Sunday, March 16, 2014

Better World Books’ new strategy: destroying books for profit?

Excuse me, but I only just found out – and I’m still reeling.

As of last month, Better World Books, my favourite online used-book retailer (by far!) has started offering an “eDelivery” option when you order a used book.

At first glance, I didn’t think anything of it – and then I did a double-take.  What is eDelivery? I wondered.


I quickly found out.  Think they’re doing something like this to your book???

Think again… eDelivery is BWB’s code for “destroying a book.”

When you order a used book with eDelivery, workers will pull the book off the shelves for you normally.  And then they will slice it open with a guillotine and scan the pages, one by one, presumably recycling them into toilet paper when they’re through.


Here’s what’s left of your book when it’s finished the guillotine process – just the spine:


Sure, most of these books probably weren’t masterpieces to begin with.  Many could look forward to a lively new future in the virtual realm… maybe.  Or maybe they’ll get read, deleted, forgotten – gone.  Who am I to judge, with the click of a mouse, that a perfectly good book (after all, I’m willing to pay to read it!) should be ruined forever?

According to the hype on BWB’s site, “instead of throwing it in the mail we scan it, producing a PDF file which you can then securely download… How cool is that?”

Naturally, they think it’s cool – BWB has gotten famous (and, presumably, rich) by selling books with FREE delivery worldwide.  Free delivery is a lot cheaper and easier to arrange if it’s a scanned copy you’re “shipping,” rather than a wrapped-up book in an envelope.  

Perhaps it exists somewhere, but I can’t find any information about what guidelines BWB will follow when it comes to listing books as “available for destruction.”

They also don’t mention exactly what they’re going to do with the scanned book, but my suspicion is that they’re going to go the “quick and dirty” route, meaning simple, non-OCR page scans that amount, essentially, to a photograph of each page.  You’re not getting an ebook, and the text probably won’t be searchable or copy/pasteable, either.

UPDATE:  I was wrong about this.  John Ujda, BWB’s Marketing VP, says, “Digital delivered files are composed of page-by-page photographic scans with optical character recognition. Therefore, the PDF file that you receive will have searchable, highlightable text”.  (see his full remarks in the Comments section)

(However, this raises a ton of other digital rights / licensing concerns, as I also mention in the Comments.)

Notice also (in the fine print above) that there are no refunds available for books that have been ordered with eDelivery.  This worries me since I have received several books in error – books that were inventoried as being one item and actually turned out to be something completely different. 

Imagine if I ordered a fourth-edition Trumpet of the Swan, and they scanned and emailed it to me, only for me to discover on opening my email that they had, in fact, destroyed a vintage, signed, first edition?  Which would be gone now, of course, shredded into a million sheets of toilet paper.

And heck, even if it isn’t a vintage first edition that was lost… is the world really a “better” place with fewer books in it, Better World Books???

What do you think?  Do you agree that this is a sad, sad thing, or is it a step in the right direction, giving old, forgotten books an exciting new life in the digital age?


  1. Jennifer, we appreciate your concerns about our new eDelivery service, and as book lovers ourselves, we’ve thought long and hard about what this means for books. Every day, we recycle thousands of books we’re unable to donate or sell. Thanks to the eDelivery service, customers can now request that we shift the format of their books into digital files. Given the growing demand for enjoyment of books in electronic format, this means that rather than only sending many of those books to recycling (which, admittedly is better than having them end up in landfill), they can be enjoyed while providing funding to literacy causes.

    Digital delivered files are composed of page-by-page photographic scans with optical character recognition. Therefore, the PDF file that you receive will have searchable, highlightable text that can be read on any device or software that supports the Adobe PDF file format. The images of the pages can be “zoomed” or “pinched” to make them larger, but you cannot change the font size itself and have extra words flow onto the next page.

    Also, you’ll own the PDF file whereas most digital books are sold as a revocable license to view the content. And the PDF file will be larger than most eBooks – but devices have so much storage these days, we doubt you’ll notice the difference.

    No matter whether you choose standard physical delivery or the optional eDelivery, we are preserving the content of the book. If you choose e-Delivery and we scan the book for you, the pages go immediately to recycling. The digital substitute ensures the book continues to be enjoyed while providing our customers with an on-demand digital option and being environmentally responsible.

    Please feel free to reach out to me directly if you’d like to discuss further. You can direct message me via our Facebook account.

    - John Ujda, Chief Literacy Officer & VP of Marketing, Better World Books

    1. John:

      Thank you for coming by. I really appreciate your comments, which have addressed at least my concern about the format / quality / useability of the scanned book. I will update the post accordingly.

