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Cost-effective packaging for booksellers—Part 1

By Stan Modjesky
Source: O.P. World, June 1998

If your primary business is walk-in retail, you may greet the sale of a book that must be shipped with either annoyance or celebration as packing materials are gathered and preparations made. But if mail order sales are a significant proportion of your business, you must prepare in advance, or expect to lose money on every sale.

Packing books is an inexact science, a balancing act among four factors; appearance, performance, speed and cost. Effective, attractive packaging does not require you to treat a $6 book the same as a $600 one. Economics dictates that you package books as quickly and inexpensively as possible without compromising the safety of shipping or creating an aesthetic horror. To save time, you need to make each shipment much like every other one. Yet each book needs to be treated uniquely, according to its size, condition, and value. The point of balance is different for everyone, and depends on the mix of books that you sell. The ideas I am floating here are based upon my own business, which sells primarily moderate priced, relatively modern hardbacks.

A book’s perilous journey

The ultimate package for any item would be a hermetically sealed container suspended inside another hermetically sealed container, allowing room for crushing and puncture damage to the outer container. Indeed, it’s possible to package something as large as a truck engine in a container that will withstand being dropped from an aircraft into the ocean; the military has done so for decades.

But do your books need to be packaged that way? The time, materials and postage would soon eat up any profits from sales. Your packaging should be appropriate to the book being shipped.

Do aesthetics count? It depends. I have received packages that looked horrifying, but contained undamaged books. You may not be easily offended, but first impressions are especially important in mail order. A fellow dealer may be forgiving of a weirdly packed book, but a retail customer may not. And when you are drop- shipping, you run the risk of alienating both end customer and cooperating dealer with a makeshift package. This does not, however, mean that you must use quadruple wrapping and custom-printed materials.

In our first segment, we’ll examine the hazards that a book might encounter in shipping. That way we’ll be able determine the most effective materials for appropriate packaging:

It’s wet out there!

Some part of the inner wrapping should be moisture-resistant. You may want to avoid plastics in direct contact with books that are fragile or extremely valuable. But for the average book I ship (with a net price in the range of $8 to $40) either of two things work well: bubble wrap or “comic book” bags. The idea is not to provide a hermetically sealed barrier, but to protect the book from damage if the package must be handled in the rain.

A crushing blow

If someone decides to drop an anvil on your package, or shoot it with a crossbow, you’re probably sunk no matter how careful you’ve been. I have received more than one package with tire tracks on it; all but one survived. You’ll prevent the worst damage if your package is more durable than its contents. There is more than one way to accomplish this.

Twist & shout

Generally speaking, the larger and heavier the package, the more prone it is to damage. Trade paperbacks and “coffee table” books are often at risk of being bent. Sandwiching a thin paperback between two layers of corrugated board will keep it safe. If I were shipping a large, thin folio I wouldn’t be above sandwiching it between two plywood boards to prevent twisting.

Heavy weights

If you are shipping a massive book in a large box, merely stuffing the extra space with plastic peanuts will not suffice. Loose fill materials will shift around as a package is handled. Block the book into place using pieces of corrugated board, folded into little blocks or boxes. Then fill the remaining space with loose fill. Pay attention to centering the mass of the book in the box too. If the weight of a package is off-center, that increases the possibility of its being dropped.

Avoid abrasive materials

Items next to the book shouldn’t rub against it, and the materials should not be antagonistic to each other. I would be concerned, for example, about wrapping a very glossy book in rough brown kraft paper. Books with deteriorated bindings are best wrapped, then placed into plastic bags. This lessens the chance of further damage to the book as it is unpacked.

Here’s the rub

Offsetting means the transfer of ink or other marks from the packaging to the book inside. You can avoid most offsetting problems if you avoid using inner wrapping materials with printing on them (photocopies are especially prone to offset to some plastics.) On this principle, I would also avoid corrugated roll adding—on very shiny dust jackets, the lightweight adhesive used on this stuff will leave marks. I haven’t seen this problem with bubble wrap, even though it’s slightly sticky on the “bubble” side. Still, if I were shipping that elusive “Tamerlaine” first, I’d use extra precautions.

Better safe than sorry

The destruction of the outer package should not render the book undeliverable. Use tape over the address label. It doesn’t happen often, but if the address is obliterated, the book may be lost forever. Likewise, always include an inside address, either tucked into the front of the book or stuck to the innermost wrapping layer.

If you are ordering books to be drop shipped, include a business card, duplicate mailing label, book mark, or something for the shipper to enclose. If you are drop shipping for a colleague who has neglected to do this, take a moment to hand address a “from” or “to” label for the inner package.

I recommend redundant sealing of the package. Tape may be damaged in handling, and if a single layer running across one seam is the only thing holding the package together, the risks are obvious.

Always tape the flaps of jiffy bags, whether they are closed by staples or self- stick adhesive. As an extra precaution, tape any corner or edge that looks likely to catch on something.

However, avoid over-wrapping a box with paper, or using string around a box. Both UPS and the Postal Service discourage this, because it causes more problems than it solves. If you feel the need to strengthen a package from the exterior, I recommend using a filament-type tape.

In our next segment, I’ll provide my recommendations for selecting appropriate packaging supplies and materials.

Stan Modjesky, owner of Book Miser, inc., was trained as a packing and packaging specialist at the Army Quartermaster School at Fort Lee, VA. He now specializes in Books on the Performing Arts.