Sadly, they are the orphans in the publishing world — books that are no longer selling well or not selling at all. So why are books remaindered? Two principal reasons. The first reason is that the publisher miscalculated the demand for a particular book and ordered a much larger print run than the market desired, leaving the publisher with a large amount of overstock. In order to reduce its taxes on unsold inventory, it behooves the publisher to quickly liquidate the inventory (you can thank the IRS for this ruling). It is for this reason, that books today are remaindered much faster than they were a few decades ago. The second reason is that printing is a never-ending cyclical business: out with the old, in with the new. That is to say, warehouse space is valuable and in short supply. In order to make room for new titles, the publisher — not unlike the warden of an overcrowded prison — must dump these books into the secondary marketplace on a regular basis. The publisher sells these remaindered books at a fraction of the original cost to distributors who then mark them up a bit, and make a small profit. For example, a hardcover book that initially cost $25 is sold to the distributor for $1-2 dollars, and the distributor sells it for $5-6 dollars. In some cases, the books never reach a distributor and are incinerated or recycled.
Not only are these orphans cast out of a cozy, temperature-controlled warehouse, they bear the dreaded “scarlet letter” of bookselling (actually, it is a black dot or thick black line), along the bottom edges of the pages that identify them as lowly remainder books. Most often, the books are marked at the publisher’s warehouse before they are shipped out to a distributor. It’s the publisher’s way of saying: “We took a financial beating on this book, don’t even try to sell at it full price and cheat us out of our profit!” (It’s kind of like that line you draw after the dollar amount on a check that says to the recipient: “I don’t trust you entirely, so I am drawing this line so that you don’t alter the amount of the check.”) Otherwise the books are marked at the distributors. In most cases the marks are made on the bottom edge of a book; but in some cases, a Philistine with little respect for books, marks the tope edge in an act of defiance or simply to torment book lovers. Some major book publishers who get squeamish when thinking about a permanent marker touching their books, have developed their own stylish — and more civilized — remainder stamps. For example, Oxford University Press uses an oval with the letters OUP; Random House uses the house icon from its logo; and Simon & Schuster uses the sowing man icon from its logo.
To a bibliophile, however, the reckless marking of a book with a black, large-nib, permanent-ink marker by some minimum-wage warehouse employee is as sacrilegious as it is barbaric. In just the blink of an eye — the flick of a pen, really — a new book goes from being proud and collectible to a sad and dejected book, its pages desecrated by black ink. It is an act as detestable as a feckless vandal who defaces the Mona Lisa with a can of black spray paint. The horror!
So why do publishers or distributors have to place a black mark on books? The practice is a bit of an anachronism in today’s world that has such tight restrictions on returns and exchanges. However, if you turn the clock back about thirty years, when brick-and-mortar bookstores were flourishing, just about any bookseller would accept a book for refund or exchange without a receipt, as long as it was part of their regular inventory. Naturally, publishers would not want you to buy a remaindered book at a fraction of its list price and go to a bookseller and get a full refund or exchange the book at the book’s original price. Also, as mentioned earlier, the mark keeps distributors honest by not allowing them to sell a remaindered book at full price. With respect to antiquarian booksellers, there is a similar line of reasoning. A seller of used books, in principal, would not want to pay a customer a percentage of the original price when the book was purchased at a substantial discount. The remainder mark, therefore, assures everyone in the marketplace that this book was purchased at a deep discount, putting a stop to anyone who contemplated such deceitful transactions. It is hard to believe that such a practice was so widespread that it warranted such a response from the publishing industry, but when you consider that college and high school students purchase the largest percentage of books, they are extremely resourceful and perhaps many resorted to such tactics to save a buck.
Nevertheless, about ten years ago, when the writing was clearly visible on the wall — i.e., most booksellers saw sales decline precipitously, most instituted tougher terms and conditions regarding the sale and exchange of books. First they prevented any returns or exchanges without a receipt; then they restricted the period of time for returns and exchanges (from 30 days, to 14 days or less). Today, even if you purchased a remaindered book without a black mark, it would be impossible to return or exchange it at any bookseller. And selling books to used bookstores today is an exercise in futility. Most used bookstores pay pennies on the dollar for used books, if they even buy books on a regular basis. Whether you paid $25 for a book or $5, you would still be offered 25 cents, 50 cents, or if you are lucky, $1 for the book. In short, even that issue is moot.
So today, the only true purpose of the black remainder mark is to expose you as a cheapskate if you happen to purchase a book for someone as a special gift. One look at the remainder mark and they think: “WTH — you didn’t think enough of me to purchase a $20 book at full price?” If you plan to purchase a book as a gift you are forewarned: caveat emptor.
We end our discussion of the pesky remainder mark with a final question: is purchasing a remainder book ever justified? Absolutely. There are very many unique, worthy books that can only be purchased as remaindered books. Perhaps the used books in the secondary marketplace are in very poor quality or nonexistent. At least with a remaindered book, you can be assured that it is a new book — it sits in a warehouse, forlorn, a bit dusty, but yearning for a permanent home on a bibliophile’s bookshelf. It simply has to be ordered, read, and cherished; always remembering that one should never judge a book by its remainder mark.