Pulp Fiction is Real and It's Not Good for Book Lovers
Ezekiel 25:17: "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you."
The publishing industry has a dirty little secret. One that I think a lot of readers would be appalled to know.
Take an author who has written a book that the publisher expects to do really well. The publisher will print a certain number of copies to keep up with anticipated demand, then if sales exceed that number, the publisher will print more.
But what happens when sales numbers don't meet projections? The book is discounted. Then, at the publisher's discretion, the bookstore will receive a directive to rip the covers off the books, recycle the remainder of the book to be "pulped" or turned into other forms of paper, such as notebook paper and toilet paper. The bookstore is expected to mail the book covers to the publisher as evidence that the book has been destroyed. (1)
This is standard practice. This happens every day across the country.
Publishers willingly and knowingly destroy books. Pulp fiction is what happens when you don't buy new books.
Are you appalled yet?
What if I told you that publishers opt to pulp perfectly good books in lieu of donating them to schools, libraries, and literacy organizations. Surely, a tax write off for a charitable donation would be some monetary compensation. However, the government actually incentivizes destroying inventory as a means of reducing taxable inventory (2).
Publishers destroy perfectly good books that didn't sell because they don't want an abundance of discounted books to "dilute the brand" or "cheapen the brand." God forbid an under-privileged kid in some poor area should be given a new release with lackluster sales because that's really a detriment to the brand.
That's capitalism's effect on the publishing industry for you.
So where are the book nerd vigilantes who rescue books with missing covers from bookstores who have been told to destroy them and give them to others? Are there no literary Robin Hoods?
There are, and they are out there. But the publishing industry wants to stop them at every turn. You'll notice that in many books, on the very first page after the cover, there's a note: If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book." (3)
I'd really like to know how rescuing something that is set to be destroyed is stealing. If someone throws something away, it's no longer in that person's possession. It doesn't belong to anyone. If someone on the street buys a sandwich, doesn't finish it, and throws the remainder away, that person cannot then yell at a homeless person for taking the remainder of the sandwich.
In the same way, if the publisher says "I don't want these books, destroy them," they can't be mad if others take them. If the publisher is so adamant about ensuring the books are destroyed, they should be forced to do the dirty work themselves instead of leaving it to the bookstores, who I'd bet want no part in the destruction.
But the publishers apparently have more important things to do, like thwarting the good deeds of literary Robin Hoods. Or they just didn't want to pay for shipping. In which case they could have just asked the bookstore to make a donate to a library or local literacy organization in the publisher's name. Capitalism makes people unsympathetic, apparently.
I'm not even going to get into the environmental implications of printing books, pulping them, printing more books, pulping them...
So what can we do about it?
There's not much, but if you live or work near a bookstore, check by their dumpsters every so often to look for coverless books. (You may also see hardcovers with the covers still intact since those are harder to remove.) Libraries likely won't be able to take them with the covers removed (hence why the damn publishers should just donate them before removing the covers), but there may be other places that want them, such as nonprofits that offer children's and family services, or nonprofits that help people get back on their feet after homelessness or addiction. These are vulnerable populations who likely wouldn't be able to afford books or other forms of entertainment at that point in their lives, however discounted.
If you're unable to find nonprofits in your area who might want them, give the books to people who might want to read them. If you pass a homeless person on your commute, offer it to them. If you pass a Little Free Library, place the book there. You can even attach a note that says, "Read this to keep it from being made into toilet paper." I have no qualms about recycling books that are damaged beyond readable condition, but to recycle or throw away books that can be read is beyond appalling. There's someone who will read them and if we have the chance to connect a person to a book, we should take it.
In fact, we can take inspiration from this Colombian garbage collector who rescued books from the trash and shared them with the poor in his neighborhood.