Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

Pulp Fiction (and Non-Fiction): What Happens to Unwanted Books

Ah, publishing arcana. We’d probably be OK without knowing lots of it, but the massive Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “recall” of Imagine a few weeks ago highlights the moving parts and practical concerns behind “hidden” corners of the industry.

New York magazine did a fascinating little history of book pulping the other day. And why would they bother? Because apparently

Every year, millions of books are sent to the “cruel machines,” as one young editor calls them, simply because their sales didn’t meet projections.

Aha. Well, even though the article was inspired by Imagine, it takes the “long view” and traces constructive book destruction–“The process is tidily symmetrical: from the [paper pulp] vat to the store and back to the vat”–to near the dawn of the mass-produced codex:

What eureka moment gave us book recycling? The details are forgotten, but we know that in the early seventeenth century, when the cost of paper was astronomically high, proto-publishers ripped old pages from unwanted books and used them as endleaves. Adam Smyth, a senior lecturer in literature at the University of London, notes that a mention of the lost Shakespeare play Love’s Labour’s Won was discovered inside a copy of the 1637 text Certaine Sermons.* “All of which suggests,” Smyth says, that “an early Jonah Lehrer would have quickly seen his pages binding the boards of someone else’s book.”

If you want to add to your book business “context”, or, hey, if you’re considering the under-championed job of book-pulper, definitely give the rest of the article a read.

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