How Hard Can it Be to Give Books Away?

How hard can it be to give a book away?

This isn’t about anything I’ve written.

I used to sell books for a living and now I have ceased trading as a business the remaining volumes are taking up space I want to use in other ways. These are military related books so have a niche market and they tend to be the ones that weren’t snapped up by those with general interest or specialists. They are middle of the road titles, too obscure to be popular, not rare enough to be collectors’ items.

So what do you do with them?

A few I’ll give a home to myself, but as for the rest?

I’ve tried offering them for free on forums and sites where people interested in such material gather and I’ve given some away for the cost of postage.

However, a fair number remain. I offered them to local charity shops who declined (I have mentioned this reluctance to take hard backed books before. Their shredder can’t cope with them if they don’t sell in their allotted time on the shelves apparently). My local council’s advice is they don’t want them for paper recycling and suggest I should sell them online, give them away or donate to a charity shop!

So it looks like landfill.

There is such a noise about recycling and waste and climate change, but when it comes to practical answers everyone would rather tick boxes if in power, or be a shouty activist gluing themselves to something rather than addressing practical issues.

I suppose that one has to accept that if there are too many copies of The Victorian Army in Pictures lying around compared to the number of people who are interested in such an arcane subject then, despite my dislike of the concept, destroying them is the only answer. I was going to say ‘pulping’ them but how one gets them into the supply chain for pulping is beyond me. The web is full of the story that the glue used in the manufacture of books makes them unsuitable for recycling in that fashion. But I thought that was the fate of all the remaindered books once they have dropped down through the food chain of remaindered book shops and car boot sales. What happened to that concept? What happened to remaindered books shops?

Amazon I suppose. A boon in many ways, a massive disrupter of a lifecycle in another.

The bit about not pulping books as they are unsuitable for recycling sounds like dribble to me. It certainly wasn’t true 19 years ago when TBS Returns (a subdivision of Random House) used to shred, pulp and recycle into cardboard tons of remaindered overstock every day (they took books from 25 other publishing houses as well as their own overambitious print runs).

So why not now?

TBS (The Book Service) is still going as a distributor (now part of the behemoth Penguin Random House owned by German based private conglomerate Bertelsmann – you wonder how monopolies legislation is implemented). I couldn’t say if they still pulp ‘unsuitably glued’ books but I doubt I could get my small stock into their factory even if they do. It does seem to suggest however that the internet story about used books being unpulpable is just another urban myth in digital clothing.


For a few years at the end of the ‘Noughties, my daughter was a big fan of Miley Cyrus, or rather Hannah Montana the TV show, and during that period I remember watching rather more of Billy Ray’s latent mullet than I had any need or desire to.

In addition to that trauma (although I have to confess a liking for his ‘Achy Breaky Heart’) I am now left with a collection of Hannah M memorabilia to deal with. My daughter hasn’t yet abandoned residence with us completely, she is at university and may well return for a period afterwards before plunging permanently into the increasingly choppy waters of accommodation seeking.

I am content to store most of her childhood and teenage materials, this not being as much of a chore as it may have been for my parents. Vinyl for example was heavy, occupied considerable space for something so thin, and was surprisingly unforgiving of bad storage. Digital music on the other hand is much easier to store, particularly the streaming or cloud based variety (at least until the technical methods/supplying company change and it disappears into the ether). Even the physically more demanding manifestations of digital storage, CDs or MP3 players etc are dramatically easier on space than 12” vinyl discs and players.

Whether my daughter has any of Ms Montana’s compressed music files still available to her in any format on her various electronic devices is none of my business, and the CDs are a trifling inconvenience compared with the other junk we collect. My record collection was no doubt a far more problematic issue for my parents so I am calm about the whole thing. My collection of books was similarly no doubt a massive pain and I can remember cracking under pressure from my father and giving away a massive collection of mid 1960s DC Comics to ‘make space’. Yes I have looked at the prices they fetch now. No I don’t dwell on it. I am not bitter. Honestly.

Let’s leave that.

My daughter has decided the Hannah Montana Annuals, complete with filled in questionnaires about her favourite songs etc are no longer required however. I took them along with several other books to our local charity shop (only one now – more on this another time) only to be informed that hard back books are no longer accepted. The gentleman who informed me of this fact, a large youth with various piercings and tattoos, said that the reason was their shredder could not cope with the stiff board covers.

So that explains where charity books go to die. I had noticed a decreasing stock of books in the shops before, and after a further discussion with gatekeeper of the donations realised that books and reading are sliding even further down the scale of leisure occupations of our area at least. Books take up space in the shop and hang around longer and do not fetch high prices – most paperbacks are 50p and hardbacks £1, unless they were recognised as niche interest or being particularly old or rare. So they rapidly go that great shredder in the sky (or South Wales in this case). I cannot claim that the inability to pass on Hannah Montana annuals to future generations is likely to unleash barbarian hordes on western civilisation, but it seems sad to think of what may be slipping through the net if first stage resale points are turning them down.

In the past I have picked up many interesting and often quite valuable books for a song from charity shops. What happens if someone clearing out a bookshelf is turned down at their obvious altruistic port of call? There are few second hand bricks and mortar second hand bookshops about now, so they can’t donate or sell them there. The internet is difficult for people trying to sell mid range books themselves. With the colossal bulk sellers having deals with delivery companies that make ‘free’ delivery possible, the individual charging £3.00 to recoup the postage is at a distinct disadvantage. So what happens to all those hardback books turned away?

To recycling centres with bigger shredders for pulping.

Digital media may be opening up access to some material, although academic and reliable peer reviewed works are almost all behind pay walls now, but generations of published works are being destroyed. I know we can’t keep everything (see my house for evidence of what happens if you try) but it seems sad that cheap access to the best writing is being removed because it clogs up the machinery if it fails the shelf test.