Book Publishing: Fame, Fortune, and . . . Cardboard Boxes?

You no doubt got involved with book publishing because you were fascinated by cardboard boxes, right?

Well, when I started buying printing for book publishers—before we started printing books in-house—I discovered that cardboard boxes mattered. The books I shepherded obsessively through the printing process–scrutinizing proofs, looking at paper samples, obsessing over shipping instructions–were all too often damaged in packing or shipping after being perfectly printed and bound.

I once inspected a run of 3,000 paperbacks in a dusty warehouse, tasked to find out how many copies had been affected by mysterious scuffing of the matte-laminated cover. The answer turned out to be pretty simple: every book at the top of the carton. The 3/16-inch styrofoam the printer had used as padding was abrasive enough to scuff the lamination film as the pallet jostled its way across the Midwest from Ann Arbor to Saint Paul in a 40-foot semi trailer.

Another time, an order of 80 bound galleys arrived at our office in a box more suitable for packing toilet paper than books: it was huge and bulky and held well over 50 pounds of books. Or rather, didn’t hold them. The box had split open at two corners: galleys were literally spilling out. Needless to say, they were not in great condition. The weight was way more than the flimsy singlewall corrugated fiberboard was designed to support as energetic UPS drivers and warehouse people flung it from truck to conveyor etc., etc., etc. UPS, reasonably enough, refused to give any credit, saying that the shipment had been improperly packed. The printer, in this case, offered and gave no credit. Never used them again, obviously.

These incidents and others brought home the importance of the lowly corrugated fiberboard carton. (That’s the correct term: the generic term “cardboard box” includes things like shoe or cereal boxes.) I had seen stipulations on purchase orders from big publishers that books be packed no more than 30 pounds to the box, and occasionally requirements that doublewall cartons be used. When we started our own printing operation in 1996, shipping primarily by UPS because we were a short run printer, we had to learn more lessons the hard way ourselves.

Besides not packing too many books per carton, the biggest lesson was: if you are shipping books by UPS and you care what condition the books arrive in, use doublewall cartons. UPS handles all package freight as individual cartons, not securely stacked on pallets. So each carton is handled over and over again from dock to truck to terminal to truck to terminal to truck to destination, stacked, tossed, and banged over and over again. A doublewall carton has two layers of corrugated fiberboard, which makes it much more resistant to typical handling than singlewall cartons.

Now, long-run printers will say that their singlewall cartons are perfectly adequate; and they are if you are stacking tightly on a wooden pallet and shrink-wrapping the whole load. The whole shipment is handled as a unit with forklifts, instead of as individual cartons: unless a forklift operator sticks a five foot steel fork into the stack of cartons–yup, seen that one many times–the cartons will usually arrive in pretty good shape. Long offset print runs are shipped on pallets, ergo singlewall cartons work fine.

When we started our own distribution business, Itasca Books, this lesson about doublewall cartons was only reinforced. Books that arrive at the wholesaler or retailer with dings or worse don’t get shelved and therefore don’t sell. Instead they are returned for credit and a portion of all the effort the publisher took to publicize and promote the book is wasted. Publishing is about increasing the odds that a book will sell: damage automatically decreases those odds.

We make hundreds of shipments a month, most via UPS, with some palletized shipments going via freight lines. We long ago decided that absorbing the extra cost of doublewall cartons was worth it to help ensure that the books that we put a lot of effort into printing and binding arrived in the same condition that we shipped them in. Doublewall cartons are homely unsung heroes: only noticed in their absence. Once in a while we receive praise for our boxes. As with so many other useful things in life, they help diminish pain invisibly more often than they occasion outright pleasure. But any seasoned book printing buyer will recognize the value of diminishing pain!

More questions about cardboard boxes? Contact Don Leeper!