Practice of tossing unsold books is an industry-wide phenomena
There's been a huge stir recently about Borders' plan to trash unsold books left over after 200 of its Waldenbooks locations close at the end of January. After getting in contact with a few folks in the book industry, it sounds like this is a much larger issue than a single case of store closings would have indicated. Destroying inventory is just part of operations at many large book stores.
Let's take a look at why this is, who's involved, and what we can do to work toward changing this practice.
The why and the who of this practice are closely intertwined. Mary Davis from Borders Corporate Affairs gave some insight into how ubiquitous this practice really is and passed blame off to the publishing companies.
What seems to be generally misunderstood by people is that in order to get credit for books that we are not able to sell and that we cannot return in tact to publishers for credit, we must, like all book retailers, per agreements with publishers, strip the covers off those books (these are what are referred to as mass market books) and send the covers to publishers. Currently, there is no other process in place within the publishing industry where a book retailer can get credit for mass market books other than by stripping the covers and sending them back to publishers.
(Random House and The Association of American Publishers have not returned E&I emails asking for the publisher side of this story. -Ed.)
In the same email, Davis said that the books were destroyed partly because these mass market paperbacks were "generally not durable enough to be donated to libraries or schools." I'm not sure I buy this. Would a school or local library really turn away donated books simply because they were mass market paper backs? How fragile are these books that they're selling?
While I do understand that this is a policy that the publishers set forth, a company as large as Borders has the clout to protest those policies. In fact, since the Waldenbooks situation came to light, they've begun working on a change. Davis said in her email:
Moving forward, we are committed to looking at our overall product disposition practices with the goal of finding a way to donate non returnable product to organizations in need when we can; and dispose of product we cannot donate in an environmentally friendly way. We are already making plans to establish store level donation and recycling programs. However, we have more than 600 stores nationwide—it will take time to establish these programs. In addition, we are beginning the process of working with others within our industry to examine and begin dialoging about our collective product disposition practices. (emphasis mine)
I'm definitely interested to see where that dialogue goes! The thing is, it's not just books they're destroying. A Borders employee commented on my post at greenUPGRADER:
Whether it be magazines, books, cd's/dvd's, gifts and stationary, nothing is allowed to be donated. We aren't even allowed to keep dumpster items for use in the stores, like pens, tape, ext. Last week I had to dumpster close to $15,000 of gift and stationary items in one store. The majority of items I boxed up included pens, pencils, blank journals and art supplies, any of which I'm sure public schools are in need of.
It's appalling that a company would trash these perfectly usable office supplies and stationery items. I can think of a few teachers who spend money out of their own pockets to buy supplies like this for their classrooms. Meanwhile, Borders tosses these things into the trash! There's no publisher to blame here.
While the dialogue they're starting is a step in the right direction, the book industry has a long way to go in improving its wasteful practices. That's not going to change without consumer pressure.
Since information started coming out about the Borders/Waldenbooks closings, a Facebook group has sprung up to urge Borders to reconsider the policy, and it seems that this grassroots effort is paying off! Borders announced last week that they plan to partner with Gifts in Kind International to donate unsold books left over from Waldenbooks store closings.
It's a small victory when you stack it up against the crazy amounts of waste in the book industry, but it shows that we as consumers do have a voice. If we pull together, companies will hear us, because they need our dollars to stay in business.
If you want to get involved, joining the Facebook group is a great way to start. Starting this month, the group set its sights on the book industry as a whole, and the more people chiming in the better! You can also contact people in the industry: your favorite author, a publisher you respect, or a bookseller that you frequent. Let them know how you feel about this practice and ask them what they're doing to change things.
The Facebook group has great contacts in its sidebar to get you going. If they don't list the company you're looking for, the best way to find the contact information you need is to visit that company's website. Most sites will have a Contact page that lists mailing or email addresses where you can send inquiries and suggestions, including a "care of" address for contacting authors.
Image Credit: Dumpster Full of Books. Creative Commons photo by specialkrb