Friday, October 21, 2005

The Dirty World of Book Stripping

There are books beneath the table
And books on the floor
Books to the ceiling,
And blocking the door

The are books piled in boxes
(some Seuss’s foxes).
There are many in bins
To add to my sins,

There are books everywhere
From the floor to my chair
Won't someone please get them out of my hair?

Okay, poetry? Not my strength. Luckily this was something I realized early in life, saving myself a lot of angsty prose in high school. College just reaffirmed my belief when I took a 400 level Spanish poetry class…in Spanish.

(Oh Pablo Neruda, I love you. I really do. I just don’t understand you; not well enough to write a five page paper on your use of imagery. Please forgive me. I was just as clueless with Lorca. Que triste!*)

But we’re not here to talk about my love-affairs gone wrong with famous Spanish poets. No, we’re here to talk about the dark, seedy underworld of book stripping where the covers are cruelly torn from the binding, and your pages of words are tossed into a mass book grave (a.k.a. a cardboard box) to be thrown away. No one wants to believe it happens. No one wants to know that their favorite author is dumped in a compacter with all the food court leftovers and non-recyclables. But it takes place everyday in bookstores across America.

Now to qualify, this only happens to mass market paperbacks (and the newer Premium or Quality paperbacks, whatever they’re calling them. I call them the books that mess with my entire shelving system), trade-sized and hardbacks still get sent back to the distributor (and from there to the publisher) whole and healthy. I would love to spin you some fairytale about how it’s only the damaged mass markets, the ones with missing pages, or cover defects that no one would ever love anyway so really we were doing a service by putting them out of their misery. That’s not true. I would then love to tell you that it’s the books that are marked for return, and even then the bookseller in charge of stripping them feels remorse—heartbreak even—for destroying something the author worked so hard on.

I feel, however, that we’ve come too far for me to lie to you.

The truth (and nothing but the truth so help me God) is that we booksellers strip books for a variety of reasons. We strip books because they are damaged. We strip them because the pages have yellowed with exposure. We strip them because the company tells us to as part of a Returns list.

And sometimes, we strip them because we have absolutely no room. Frontlist, backlist, it doesn’t matter; they all disappear with the sibilant sound of paper ripping.

But why? Why do we have to strip books at all? Why can’t we just send them back like we do the Trade and the Hardcovers?

I was once told in a publishing class that the reason cover stripping came about had to do with a Supreme Court decision. I don’t remember when or what it was called (I would have to look at my notes), but I remember that it had to do with machinery. The basic gist of the ruling was that some (steel?) companies were claiming tax (I can’t remember if it was exemptions but we’ll just use that word) exemptions on stock that they had in their warehouses. The Court ruled that they could do that, but only up until a point (I believe some where purposely producing stock that they couldn’t sale to claim the exemptions) and anything over that point would be subject to taxes (or a fine, sorry to be so vague). This directly affected the book industry because they too had a whole bunch of stock sitting around in warehouses. The most disposable of this stock, and the hardest to store due to the ease of warping, was the mass markets.

Thus stripping was born. The cover torn from the book was sent back to the publisher to prove that it wasn’t sold, and the rest of the book was thrown away. This is also why there’s always that little box on the copyright page that reads,
“The sale of this book without its cover is unauthorized. If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that it was reported to the publisher as “unsold and destroyed.” Neither the author nor the publisher has received payment for the sale of this “stripped” book.”

The people around me in my class expressed shock at this practice. People destroy books? Monthly? Are they Nazis? How can they live with themselves?

I will tell you what I told them. Yes, we strip books. We do it almost daily, not monthly. No, I’m not a Nazi. In fact, I’m pretty sure members of my family hid from them. And I live with myself quite well, thanks.

Sometimes I even find it therapeutic.

Oh, the gasps of horror. Oh, the looks of pity for my poor, simple-minded statement. I was Satan. I was misguided.

Didn’t I understand that I was destroying someone’s baby?!

Yes. Yes I do. I understand exactly what I’m doing, probably better than anyone in that class.
I’m getting rid of old stock. I’m getting rid of books I can’t sell. I’m getting rid of returns.

There is no guilt associated with standing in my back room, methodically stripping the covers. It’s relaxing, rhythmic. No customers asking weird questions. No coworkers asking what to do or where to find something. No noise but the hum of the A/C, the hiss of paper against paper and the distance rumble of the mall workers echoing footsteps in the back corridors.

The only time I feel any remorse at all is when I strip a book because there is absolutely no room. No room on the shelf. No room in overstock. No room on the shelves in the back. And still I have boxes on the floor waiting to be unpacked from yet another 100 box shipment, and my bins are full, and the company has decided that books must be overstocked vertically only (instead of stacking then horizontally, which would create more space) because that’s more “attractive” even though they’ve removed half of my overstock shelves to replace them with wall signs. Suddenly I have to make a choice, a choice I would not otherwise have to make: put out all of those new releases even though only half their number will sell, and destroy all the author’s backlist; or put out a selection of every title, only to destroy everything in equal number?

