Today I witnessed a terrible thing.

Standing in line at the Walmart pharmacy, waiting to get my antibiotics prescription filled, I heard a horrible sound. A rip. A tearing, a rending of board and paper. I turned my head and saw a Walmart employee, cart before her, hands cradling a paperback romance. Rrrriiippp. The cover came off, topping a stack of similar ones in the baby seat of her cart. The depleted corpse was tossed into the cart's belly, where it splayed among dozens of its fellows. Rrrriiippp.
I stood watching, horror turning my stomach and shock freezing my gaze. I contemplated walking over there, shouting at the employee, demanding she stop. But of course she wouldn't. Of course, that would only cause a scene. No good. I turned my head and stared resolutely forward, studying the pink woolen hat of the old woman in front of me, willing her to complete her business quickly so I could drop off my prescription and be away. Rrrriiippp. My stomach clenched and twisted. The sound made me feel ill.

Stripping paperbacks. Of course I've heard of it before, from an author at a Dragon*con panel, most likely. Regular paperbacks are incredibly cheap to produce. The paper is cheaply harvested, the labor is paid nil, they're perfect bound and with glue of very low quality. The advantage of this is that book publishers can put a great deal of them out very cheaply, making them relatively affordable to the average person. The bad news is, when a company like Walmart (or Barnes and Noble, or Borders) buys a whole shipment of them and the bulk don't sell... it's far, far cheaper for them to strip the books and toss them in the dumpster out back, rather than ship them back to the company for their piddling refund. The refund wouldn't even cover shipping. This is the whole reason for the 'stripped book' statement you'll find inside most paperbacks from the 70's through the 90's, and even today. It's not because the publisher is really that sold on the cover art. It's because that front-coverless book you're holding was probably refuse, saved from a dumpster, and no big-time re-sale company made a profit off of it.
That's one of the advantages of trade paperbacks. Yes, compared to regular paperbacks they're very expensive. They're oversized. But they're made of decent materials, and they're far too valuable to be treated in the same way as a standard paperback. They're shipped back to the publisher for a refund if they don't sell successfully. What happens to them from there, however, I can only guess at.
I mean, just think of the waste! Because paperbacks are manufactured cheaply, they're made out of the cheapest and easiest paper material--wood, usually freshly cut, and with no guarantee of sustainability. That's bad enough, though if the book's being kept and used at least it's to a purpose. But thousands upon thousands of books are simply tossed in a dumpster every year. Not even recycled, that would be too much extra expense and work.
And me, I can't look at the mass destruction of books without my stomach clenching. I love books too much, no matter how trashy the contents. It's a terrible emblem for our wasteful, disposable consumerism. Look how much we have, we can just throw it away. But we really don't have that much. Really.

What can be done about this? I'm not really sure. Petitioning publishers and stores to act more responsibly is a thought. Notifying the public at large of this travesty is an idea, too. But movements are hard to begin, and I'd understand if you don't want to. But ordering books online from responsible sources, or buying from independent small booksellers instead of places like Walmart and Barnes and Noble.... that's a start. An ideal future would see books produced in very small batches, or even made-to-order rather than made-in-excess to anticipate the possibility of order. But then they'd be more expensive, wouldn't they? Our system just isn't set up to sustain that idea. But if anyone wants to venture that business, that green publishing company with made-to-order books printed on recycled cotton and wood paper...
You've got an instant customer right here.


[n]Evan said...

That is so horrid... I wish I had been there to put her in a box and send HER back to the publishers.

Emily said...

You know, they could probably donate them to literacy programs or other charitable organizations with similar goals.

It would be great publicity, tax-deductible, and even if, as you say, they aren't exactly Dickens, it's not as if the market for that type of reading is saturated. The very reverse, really.