Disappearing Ink: What will happen to all the books?

Scene from the Volunteer Nonprofit Service Association’s book-sorting warehouse in Phoenix.
Scene from the Volunteer Nonprofit Service Association’s book-sorting warehouse in Phoenix. Claire Lawton

Disappearing Ink: What will happen to all the books?

On a cool Thursday evening in January, several women gather around folding tables in a Central Phoenix warehouse to sort thousands of books, pausing only to pull out a greeting card used as a bookmark or to show off a rare find. This ritual takes all year — and every year, the work of putting together what's billed as one of the largest used-book sales in the country is the same. Only the titles change.

The volunteers quickly pull worn copies of Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses, Relationships for Dummies and anything by Maurice Sendak out of grocery bags, stick them with color-coded price tags and place them neatly into a maze of tall shelves filled with salvaged produce boxes labeled by genre and topic.

A few weeks later those books and about a half-million others took their places inside Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the Arizona State Fairgrounds for the 57th Annual VNSA Used Book Sale.

By the time you read this, book fans will have lined up around the block in the dark with big empty bags, waiting hours for the gates to open. Volunteers will have hustled between rows of tables, and, by the end of the two-day sale, the VNSA — which used to stand for Visiting Nurse Service Auxiliary but now means Volunteer Nonprofit Service Association — will have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit local charities.

And though many customers and VNSA groupies will have arrived at the sale looking for first editions and rare finds, just as many will be happy taking home an Amy Tan or a copy of Chicken Soup With Rice.

But not all the books donated to VNSA were so lucky. Some didn't even make it to the sale table. The sorting process is pretty brutal, and those that didn't make it — just about anything by Dan Brown or Danielle Steel and, this year, a glut of Lance Armstrong biographies — were chucked into grocery carts and pushed to the back of the warehouse where the lights aren't as bright. 

Some of those books in the back of the room will be split among nursing homes, food banks and the local jail.

The rest will be turned into pulp.

The volunteers note that the VNSA's main goal is to raise money for charity and that even the books that end up in the recycle bin are worth cash. Organizations called "disposal buyers" snatch up recyclable books and ship them to plants where they're turned into a mush of paper pulp and sold as a raw material. The VNSA gets a cut of that sale.

No one with the organization tracks data by the individual book, but VNSA officials estimated a few days before this year's sale that of the half-million or so books donated, 400,000 would be put up for sale.

About 80 percent of the books offered for sale typically are purchased, and the rest were bought by a single California-based buyer who will go through another process of sorting, selling and tossing.

Back in that Central Phoenix warehouse, when asked how many of the books get thrown in the Dumpster throughout the sort, the volunteers exchange uneasy glances and softly agree, "Quite a few."

The truth is that we just don't have room on our shelves for all those books, and nobody wants to be the last stop before the Dumpster. This year, the VNSA took in a record number of books, many donated by used bookstores.

"Our donor base has definitely changed in the last few years, since the change in our economy and the introduction of electronic readers," says Barbara Simonick, communications director for the VNSA. "Larger numbers of our donations are coming from local booksellers."

That doesn't mean that we don't love books.

The irony is that as Kindles, Nooks and iPads gain in popularity, so does nostalgia for their printed predecessor. Although industry experts estimate that more books than ever were published last year, people act as though the book already has taken its place in history as an artifact — or an endangered species, at least, fetishized and celebrated like a polar bear or a California condor.

"Save the Whales" T-shirts, step aside. The book has captured the retro-minded hipster's heart, imagination and cash. You can buy book-scented candles and perfume. Card catalogs are among the most coveted vintage items at flea markets.

And if you do actually buy an e-reader, well, you'll cloak it in a case designed to look like the tattered cover of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — if you're cool.

But here's a fact that will have the book- obsessed quaking in their Converses: Way more books than you can imagine are tossed in Dumpsters every day.

It's not just the VNSA. Far from it.

Turns out you can't give away a good book these days. In 2010 the Chicago Public Library released a letter explaining that because of budget cuts, book donations no longer were accepted. It cost too much to sort, input and shelve the thousands of books that came through donation bins. Libraries across the country soon followed.

In Tempe, Arizona's Changing Hands Bookstore, one of the most popular independent bookstores in the country, 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 six-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 filed for bankruptcy in 2011, the giant chain came under fire for trashing unsold books. And after news arrived this January that Barnes & Noble plans to close twenty 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 e-mails to Barnes & Noble went unanswered.

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 to 40 percent of books to publishers every year, and between 65 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, Arizona, 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."