      However, I'm still troubled.

      It's true that BWB and other resellers eventually destroy books that can't be sold. However, that doesn't make it right to destroy a book that is. in essence, saleable (as demonstrated by the fact that you are doing it FOR a paying customer).

      If customers were saving tons on delivery charges by opting for the PDF, you could argue that this was a way of making less-popular books more affordable. But with BWB, the delivery cost ($0) is clearly not a barrier.

      So, in effect, you are destroying a perfectly book for the customer's convenience... so they can receive it quicker, and maybe also so it won't clutter up their home and shelves.

      Of course, the odds are good that it'll be a book with lots of other copies floating around, so nobody will miss that one copy much. On its own, one copy really isn't worth much, given the tons and tons of books cluttering up the world.

      But I do remain troubled by the principle of the thing - along with the fact that you don't state any criteria on your site for which books will be permitted to be destroyed.

      Others have also raised concerns about licensing - does copying / scanning the book into a readable digital form violate the author's or illustrator's rights? Quite possibly, especially since you also don't mention any type of DRM or licensing of the PDF version (not that I like DRM, but you don't mention any limits on the license you grant to use the book in its new digital form).

      As with anything new, this raises a ton of questions... and I'm still not seeing lots of answers.

  2. I myself don't like electronic format for children books. This is because I believe one of the most gratifying experiences a parent can have, is reading the book for your children while the kids look at the drawings.
    With this in mind, for me the ebooks become just a tool for marketing. As a children books author, I place the kindle version for free to anybody that buys the physical book, and even price the kindle book as cheap as the system allows me. So this said, if somebody buys the physical book, and decides to only have the ebook, I am fine with that, although probably that persons children will have to enjoy the bedtime reading moment on a large tablet :)
    In general, as an author, I would prefer to have the book sent to some neighborhood library or book club. I personally can't destroy books, unless they are technology and that technology is outdated for the last 10 years :)
    Have fun, and thanks for sharing!


    1. Alexandre:
      I agree completely. Since it seems like they can do this to MY book, YOUR book, anybody's book, shouldn't we think a little about what this means for writers, and readers in general?

    2. I think of it not being BWB doing it, but the buyer, after all it's the buyer that selects that option. In the end of the day I have no clue to what buyers do with the books when they need extra space, or they die and who inherits doesn't give a damn about the books.
      I can only think on myself as an owner of hundreds or thousands of books. Space is something that I don't have in abundance, and also I hate to get rid of my books, but if I so have to throw away some books, it wouldn't be fiction ones, usually would be about technology books that are completely outdated. Lately I do not even buy books about technology except in electronic format, so I do relate to this being a market especially for that type of books for a special type of costumer.
      Regarding rights and so on, I do not think of it much different to make a photocopy of a book for backup process which the original was lost in a fire.
      I am surprised by somebody selling to destroy books for us. I am more surprised they don't charge anything for it. If I would need to destroy a room of books I have at home, most probably they would ask for some money for doing it.
      It would be nice for BWB to get another option with edelivery, to donate the book to some school or library, but at that moment the rights would be in violation for sure.

  3. Hello Jennifer, Many thanks for bringing this to our attention, I would be highly annoyed if it was my book that they did that to. I presume it is books that they have published in the past, am I right? That is no excuse and I do hope someone will take the matter up legally.
    It certainly is a company to avoid like poison. God Bless, Marge.

    1. Marge - Thanks for stopping by, and caring about this issue. I'm not sure what you mean by "in the past" - they are not all necessarily OLD books, for instance. Presumably, all books are published "in the past." It would probably be better if they had a guideline saying they'd only do it for out of print books, for instance, but I haven't seen anything like that forthcoming.

  4. Isn't it illegal to tamper with books that are protected by a copy right? Sic your shyster on them.

  5. Thanks for stopping by! I don't know if "tampering" is illegal, as such. If so, our public library would have to kick everybody out for doodling in the books. But for sure, copying and distribution without permission of the publisher is prohibited. I agree that this needs a few big-money authors to create a claim against BWB; hasn't happened yet that I have heard.

  6. Sorry - I'm late the comments on this - but it is fairly easy to get permission for publishers to do this. I do it for a living for an university to supply PDF Accessible books to students with reading or sight disabilities. It is federal law - and done at public education institutions in the US everyday. Additionally, most permission forms don't denote that it needs to be for an individual with a disability - they are just "Digital Accessibility" requests. If betterworldbooks had a better textbook selection, I would probably recommend them more often to my students.


As always, I love to hear from you.