out of control lately? By ‘damages’ I mean the multiples of unsaleable books that arrive from publishers and distributors alike, dinged and dented, pages folded over inside and jacket covers torn. If you don’t regularly work in the receiving part of a bookstore (and by ‘receiving part,’ I mean you just don’t work anywhere in a bookstore) then you may not be aware of just how much time and inventory is lost in the shipping and delivery process of our industry.
Here’s a summary of our Monday at my shop this week: we received 16 boxes of books via UPS, from a total of 5 publishers and 1 distributor. Two boxes were full case packs (36 copies) of a book for an author school visit this week. The others were a mixture of new releases and backlist orders, and a couple of mixed copy seasonal displays. In addition, our mail carrier brought 3 small boxes of ARCs, and a couple of those giant envelope-type packages created by sealing two squares of cardboard on four sides around a book or two with an inch or two of adhesive. (For the record, if terrorists or spies ever wanted to smuggle sensitive material into the U.S. via our postal service, those hermetically sealed cardboard packages are clearly the most tamper-proof method, for they take our staff a good 20 minutes, a case cutter, and a pair of garden shears to pry a corner open in order to liberate the Frozen 2 sticker book inside.)
But let’s get back to the Monday box pile, shall we? Of the 16 boxes, 9 cartons contained damaged titles. One entire case of paperbacks for the author event were unusable – but the exterior of the box was intact. Three other boxes were mixed hardcovers and paperbacks, and each had 8 or 9 books with ripped jackets, badly dented covers, or pages folded over and creased. In our box from the distributor, in which the books were stacked on a cardboard base and then wrapped with plastic to prevent shifting inside the box – all four novelty books had crushed spines or ripped covers. Granted, board books with cut-outs on the cover are tough to stack…. but they can be layered with early readers or even packing paper to prevent damage, and shipping books, after all, is their job. The remaining boxes, all new releases, were unusable. Of course, given the Monday delivery, this meant that our Tuesday morning “New Titles” display was going to look a little anemic, and our Monday afternoon was going to be spent in triage and recovery mode on the phone and computer, not setting up new displays or writing shelf talkers.
The amount of time that all this packing and shipping damage requires from my staff only compounds the disappointment and the expense of this problem. Each of these publishers has a different method for us to report damages – some require emails, some a phone call, and some request photographic evidence (how this was accomplished before smart phones I do not even want to contemplate.) Waiting for responses to these reports can take days, in which we must either store the damaged books, waiting for instructions or a call tag, or repack and wait for UPS to return. Then all of those titles must be credited, reordered, and we begin again, hoping as we wield our case cutters that the NEW boxes will contain undamaged merchandise to sell. All of that time is on the clock – increasing payroll for booksellers in managing the losses, and tying up the customer service departments of our publishers, who are simply logging lost potential on phone calls rather than discussing new releases and placing backlist orders.
Sadder still, to those of us who can still barely stand to strip covers on paperbacks for returns, is the immense loss of product over shipping damages. The number of books that just don’t make it from warehouse to my shelves intact each year is significant, and just trying to estimate the aggregate amount of damages to all indie stores is staggering. So many books that cost so much money to produce, and leave behind a giant carbon footprint in their printing, binding, packing, and travel literally around the globe, are simply lost at the last stage of the relay race, as they make their final dash from the warehouse to my shop. It seems almost ridiculous to mention that many of these books came from right here in Indiana – as the true “Crossroads of America,” we are home to multiple warehouses and shipping hubs right here in Hoosiertucky. Packing material, shrink wrap, and common sense, however, seem to be in short supply no matter where the warehouse is located, for we are sorting stacks upon stacks of injured titles every week.
There are, of course, homes to be found for all those damaged books, and once we get the “donate or destroy” benediction from the publisher, we fill boxes of books for community centers, schools, and other service organizations. All of these are worthy efforts, but this does not contribute to the sustainability of bookselling or publishing. The expense of all that lost product must be recovered – for ink and printing and binding and transport are all costs that cannot be paid in goodwill. The lost/damaged product line in a P&L inevitably contributes to increased prices – which are passed through bookselling channels and to consumers. In a industry where every penny counts and we fight for margin in every possible corner, we simply cannot afford the waste of time and product created by poor shipping practices. Let’s find some bubble wrap and do better, shall we?