"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 the Department 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."

Claire Lawton
Claire Lawton

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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What a great-comprehensive article! Bravo, Claire!


Bookmans does have six locations and still loves books.  But it's un-realistic to expect them to say afloat with just book sales.  I'm disappointed to hear this, I know for a fact that the Mesa location does everything they can to recycle and donate to keep books (and other merchandise) out of dumpsters...


I have worked in the book industry for 11 years and have a personal library of over 5,000 books at home so it is safe to say that I love books. However, all this article does is lament and whine about the fate of books while completely ignoring the underlying problems. With the rise of e-readers millions of people who formerly supported the physical book industry have now completely abandoned it. This has many effects on the book industry but most notably it forces mainstream bookstores to downsize (Barnes & Noble) or go out of business (Borders) and forces used bookstores (like Changing Hands or Bookmans – a company which this article slanders) to look for different ways to make money besides relying on falling book sales. Hence, Barnes & Noble has invested tons of money into it's Nook e-readers & has to close 200 stores in the next decade and stores like Bookmans have to act like they would “much rather would have your board games and your cat trinkets than your hardbacks”. Blaming the retailers for this situation is moronic. We live in a market economy which means if the demand isn't there, retailers have to change or die. Smart retailers like Barnes & Noble and Bookmans are trying their best to adapt to a world where selfish and short sighted people would rather download “books” (that they don't actually own, it's more like they are renting) than support a beautiful physical medium that has been with us since the dawn of civilization. If you don't like seeing books die than ditch your e-reader and visit your local bookstore.

Addendum : Mass Market Paperback books are actually designed by the publisher with the knowledge that they'll have their covers stripped off and they'll be recycled. They are the closest thing the publishing industry has to a “disposable” book. This is no secret to anyone who has ever worked in the book industry. Also the author's claim that the stripped book notice was“ often was ignored and eventually was phased out” is a blatant falsehood. No reputable bookseller would attempt to sell a stripped book. This is not to say that it hasn't happened before, but it is very uncommon. Also, the “stripped book” notice still appears in mass market paperbacks printed to this day. It has not been phased out.

Afterthought : While outside the scope of this article it is important to note that grocery stores and restaurants throw out millions of tons of food while 49 million Americans struggle with hunger. If booksellers are to be lambasted for throwing out books why do food merchants get a free pass for doing the same thing, especially since they have the potential for saving human lives?


They want to get rid of books because they are harder to control and rewrite the content of them.  If they are all online, they can change the language of them as they so desire.


What a remarkable essay!  And no comments as of yet?  You have described one of the most profound changes in our civilization to take place in our own time, the altered, possible reduced ability to vet and share information that is worth sharing.  

This article deserves a Pulitzer.