The printed copy first went digital in the early 1970s, when an American techie named Michael Hart retyped the Declaration of Independence, uploaded it to a server and sent it to a few of his coworkers. His goal quickly became to digitize all books with expired copyrights (at that time, anything published before 1923), and though Hart died in 2011, his Project Gutenberg still is running with hundreds of volunteers who furiously type and upload to the server every day.

"Throughout the history of publishing, there has been no sense of tradition," says author Robin Sloan. "The production of the printed book was all chaos, competition, stealing ideas, shutting each other out of markets."

Sloan's a self-described media inventor who has had gigs with Poynter, Current TV and Twitter predicting the future of media. In 2012 he released his first novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.

Sloan says he dived into research on the history of publishing in the process of writing his book, which examines traditional type, underground printing presses and the future of bookstores through a fictional lens.

"Publishing was about the right way to do things — mixing ink, cutting type and arguing how to put it all together," he says. "It sounds exactly like the Internet. And while I never see a total and complete end to the printed book, I think e-books will continue to face the same sort of challenges and even newer forms of competitive technology in the future."

But one thing is certain: No one will ever take a guillotine to an e-book.

That's the name for the machine used to slice the spine off a hardcover book — the first step in the recycling process.

The modern-day book "beheader" is much more industrial than its murderous ancestor. It looks like a large office printer/scanner with an adjustable blade at the top that can be lifted for a book's (or multiple books') height. When it's in action, a book is lined up under the blade on the guillotine's flat surface, alongside and on top of other hardbacks.

A large crank is turned, and a plastic window closes to protect the machine's operator. The blade drops.

With a large crack, the books' spines are severed from the paper. The front and back covers fall to the sides, and the hardback material is tossed into the garbage. The book's pages then can be recycled alongside paperback books.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that in early 2012, paper made up more than 40 percent of a typical landfill's contents, a proportion that employees at the North Gate Transfer Station in Phoenix are working to reduce with limited budgets and a changing culture.

Recycling programs across the country accept and process paperback books fairly easily, but because of the way hardbacks are produced, their destruction is a complicated (and often skipped) process. The landfill is easier.

Facilities with enough guillotines to destroy hardback books in large quantities are difficult to find and often charge per cut, which many recycling programs can't afford. If you're looking for a DIY option, the standard FedEx Office location usually has a guillotine that can cut through a couple of hardbacks for $1.50 a slice, employees say.

Every day in Phoenix, truckloads deliver more than 3,000 tons of trash and recycling to the transfer station, an isolated facility off the Black Canyon Freeway, to be sorted or taken to the landfill.

On a cold morning in January, material snakes through thousands of square feet where machines and human arms sort paper, bottles, cardboard, plastics and an influx of discarded holiday decorations.

From the observation deck, it's hard to keep track of what goes by and where it's going, but it's easy to spot items you wouldn't expect to see at a recycling plant — sandwiched between flattened boxes and soda bottles were an American flag, a collection of stuffed animals and remnants of paperbacks.

Down the line, the American flag is pulled, and the stuffed animals are placed off to the side, but the books take the long journey with the newspaper and the junk mail. At the end of the day, the recyclable materials are sorted, bundled like hay bales and sold to Chinese pulping plants, say city officials.

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.

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, sellers often are 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 others 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 its 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 Donate, Not Dumpster 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 versus 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.

"It was always odd to me that the system couldn't figure out a way to better handle the books that didn't sell," Esparza says. "But there we were, booksellers ripping the covers off mass-market paperbacks and tossing them in the trash."

"I have no doubt that we're throwing away more books than ever before," says Robert Spindler, an archivist and head of Archives and Special Collections at Arizona State University. "And as a result, libraries are now racing to scan what we've determined are endangered books and preserve the information."

To determine a book's "endangered" status, librarians use a database called WorldCat, which keeps track of what books are where and enables libraries to send the overflow to special storage (or the garbage can).

Guarded books are kept in rare-collection rooms and climate-controlled warehouses to slow their deterioration, says Spindler, in case the technology used to preserve them fails.

Book fans also use technology to find each other. They create book clubs, sell books online and find donation programs (or artists who can use them as supplies) to help prolong the lives of their well-loved printed materials.

Sloan says that even authors are paying more and more attention to technology and how readers are consuming their content. And though he'll always have a soft spot for bookstores, libraries and physical books, he also recognizes the permanent object's ultimate impermanence.

"Maybe we've become too precious with the book," he says. "It's a sad realization that no one wants them, but maybe it's healthy that in the end, most of them get destroyed," he says.

"I've come to think of a book on my shelf not as a trophy, but something on a to-do list."

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