And while I’m making this decision, I have to keep these facts in my mind:

  • The sale of a frontlist title generates sales for the backlist, however, the frontlist moves faster (in theory).

  • People love to pick up backlist titles when sales are going on (buy three books get the fourth book free for example).

  • The company often sends me massive amounts of a frontlist title all in one drop, expecting me to keep some back to refill the section and the displays, so they don’t have to do multiple deliveries.

  • Any titles that I strip that are not on the returns list, will not be sent back to me until I scan out my stripped covers.

  • The computer will only tell me how many books were sent to me, not how many were stripped and how many are actually on the shelf.

It’s a balancing act, a guessing game that none of us like to play because what if we’re wrong? What if tomorrow the author whose books I just stripped turns up on Oprah?

The answer to that, by the way, is “I am so screwed.” The power of the Oprah is not to be messed with.

So again, why strip the books?

I don’t have a choice. No room means something has to go. The arrival of 100+ box shipments every Friday, the lack of a returns list for two months (I love my company, I love my company, I love my company), and the oversized quantities of some of the titles I have make the decision for me.

It’s strip or die, really.

So last Thursday, we stripped nine boxes of mass markets to clear out the bins: fiction, romance, science fiction/fantasy and mystery. No one was safe.

Each box holds approximately 48 books, so around 432 books were stripped that morning. The rampage continued through this week as more product arrived.

Those were 432 books that never saw the sales floor.

I would like to assure you that each title was represented somewhere, that there was at least one book on the shelf and one in overstock, but in the end I can’t. I’m really not sure. Towards the end we were just guessing.

I would say, “Los libros, pobrecitos,” in honor of that long ago poetry class, and my own horrible attempt, but I had a Spanish Prof once that used that word, “pobrecitos,” pretty sarcastically.

And I don’t mean this to be sarcastic. It’s a fact of the book business life. I accepted that when I started with the company five years ago, but for the first time in a long time I felt guilty as I ripped the cover off of book after book.

I felt that maybe authors were a little justified in claiming that booksellers were never giving their stories the face time they deserved, that we were uneducated morons making split judgments on someone else’s life work. I could have stripped all the copies of some author’s debut novel by accident. I could have destroyed too many copies of a book that was destined to make it onto the bestsellers list.

I don’t know. It’s all a blur. A blur that will take place again today with another 100+ box shipment and no room on my floor.

I’ll tell myself it’s so we can be up to fire code. I’ll tell myself that it’s the result of the buyer not paying attention to the reality of my shelf square footage, and their strange fascination with sending me twelve copies of Tuesdays with Morrie (doesn’t everyone who actually wants to read that book own it already?). I’ll tell myself that it’s not my fault.

But a part of me will think differently. A part of me will mourn a little, and wonder at the injustice of some Supreme Court ruling years ago that won’t just let me box these books up and send them back so that someone else can have them. A part will accept the fact that I have become a little more corporate than I’ve wanted to, and that’s why I’m not desperately trying to put these books out anyway.

That is the part of me that wanted to inform you, both author and reader, that today your books will be stripped to make room for more books that will probably be stripped tomorrow.

I’m sorry.

For the first time in a long time, I really am sorry.

*I apologize for the lack of accents, MS Word is not cooperating.


Unknown said...


Bookseller Chick said...

Seriously, I think I was having a pity party, but I really hate destroying stuff that I don't have to.


Anonymous said...


While sobering, the news is not surprising. With so many titles published each and every month, where else are the old ones to go?

As writers, we know it's a necessary evil, but the entire scenario still makes us want to pull our hair out in handfuls.

Especially paperback writers. Sigh

Perfectly good books being destroyed is such an ugly concept, but not much that can be done about it.

Thanks for sharing this. It is important for new writers to understand the reality of being published.

Kudos to you

Sabina E. said...

that was interesting.. i didn't understand WHY stripping happens, but now i do. running a local bookstore (or really, any local small business) is no easy task, so I can sympathize.

Nicola Griffith said...

The court decision you mention is Thor Power Too Company v. Commissioner. Not a good day...

Anonymous said...

The book industry is a shame. At a time where we're finally trying to stop fucking up the earth so badly, it gleefully goes on wasting huge amounts of paper. I wish there was a law regulating how much waste a company is allowed to do.I don't care if it hurts the book industry, I want there to be a living planet for my kids to live on.

Anonymous said...

This made me feel better, oddly enough. When husband drags me to the mall and I wander to the romance shelf, just in case my books are magically there (one lasted with my "signed by author" foil long past its strip date), and wander away, depressed enough to take in the fat that only an almond pretzel with caramel dip can soothe...

So, I'll just make pretend they sold out. Ha.

Anonymous said...

As much as I hated stripping perfectly good books when I worked at B&N, I realized it was necessary. What sickens me is that these bookstores have no recycling program for these books. The sheer mass of books that go to the dump everyday when they could be recycled (it is paper after all) is such a shame.

Royal said...

I think I was having a pity party, but I really hate destroying stuff that I don't have to.