Why Must We Continue to Strip Covers?

Josie Leavitt -- September 19th, 2011

I have come to the realization why I try not to carry mass market books–it’s because I can’t bear the idea of stripping the front cover off and destroying a perfectly good book if I need to return it. Why do mass market books get stripped and all other books can be returned whole, to be resold?

It seems to me that destroying a perfectly good book that is not likely to get damaged in the box back to the publisher is wasteful and a travesty. Why are publishers asking bookstores to destroy books? I have never been able to do that, much to my store’s own financial loss. Am I supposed to just throw these books in the recycling dumpster? Or the trash? While I love the idea of making donations to worthy places, sometimes I can’t devote staff time to organizing and boxing them up.

If publishers can handle trade paperback and hardcover returns (these are much more likely to get damaged during the journey back to the publisher) why are mass markets books so vexing? I have never understood why pulping books is an acceptable business practice when there are so many who need books. How about donating the books that are destined to be pulped to any of the myriad of town and school libraries that are desperate for books? What about creating classroom sets of classics that come in a mass market size?  Are mass market books so much harder to deal with? There are plenty of other paperbacks I return, specifically kids’ books, that are less expensive than mass markets, and I’m not told to destroy them and throw them away.

So, as someone whose heart actually hurts on the rare occasions I’ve stripped a cover, I really think there has to be a better way.

17 thoughts on “Why Must We Continue to Strip Covers?

  1. Melb

    In 1978-79 when I first encountered stripping in the first book store that employed me we would use the stripped books for kindling in the heat source- a fireplace. A few eyebrows rose pretty high!

  2. debi

    I just remind myself they are printed on low quality newsprint. I don’t read romance, but those are the ones I feel bad about. For most of those authors, it was their only chance to get into print.

  3. Amanda

    This isn’t quite the same thing, but I’ve seen some publishers try to donate mass quantities of unsold books to local charities, and the charities had to just stop accepting donations from the company. They weren’t really appropriate to give to kids and they couldn’t even sell them in the thrift stores. Sometimes a book that can’t be sold can’t even be given away.

  4. Spellbound

    Josie, I have to confess… I’ve never been able to bring myself to do this. I tried once, the first time I was faced with the dilemma during my first year in business. I just couldn’t bring myself to rip up a perfectly good book. I also avoid ordering MM now. When I have ended up with some that I would otherwise return, I would just mark the books way down or donate them. Of course, my store doesn’t do nearly the volume that yours does, so it’s not as big of a time and financial issue for me.

  5. GMinL

    I can assure people in the book trade (many of whom know public libraries well), that many librarians would welcome the opportunity to review unused and lightly handled donations, particularly in these crappy economic times. The Friends of the Library group where I work sponsors approximately four book sales per year. Donations that we do not add directly to the collection are sold in the regular book sales … profits from the book sales go directly to the librarians to purchase new materials. The dumpster is the worst possible place for unsold stock … and honestly, a shameful legacy for booksellers.

  6. Alex C. Telander

    I’ve worked in bookstores for over eight years, both for Borders and for an independent, and we’ve always stripped mass markets, and every single one I have personally stripped or seen stripped, has been painful for me — even when it was a crappy romance I didn’t much care for. Borders was also very specific with the procedure, having all stripped books be dumpstered, and employees could even lose their jobs if they took any, and the possibility of donating these stripped books to a shelter was out of the question.

    I think part of the reason for doing this is that it’s just always been done this way, and it also saves money by just sending the covers back, through shipping costs. And when it comes to big corporations, they’re all about saving money however they can . . . but it seems to be intrinsically wrong when the bookstore is intentionally DESTROYING the very product it is selling, to save some money. I think they should really weigh how much money is being saved, and whether it’s worth it. Of course, the other side of this is publishers need to made the call not to have it be this way and to change it.

    When I think of events and signings I’ve organized over the years and you stock up on lots of mass markets for the particular author and then they don’t sell, so you just strip tens of copies of these mass markets . . . it makes me sad as a reader and former bookseller, and makes me really question the whole process as a writer.

  7. Kitti

    Myself? I can’t stand the idea of paying $8 for an essentially disposable book. Doesn’t the stripping practice stem from the time when MMP were about $0.78?

  8. Kate

    I loathe the entire returns process and the idea of pulping books, which is one reason why I’m such an evangelist for short-run digital production methods. Why must the book industry insist on being inefficient and wasteful when we’ve figured out better ways to do it?

    Stripping and trashing perfectly good books makes me whimper and die a little inside. I really wish the major publishers would get on board with a better way of doing things, even if it’s just donating books to libraries instead of pulping them, if they’re going to be written off anyway…

    1. Vivian

      Or, what about ending returns and letting the bookstores rather than the publishers deal with the consequences of their own over-ordering, as is done with, um let’s see, EVERY OTHER PRODUCT IN EXISTENCE.

  9. Logotrope

    I believe publishers adhere to this practice out of sheer inertia: “We do it this way because this is the way we have always done it.” It may have made sense when mass market paperbacks were priced at a quarter; these days they are almost as expensive as trade paperbacks.

  10. Ellen Mager

    Josie, I have fought about this for 29 years! I had suggested sending them to places (we would pay shipping as a donation,but it never went farther) The publishers’ answer is that to pay someone to put the paperback back into stock cost more than it does to reprint them so why bother! I box the books up & give them to Phila. schools where there really isn’t libraries. Also I have had teachers teaching in foreign counteries thrilled to have them.We also trued a project where we had a girl scout troup coverethe spine and cover and made new covers so they could be given to the shelters, but look better.

  11. Jane

    I did my Master’s degree in book publishing, have had a few internships in the business, worked for a university publishing press, and I freelance edit for companies now.

    The reason I’ve always been told, about stripping mass market books, is that the shipping costs associated with returning them eliminates the profit margin of the book sale. Because mass markets are so cheap to make (abroad), and they are sold at a cheap price, the narrow margin can be eaten up with shipping and handling costs, and so some publishers would rather eat the cost by having the covers removed.

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