Disappearing Ink

What will happen to all the books?

Casey Curran says he views the conversation between his work and the authors as an "unknown collaboration" of sorts, and though he understands there are people who view book art as sacrilegious, he says that the way we look at books is changing.

"I've never had anyone look at my work and say that I shouldn't be cutting up a book," he says. "There's a wealth of information in books that's a great jumping-off point for my work. ... I don't think Aldous Huxley would have ever known that some kid in Seattle would chop up his book and sell it to people as art, but that's how I made those pieces."

Long before Pedro Esparza switched off the lights and shut down the last Borders bookstore in Arizona, he remembers standing next to a Dumpster with his fellow employees and throwing away books.

Claire Lawton
Claire Lawton

The 30-year-old worked at Borders stores in Tempe and Mesa on and off for more than four years and says that in order to claim losses on books that didn't sell or that were pulled to make room on the floor for things like coffee stands and year-round gift displays, employees are forced to strip the covers off before they toss them in the garbage. No book can be saved, donated or left intact. That, Esparza says, was typical Borders policy.

Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association says the practice of stripping books for their covers is a choice the bookseller makes. If books aren't selling on the shelves, even after discounts and specials, they're often forced to return them to the publisher or wholesaler and claim their losses. Some publishers and wholesalers, he says, just want the cover and the ISBN code. To them, the rest of the book has no value.

The mass-market paperback book that we know today was born during WWII when the cost of paper was less than its transportation. Cheap paper and binding meant publishers could print a higher number of books at a relatively low cost around the country. When books weren't selling by the end of the fiscal year, bookstores began claiming losses by tearing off the covers and sending them to the publishers. This created an audit trail for booksellers and was cheaper for both parties.

But coverless books began popping up at thrift stores and flea markets, and in the 1990s, publishers began printing copyright notices on the insides of cheap paperbacks that read: "If you purchased this book without a cover, it has been reported to the publisher as 'unsold and destroyed,' and neither author nor publisher have received payment for this book."

The notice was meant to discourage booksellers and parties from pulling books out of the trash and attempting to make an illegal profit, but the notice often was ignored and eventually was phased out. Today, big booksellers still send the covers back to their publishers and then often don't donate them because there's no monetary incentive and no tax credit available. Their loss has been claimed already. Smaller bookstores don't have the money to send the entire books back and don't have an incentive to find a willing charity.

On the last day Borders was in business, Esparza and a few fellow employees took down the fixtures, boxed up the remaining books, and took one last look before locking the doors.

The fate of the books left behind — the ones that hadn't sold after rounds of 25-, 50- and 75-percent-off sales — was left in the hands of liquidators and bulk wholesale buyers who would eventually swing by. But as reported by Inhabitat and Huffington Post in 2010, Borders planned to throw the remainder of its literary merchandise away. Employees and advocates created Facebook pages urging Borders to donate their remaining stock ("Save the books!"), but, ultimately, they weren't successful.

On January 20, 2010, Borders posted a notice to employees on its server, Bookmark, that though its Waldenbooks stores would be working with donation organizations to collect unsold gift items, mass-market paperbacks would be destroyed. The notice then was posted on the DonatenotDumpster Facebook page by employees:

"It is important for everyone to realize that the practice of stripping mass-market books and returning the covers for credit is an industry-wide practice and we won't be able to change this overnight," the notice reads. "It is also important to note that, if we were to return the mass-market books whole copy to the publishers, they would in turn pulp them, so we would have spent as much freight, and a much bigger carbon footprint sending tonnage across the country vs. just covers. As for donating the books, even if we could do such a thing (which the publishers currently will not allow), how would we determine which books were suitable to be donated to which organization ... I'm sure many of you have tried to donate books to libraries and schools and found that it is not an easy task. They very often simply don't want them — especially mass-market — due to content and/or condition."

Efforts to find the creators of the Facebook page and website donatenotDumpster.org went unrewarded. The URL has expired.

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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.