Disappearing Ink

What will happen to all the books?

In the Phoenix area at one of the most popular independent bookstores in the country, Changing Hands, book buyers say they are getting pickier and pickier — taking a small percentage of what customers bring in for sale and trade.

And Bookmans — a four-store chain that used to subsist on proceeds from the sale and trade of books and CDs — looks more like a grungy Goodwill than a bookstore; it much rather would have your board games and your cat trinkets than your hardbacks. The corporate word at Bookmans is that the books it doesn't buy and you don't want are given to charity. But on more than one occasion, clerks have admitted to customers that what's left behind is tossed in the trash.

That's nothing. The biggest culprits in the book dump are the biggest stores. When Borders went under in 2010, the giant chain came under fire for trashing unsold books. And after news arrived this January that Barnes & Noble plans to close 20 stores per year for the next decade, we're likely to face the next wave of criticism and harsh realities for unsold books. The number of books it will throw out is a mystery — our calls and emails to Barnes & Noble went unanswered.

Barbara Simonick, communications director for VNSA in the organization's book-sorting warehouse in Phoenix
Jamie Peachey
Barbara Simonick, communications director for VNSA in the organization's book-sorting warehouse in Phoenix
The 57th VNSA Used Book Sale drew thousands to the State Fairgrounds.
Jamie Peachey
The 57th VNSA Used Book Sale drew thousands to the State Fairgrounds.

When Borders closed, pictures of Dumpsters overflowing with mass-market paperbacks stripped of their covers were all over the Internet, along with statistics that indicate it's not just Borders, that bookstores return 30 percent to 40 percent of books to publishers every year, and between 65 percent and 95 percent of returned books are destroyed and shipped off to paper-pulping plants.

That's a lot of books.

The American Booksellers Association and Association of American Publishers won't confirm those numbers and, as of press time, the Huffington Post writer who reported those statistics hasn't returned our phone call, but ABA representatives do acknowledge that national book-selling chains often decide to claim losses on unsold paperbacks, and to do so, all they need to do is mail the cover to the publisher or wholesaler.

The rest goes in the trash. Paperbacks are easy to recycle, at least. Hardbacks, not so much.

Try to sell a few boxes of books — paper or hardback — at the Bookmans location in Mesa, and you'll get a glimpse of the likely future. On a reporter's visit in November, just a greasy copy of The Moosewood Cookbook and a couple of other books — out of three full boxes — made it into the "we'll take it" pile.

On another trip in January, Dave Eggers' What Is the What, Martha Cooley's The Archivist and dozens of other books remained in the boxes.

The tchotchke-filled shelves at Bookmans just might be an introduction to the world author Gary Shteyngart describes in his 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story, set in a near-future New York.

Shteyngart's main character, Lenny Abramov, is one of the few people left on the planet who loves and appreciates the printed book. At the beginning of the novel, Abramov is harassed on a plane by passengers who hate the smell of his open book, forcing him to stow it in the overhead bin. He later returns to his own bookshelf and promises to bring books back into popular culture:

Then I celebrated my Wall of Books. I counted the volumes on my twenty-foot-long modernist bookshelf to make sure none had been misplaced or used as kindling by my subtenant. "You're my sacred ones," I told the books. "No one but me still cares about you. But I'm going to keep you with me forever. And one day I'll make you important again."

Spoiler alert: That doesn't happen.

What is happening (not in Shteyngart's book, but in real life) is an odd phenomenon: As we celebrate the book in our Catcher in the Rye T-shirts, we increasingly are willing to destroy it. Literally.

For evidence, do a quick search of "book art" on the craft sale website Etsy or hipster eye-candy organizer Pinterest. You'll spot book lovers covering their nails in shredded book passages and drilling holes in their hardbacks to make cool iPhone charging stands, headboards, armchairs, Christmas trees and desk lamps. Like used clothing, books now are available to purchase by the pound for "book artists" and hotel decorators. And big-name stores like Anthropologie raid local library sales and create drool-worthy seasonal displays before tossing the books in the Dumpster.

The reality is that we live in a weird time, when book publishing, book loving and book trashing are all at simultaneous highs.

New York University Professor Clifford Siskin says he thinks books won't lose their cultural relevance tomorrow, but the day when it's a challenge to find a physical copy of a book you're looking for might come sooner than you think.

"I think [printed books] are going to get stranger at different rates in different places," says Siskin, who studies print and digital culture. "We're obviously in the early stages of a technological transition — many people are still nostalgic about print for a variety of reasons, but those reasons are soon going to become compensated by a range of technology. ... That's not to say books are going to disappear because of technology, but their function and how we interact with them will change."

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I am going to write a fucking story for the Dallas Observer. You people know who I am. 

O.K. Theseus: Big roads (Interstates, Tolls High 5, eternal beltline) are how some dispersed cities manage "minority growth"


I still order books online and support the local secondhand book store when I go into town... A book I had been looking for since back in the mid 1990's became available as a down load for Kindle or a reprint by a Canadian company for $43... I chose to pay $73 for a first edition and in one week it had appreciated in value to over $200 and now only 3 months later is being sold for $400.59 dollars.... I wish my other investments were performing as well.   

TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

It's pretty hard to get all teary eyed about zillions of pages of unsold Shades of Grey, Dean Koontz or Stephen King paperbacks heading to the shredder.

Probably the most noble use that paper-fiber will ever serve is cradling a dozen eggs home from the market for someone. 


As an author with a foot in both worlds--I write large illustrated coffee table books and work as an editor for an EBook company--I see some interesting issues.  For convenience and for books I just want to read, nothing beats an e-book. But you cannot share or loan an e-book. And it is hard (though not impossible) to autograph one.  I often want to share books I love, and cannot do that if I only have the e-book version. Thus I often end up buying two copies--one paper and one electronic--of books I really like. One to read and one to share and get autographed.