by Walter Brasch
He’s there by 7 a.m. almost every Sunday except in late Fall and Winter to make money in one of the largest permanent flea markets in northeastern Pennsylvania. In three-foot long cardboard boxes he has an inventory of hundreds of paperbacks, all of them displayed spine up. Westerns. Romances. Adventures. Whatever you want. Three for a buck; fifty cents each. The books are virtually mint condition, and if you don’t mind reading something without a front cover, it’s a bargain, especially since paperbacks with the covers, sold at supermarkets, pharmacies, and bookstores, are now going for as much as $7.95 each.
He isn’t the only one. There are thousands like him, although most don’t produce the sales volume he does. In flea markets and yard sales, individuals have bought what are known as “stripped books” from other flea markets and yard sales and sell them for pennies more; it’s just another way to make a few bucks.
The only problem is that it’s illegal.
The sale of stripped books is a significant and ongoing problem that involves fraud, possible copyright infringement, and some areas that take the crime into interstate commerce violations. However, police departments and prosecutors often don’t have the time, manpower, or resources to investigate and bring to court sellers of stripped books. To understand why the sale of stripped books is illegal, it’s important to know a little about the nature of book publishing. Although the major book chains usually buy books on the basis of a book’s cover and the promotion effort put out by the publisher, no one can predict which books will titillate American reading appetites, even with a $100,000 promotion campaign. So, publishers of the mass market paperbacks--the kind with colorfully-embossed titles superimposed over pirates and scantily-clad women on slick 4-1/4 by 6-3/4 inch covers--order large print quantities to try to saturate American bookstands. They sell these books to distributors for 55–65 percent of the list price—bookstores get 40 percent of that—and hope a few titles bring in enough profit to carry the rest of the line.
Unique in the field of retail sales, booksellers can return to publishers for full credit any books they can’t sell. However, publishers have no desire to pay shipping costs for books they probably won’t redistribute, especially since there are another couple of dozen titles they’re trying to push that month. And, neither bookseller nor publisher wants several skids of taxable inventory. So, distributors and publishers sign contracts that allow the bookseller to send only the cover back to the publisher, tack on shipping costs, and agree to destroy the rest of the book to prevent further sale.
However, some booksellers “forget” to send some books to a debindery or recycler, either selling some in their own store or, more likely, selling books for pennies apiece to mini-distributors. But, even if the bookseller (who can be the owner of just about any kind of a business) plays by all the rules—and most major bookstores do—and sends the books to a recycler, that doesn’t mean the books don’t show up again. Some books may be stolen in transit or in storage; and, a few unscrupulous companies may file claims they have shredded 10 tons of what is now literally literary garbage, but have really gotten rid of just nine tons, throwing the coverless books into the streets, like left over food for the cats. The cats, in this case, have pick-ups, and pay for the leftovers.
So, what’s really the problem? After all, even though these transient booksellers probably don’t pay taxes on their income, it’s hard enough these days to make a buck. And, certainly, it’s a break for the readers who are more likely to buy a 50-cent paperback than one costing 15 times as much.
The problem is that when a reader buys a stripped paperback, the publisher and author don’t receive any money. Since there’s no income to the publisher, there’s also no income to the author who is usually paid 5 percent of the list price of mass market paperbacks.
Except for the few million-dollar deals that make the headlines every now and then, we authors don’t make a whole heap of money from our meager percentages. So every stripped or stolen book that’s sold means we get no money while a lot of people who had no part in the creative process are making money off of us. And, I really object to that.
[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, has written 20 books. His latest is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the effects of fracking upon public health and the environment, with special focus upon the economics and politics of the practice.]