WHEN Outlet Book Company, America's oldest and largest bargain book wholesaler, recently purchased 50,000 remaindered copies of The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Alan Mirken, the firm's president, jokingly suggested that booksellers prevent consumer resentment by running up a huge sign saying, "absolutely no royalties being paid on this book." Mirken might just as well have applied his motto to all the other substantially discounted books sharing the groaning remainder tables with the former president's.
Authors receive no earnings from this special sale merchandise. Remaindered books generally fall into the category of overstock. Clauses in their contracts with writers absolve publishers from a royalty fee if a book is sold below manufacturing cost, which is usually the case with remainders. Hence the bargain aspect: Nixon's tome originally sold for $19.95; remaindered it costs $5.98.
"As far as I know, nothing of mine has ever been remaindered," Sidney Sheldon, author of five blockbuster novels, guesses wrongly. "I think it's pretty inevitable," John Updike muses -- and he's right. It doesn't matter who you are or how you rate among the literati. "It's a straight business decision. If it's a blow to an author's ego, it shouldn't be," advises Michael Fine, president of Bookthrift, the youngest member, along with Outlet and Book Sales, of the holy trinity of bargain book wholesalers.
Thus, eventually, Updike, Malamud, Roth, Drabble and Halberstam go the bargain route, to say nothing of Sheldon, Robbins, Wallace, Follet, Ludlum, King and Krantz. In fact, there is only one megastar consistently excluded from this most unrestricted of clubs. "As far as I can remember, no novel of James Michener's has ever been remaindered," Owen Laster, Michener's agent and head of the literary department at the William Morris agency, reports. A check with Tom Haworth, senior buyer of bargain books for B. Dalton, confirms this extraordinary distinction. "I want to be in the Michener category," Sidney Sheldon says with a groan.
Industry estimates account for close to $300 million in remainder sales last year. Remainder business was up 40 percent at Dalton's alone in 1980 as compared to 1979. And remainders are only one-fifth of the bargain book business, known politely as promotional publishing, which also encompasses imports, reprints, original publications and hurt books.
Publishers, wholesalers, booksellers and, ultimately, consumers have come to regard remainders with a new sense of respect. It is only certain writers who cling tenaciously to the antediluvian notion that remainders are bad. "If you told me that the No. 1 best-selling remainder was Bloodlines, I would feel saddened," Sheldon says. "I'm in a very hot streak, and remaindering indicates a kind of cold."
"It's never occurred to me to feel in any way abused by this," John Updike says. "The run of a trade book seems to be briefer and briefer. There's that one golden moment when you're on the front tables of the bookstores. I don't know how long it lasts now -- a couple of weeks, a couple of months at best? Then back you go. It's just part of the generally slightly crasser flavor of publishing. It is true that my early books were never remaindered that I can remember prior to 'Couples.' But then I think it was feasible to print in smaller runs. Now the style seems to be a whopping big one -- then pray it will move. Of course often it doesn't move in that quantity."
A book stops selling for any number of reasons, Alan Mirken explains. Very often, especially with best sellers, a tremendous stock is justifiably kept in stores because the book is selling. Then the paperback edition is released, and "cuts sales like a knife." Or another blockbuster arrives causing a switch in reader allegiance. Publishers then receive "the bane of our existence" -- returns -- often gargantuan amounts of what, essentially, is unwanted inventory. To say nothing of the loss of cash flow, the titles just sitting there taking up valuable warehouse space cost money. That's when publishers make the purely economic decision to remainder them.
As long ago as the '50s, Alan Mirken recalls purchasing 75,000 Young Lions, by Irwin Shaw. More recently, he shoveled up 100,000 Fools Die, by Mario Puzo, 60,000 Oliver's Story, by Erich Segal (at 10 cents a copy, a record of sorts for a big-name author), and 25,000 Scruples, by Judith Krantz. Michael Fine refuses to divulge the name, but he reports that Bookthrift just scooped 110,000 copies of a high-visibility title. "It happened because the paperback sale was made suddenly in the midst of a printing," Fine explains, "and we'll sell all of them, I'm sure."
Outlet and Bookthrift are both closely associated with two of the largest hardcover houses. Crown Publishers, of which Mirken is also president, actually grew out of Outlet in the '30s; Bookthrift is a subsidiary of Simon and Schuster. To authors, always wary of dirty dealings in the remainder realm, such buddy-buddy relationships pose a conflict of interest. Not so, say Mirken and Fine. "Actually, we're a little schizophrenic," the former explains. "There are Crown books Outlet people are after but can't get, like The Joy of Sex, because Crown is still selling over 15,000 copies a year and won't give it to them." Fine reports categorically that "Simon and Schuster products accounted for 5 percent of Bookthrift's buying last year."
Eternally suspicious, authors also accuse publishers, especially those with bargain book cousins, of initially printing and earmarking "extra" copies of a book for the remainder market. Also untrue, reply Mirken and Fine, although infrequently the following will occur: publishers will order up a larger quantity of books than they believe they can sell in order to keep the price down or because of demand.
"In those instances," Fine explains, "genuinely apprehensive, publishers will create an option, their option, to call upon a bargain book wholesaler to take copies at a price, in the event that they wish to exercise their option within a certain time frame. It's a hedge -- a transaction little known in the industry called 'the put' or 'the backup' -- and it happens infrequently, almost never on a first printing or with a best-selling fiction."
Authors, finally, up in arms over the recent Thor Power Tool case, are convinced that the Supreme Court ruling will be the greatest boon of all to bargain book houses. The ruling states that the valuation of warehouse stock, and kind of stock, cannot be reduced for tax reasons unless it is disposed of or sold at reduced prices. The general industry consensus, according to Mirken, is that the Thor case will definitely affect text and technical publishers far more than general interest ones. The only evidence Mirken has seen so far to the contrary is the 29-page list of available remainders from Harper & Row.
Fine believes Thor will benefit no one. "We have a symbiotic relationship with trade publishing, not a parasitic one," he says. "There may be a short-term expedient benefit with Thor, but in the long run, anything that strikes a body blow to the industry will not be good for us either."
Publishers, wholesalers and booksellers all tend to be Johnny-one-notes in declaring that it is the consumer, especially in today's tight economy, who benefits most from remainders. "The special quality of remaindering is that it is predicated on the need of the trade publisher to turn inventory into cash in order to keep his business dynamic and develop new product," Fine says. "It is an expediency that is the consumer's advantage."
Extending this thinking to the nth degree, consumers win hands down when bargain book wholesalers are stuck, much like their hardcover brethren, with returned, unwanted inventory and are forced to remainder their remainders. It happens. In that final graveyard one can generally purchase grab bags of four books for $2. Surely at this sorry stage in the publishing process, no one is to blame: the book has been given every chance. And, as John Updike says, "the book itself is what sells it."