What Happens to Unsold Books?

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If you’re environmentally conscious, don’t work in online relisting. The wastefulness will terrify you. As just one example, Amazon destroys millions of items of unsold stock (including books) in only one of its UK warehouses every year.

When shelf space is limited or at a premium, unsold books are removed and replaced with something newer, shinier, or simply something likely to sell more quickly. The removed books usually end up travelling back to the publisher or onwards to a wholesaler or online relister where they may be:

  • Resold
  • Recycled
  • Pulped
  • Donated
  • Destroyed.


What Are Remaindered Books?

Remaindered books (also simply called ‘remainders’) are printed books (both hardback and paperback) that aren’t selling quickly enough. When sales slow down too much, the publisher will usually liquidate any unsold copies by massively reducing the price. If the books still don’t sell, the remainders are usually destroyed through a process called ‘pulping’.


What Is Book Pulping?

To pulp a book, you need to tear off its cover and recycle the paper ‘book block’ by mixing it with water and some chemicals to break down the paper and ink so that it can then be recycled to use for other paper products.

Pulping is common in the publishing industry – again, more so with the bigger publishers where there’s a far higher chance of unsold books being ‘remaindered’ or ‘returned’ by shops or even when they’ve been sitting in a warehouse somewhere for a certain period of time! 

Recycled books at Big River Books

Recycled books at Big River Books. Beau Claar, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Where Do Remaindered Books Go?

There’s no arguing that the publishing industry is big. It’s £18.2-billion-a-year-revenue enormous. But until you escape the very tidy and consumer-friendly bookstores and the pick-what-you-see online booksellers, it’s almost impossible to grasp the full scale of mass book production.

A few years ago I worked at an online bookstore, one that buys from libraries, bookshops, and individuals who want to reduce or eliminate their collections. Essentially, I became the book-buying equivalent of a battlefield scavenger, picking up all the bits that get left behind, and making a living off battle-damaged or expendable book battalions.

I saw more books in the first three months than I ever knew existed. And I have seen more copies of individual books than I ever thought could exist at any one time. Hardcopies, paperbacks, mass-market paperbacks, special illustrated editions, limited editions, deluxe editions, anniversary reprints, second/third/fourth reprints, cover changes, additions, revisions, new additional novella or interview, now a major motion picture!


Why Are Too Many Book Copies Printed in the First Place?

Getting to the stage where too many copies of a book are created for the market demand is unfortunately common with the big (and often medium-sized) publishers. This could be due to anything from:

  • Thinking the book will be more successful than it turns out to be.
  • Over-compensating for vanity metrics (such as author follower count) instead of engagement metrics (how many followers are actually interested in buying).
  • Something happening mid-marketing that causes a downturn in sales (pandemic, anyone?)
  • Printing more on purpose so that each unit costs less (thanks to ‘economies of scale’ discounts).
  • Using the books to ‘flood’ the market so potential readers see them everywhere and are therefore more likely to buy.
  • To edge out competitor titles to grab bestseller or prime shelf locations.

Don’t get me wrong, every book that came across my desk made me even more driven to make my writing career a success. I would love to see my books popular enough that I could be granted a special anniversary illustrated movie tie-in edition to any of them. But as much as I want to be successful, I don’t want to be so profitable that I’m hurting the environment with unsold stock.

During my time as a book reseller, I would often sit in the stock warehouse among the thousands of bestsellers rejected from libraries or bought up from overstock warehouses and I would think about how little some publishers’ claims mean. “One million books in print!” they boast. Yep, and I’m surrounded by a good percentage of them right here.

‘In print’ does not mean sold or read or loved it’s how many exist. Considering the huge number of the same books I got to see week after week during relisting, I’m inclined to believe the ‘[x amount] in print’ fanfare is almost a panicked addition to new books that, with subtext, actually mean “We overproduced, please buy this.”


Do Unsold Books Get Donated or Recycled?

Yes, unsold books get donated or recycled as much as possible. But the ‘perfect world’ 100% donate or recycle rate is often far from the unfortunate reality.

Seeing the sheer volume of those same books that do nothing but take up warehouse space, gather dust, and house silverfish, it’s pretty frightening ecologically. I often threw away upwards of five copies of the entire Twilight Saga every week. We couldn’t sell it, even for mere pennies.

We used to donate to charity and thrift stores every week, but we ended up with too much and they didn’t have room for more. These ‘immensely popular’ books, along with hundreds of other ‘bestsellers’, and endless dollar-books by popular romance authors, just got sent straight to recycling. Even then, though we tried to recycle everything, we’d fill our special deluxe-sized-double-dumpster within two days and only have two collections a week. The rest, simply because we had no other manageable way of maintaining our warehouse space, went to landfill.

This problem isn’t unique to books. Overproduction to satisfy consumer demand is everywhere in any given industry. Very little of it is made from renewable resources. Books could be, though, at least partly. And it would be great to see this addressed by the Big Four.


Can Publishing Be More Eco-Friendly?

Some of the bigger publishers, I’m sure, use recycling initiatives when it’s economically viable. Others, like my very own Inspired Quill, have books printed on demand (POD), per order. There are no vast warehouses of orphaned Inspired Quill books awaiting their forever home. (Well, I have a few boxes in my closet, but they venture out at a good pace.)

There’s a very real, mindful choice that’s been made at Inspired Quill as it’s grown, to continue using POD tech to minimise our eco-footprint (even if it would be financially better in the long run to make the most of economies of scale and print in bulk). That is a world I strive to live in, and I hope everyone else does too. Being crushed by a toppling mountain of Resonance novels would be an ironic way to go. Ebooks are obviously a very handy solution to this, but the romanticism and extra emotional weight of holding a book before you are things that readers shouldn’t have to forfeit.

I love paper books, and I always will. But from working amongst them every day and having to eliminate so many, I’m definitely going to be more careful about how many I buy, and at what cost they come to me and our planet.

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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://inspired-quill.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Hugo-Jackson.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Hugo is a British-born fantasy author living in North Carolina. They are heavily involved with the furry fandom, standing as an advocate for LGBT+ rights, mental health awareness, inclusion, and artist/author visibility and fair treatment. [/author_info] [/author]

Hugo Jackson

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