Is it just me, or are damages out of control lately? By damages I mean the multiples of unsalable books that arrive from publishers and distributors alike—ones that are dinged and dented, with pages folded and jacket covers torn. If you don’t regularly work in the receiving part of a bookstore, then you may not be aware of just how much time and inventory is lost in the shipping and delivery process.
Here’s a summary of a Monday at my shop in a recent week: We received a total of 16 boxes of books from five publishers and one distributor. Two boxes were full cases of a book for an author school visit in the week. The others contained a mixture of new releases and backlist orders, as well as a couple of mixed-copy seasonal displays. In addition, our mail carrier brought three small boxes of ARCs and a couple of those giant envelope-type packages created by sealing two squares of cardboard on four sides around a book or two with an inch or two of adhesive. (For the record, if terrorists or spies ever want to smuggle sensitive material into the U.S. via our postal service, these hermetically sealed cardboard packages are clearly the most tamper-proof method, for it takes our staff a good 20 minutes, a case cutter, and a pair of shears to pry a corner of one open in order to liberate the single title inside.)
But let’s get back to the Monday box pile. Of the 16 boxes, nine cartons contained damaged titles. One entire case of paperbacks (in an undamaged carton) for the author event were unusable. Three other boxes each had eight or nine books with ripped jackets and badly dented covers. In our box from the distributor—in which the books were stacked on a cardboard base and then wrapped with plastic to prevent shifting inside the box—all four novelty books had crushed spines or ripped covers. Granted, board books with cutouts on the cover are tough to stack, but they can be layered with early readers or even packing paper to prevent damage—and shipping books, after all, is the distributor’s job. Four other boxes, all new releases, were unusable. Of course, given the Monday delivery, this meant that our Tuesday new-releases display was going to look a little anemic.
The amount of time that all this packing and shipping damage requires from my staff only compounds the disappointment and the expense of this problem. Each of these publishers has a different method for us to report damages: some require emails, some require phone calls, and some request photographic evidence. It can take days to receive responses to these reports, during which time we must either store the damaged books, waiting for instructions or a call tag, or repack them and wait for UPS to return to pick them up. Then all of those titles must be credited, reordered, and we begin again, hoping as we wield our case cutters that the new boxes will contain undamaged merchandise to sell. All of that time is on the clock—increasing payroll for booksellers in managing the losses and tying up the customer service departments of our publishers, who are simply logging lost potential on phone calls rather than discussing new releases and placing backlist orders.
Sadder still, of course, is the giant carbon footprint left behind by the printing, binding, packing, and shipping of titles that will never actually make it to my shelves. How many titles in my Earth Day display this year are just silent witnesses to the environmental disregard of all this waste?
There are, of course, homes to be found for all those damaged books, and once we get the “donate or destroy” benediction from the publisher, we fill boxes of books for community centers and schools. All of these are worthy efforts, but this does not contribute to the sustainability of bookselling or publishing. The expense of all that lost product must be recovered, for ink and printing and binding and transport are all costs that cannot be paid in goodwill. The lost/damaged product line in a P&L inevitably contributes to increased prices, which are passed through bookselling channels and on to consumers.
In an industry where every penny counts and we fight for margin in every possible corner, we simply cannot afford the waste of time and product created by poor shipping practices. Let’s find some bubble wrap and do better, shall we?
Cynthia Compton is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys, an independent children’s store in central Indiana. Her store received the 2014 Pannell Award for children’s bookselling, and she is a past board member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association.