Have you ever wondered what happened to the books you don’t pick from the shelves of Waterstones? Well, I did some digging and found out and let’s just say…. it’s not very pretty.
Picture this. You’re in your local bookstore, it’s almost midday, so there are a few people inside, but not too many. You’re strolling through the aisles and feasting on all those shiny, freshly printed covers.
When you finally pick what will be your next read, maybe you grab the copy at the top of a stack or the one at the very bottom that has no creases, but either way, that book is now yours.
When you head off, the rest of those copies sit there, and maybe one or two more are chosen over the coming weeks, but odds are, a few will never sell.
So what happens to them? What happens to the books that never find a reader?
Well, to understand, we have to go to the very beginning.
Phase 1: The publisher marketplace
When published books are lucky enough to catch the eyes of retailers, the retailers will either buy a number of copies or order them from the publisher on a ‘sale to return basis’.
Sale to return is sort of like renting, where retailers have to sell all the copies they’ve ordered before the end of their contract, and if they don’t, they return the rest to the publishers. These contracts can be anywhere between 3 to 12 months, the general lifespan of a trending book.
The statistics for books being returned to publishers are staggering. It is estimated that in 2022, 20-25% of the books that were published were ultimately returned to the publishers. That is an insane amount of books when you consider that almost 4 million book titles are published every single year.
For all the books sadly falling into this category, publishers might first try to lower the selling price with the hopes of getting them back onto the shelves. If retailers take the bait, they’ll sign a new contract, and the books quickly head back out to the masses.
If all the books sell, then that’s the end of that— mission accomplished. But if they don’t, retailers have no choice but to send them back to the publishers one final time.
From those unlucky titles, they will either be pulped or sent to the remainder market *insert scary music*.
What is pulp fiction?
When you hear pulp fiction, you might imagine Uma Thurman on a movie poster lying on a bed with black hair, those sharp bangs and a cigarette in her hand. But that’s just a movie, there is actually a thing called pulp fiction in the literary world.
Pulp fiction is a faction of magazines that were popular from the 1900’s to the 1950’s, mostly in America. They were entertainment magazines of the ‘racy’ nature, with action-based stories and they were printed on the cheapest type of paper – pulped paper.
That’s where the name comes from; pulp fiction is literally fiction printed on pulped pages!
Phase 2: Pulping
In the simplest terms, pulping is the destruction of books to make more books which is pretty much the closest thing to heaven and hell for us literary fiends.
For our science nerds, here’s how pulping works:
Step 1: The covers are torn off (the horror! ) leaving only the paper ‘book block’ inside.
Step 2: The ‘book block’ is recycled by mixing it with water and chemicals that I can’t pronounce to break down the paper and ink.
Step 3: The broken-down substance is used to make other books or paper products.
I know— pulping books sounds sustainable and you know what? When it is actually turned back into paper products, then it is sustainable, but when it ends up in a landfill, well… you get the picture. But even for the ones that are properly recycled, there is still lots of waste that occurs just by shipping the extra books back and forth to be pulped and turned into other books.
Not to mention the fact that the paper produced by pulping is not the highest quality so more often than not they’re converted into cheaper paper products rather than books.
But that’s a topic for another time, it’s time we move onto that scary remainder market.
Phase 3: The remainders
If publishers are still desperate to make a profit from their leftover copies, they will sell those unlucky copies to ‘remainder dealers’ for a cheaper price.
Chris Edwards, the owner of the largest privately owned collection of books in the world, said: “If a book has any life, they will be sold to the remainder dealers. There used to be thousands and thousands of them, but there is not much mileage for doing the remainder trade in the UK anymore because of the high costs of rent.
“Most of the remainder dealers these days are in the US— certainly of quality books. So the books here get bought by the dealers in the US, packed onto pallets, and shipped to a warehouse where they then turn up on the $1 dollar trade or $2 dollar trade.”
But whether they are here in the UK, over in the US or anywhere else, the books on the remainder market are kept in a warehouse and placed on some online marketplace where they will hopefully (fingers and toes crossed) be sold before the dealer has to get rid of it, or God forbid– it catches mould.
But if the book never sells and those dealers can not afford to store it any longer, then they will eventually be pulped and by now, you should know how that goes.
So that’s it. That’s what happens to a book that doesn’t sell.
But why does this keep occurring, and why does it happen at such a large scale?
When publishers over-estimate how well a book will do or if retailers request more copies than they can sell, leftovers are a given, and then issue becomes getting rid of them so they can make room for more books.
And there’s always another best seller.
The reading market is the biggest it’s ever been, so big that it’s estimated that around 4 million book titles are released every year, with 1.7 million titles being self-published last year — that’s a lot of books.
EVERYONE is publishing because ANYONE can publish. You can go onto Amazon right now, and have a book published and selling on their website within a week.
Remember Chris? Well, he said: “There’s a lot less new imaginative writing now. Every disgraced MP or Great British Bake Off winner is getting published. 40 years ago, there were 70-80,000 books published in English per year, now, that figure is half a million.
In cases like Prince Harry’s overly detailed biography *shudders*, those copies will all sell, but not everyone comes from royalty, so not every published copy of a book will sell, especially if you’re not lucky enough to become the internet’s next literature sensation.
In this case, retailers are left with too many copies of a book that’s no longer popular and then they fall down the very deep rabbit hole I led you guys down — *refer to phases one through three*.
But in this fierce market, publishers are almost forced to print as many titles as they can because you never know what will be BookTok’s newest recommendation.
It Ends With Us was released in 2016 by Collen Hoover but it wasn’t until 2022 that it became a new york times #1 bestseller after BookTok brought it to fame.
Phillip Stone of Nielson BookData, said: “In the UK, It Ends with Us has sold–” checks stats, “781,455 copies, and it’s greatest competitor, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, 374, 782 units.”
That is an astronomical amount of titles for one author, something that would not have been possible forty years ago.
“Foyles on Charing Cross Road was the biggest bookstore in the world for a long time,” Chris shares as the current owner of one of the oldest second-hand bookstores in London, Skoob. “They used to keep half a million titles in stock which is the equivalent of five years’ supply of books. The biggest bookstore today, the Waterstones’ Piccadilly branch in London only has 200,000 titles on its shelves, that’s four months’ supply of books – not five years.
“If you know a book that was published a year ago, you’re not going to find it, because last year’s Bake Off winner is not this year’s Bake Off winner, and so on and so on. The good writing is getting left behind.”
So if books like Evelyn’s Seven Husbands and It End With Us are selling copies over that mass of the collection the biggest bookstore in the world can store, then what hope do unknown books have on those shelves?
None. They’re getting left behind on current trends that keep getting big names printed and printed again, and then…the vicious cycle starts again.
“Any author knows the big difficulty is not writing the book or getting the publisher, or getting an agent or designing a cover. The big difficulty is getting it on a bookshelf shelf.” Chris shared. “It’s just all…very depressing.”
I warned you it wasn’t pretty.
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Liseli is a journalism student with a costly love for travelling and new books. She loves a good solo adventure but when she can’t be jetting off to a new destination, the next best thing for her is discovering new places through books. And if she’s not reading a book, she’s looking for her next read. Liseli is passionate about how our identities are represented within literature today.
Favourite genres: Romance and Sci-Fi.