Although “remainders” – in the general sense of publishers’ unsold stock – have probably existed as long as there has been a publishing business, they became much more common in the US as a result of the 1979 Supreme Court Decision in Thor Power Tool Company versus the Internal Revenue Service. Although that decision was not specifically related to the book business, there was probably no industry in the US more affected by it than the publishing industry. This decision dramatically affected the ability of publishers to write-off their still in-stock but unsold inventory – and so in order to take the losses, the books had to be either destroyed or “remaindered” – that is, sold for a fraction of the original price.
Book retailers were allowed a significant amount of time to return unsold stock, and remainder marks were a way of ensuring that these books could not be returned for full credit.
In the 1950s and 1960s the most common marks were on the endpapers (usually the front free endpaper) – among them an H for Random House, a P, a star in a circle, etc. However, with the increase in remainders in the late 1970s, 80s and beyond, the slashes and dots on the bottom or top of the text blocks (which were much faster and easier to apply) became the most common way of identifying remainders.
Similar marks have also been applied by retail book sellers, both used and new, to ensure that they do not repurchase sold items, or do not give a full credit for them. These retailers often mark their “bargain” books in a fashion very similar to remainder marks. This practice explains why you can have an anomaly like a review copy with a “remainder mark.” While these bookstores markings are technically not remainder marks, the negative effect on the value of the book is similar.
Remaindered books are usually either hardcovers or trade paperbacks, but some smaller pocket sized paperbacks were occasionally remaindered: the most common method of marking these was a hole punched through the front cover, usually in the upper corner, sometimes obliterating the original price.
Publishers are beginning to abandon the practice of marking remainders, although some booksellers (like Barnes and Noble) will often mark the books on their discount tables, and outlets like the Book Warehouse usually mark all of their inventory. It is now fairly common to find a blank sticker over the bar code on the rear cover of the dust jacket, or to see a black mark through the bar code instead of a slash or dot (note: not all stickers over barcodes indicate a remainder -many retailers affix their own inventory control sticker.)
A remainder mark reduces the value of a book compared to an unmarked copy of the same printing. This is partially based on the fact that a remainder mark was added to the book after publication, and partially on the sometimes mistaken assumption that unmarked copies “preceded” remaindered copies. However, it is not uncommon for a first printing to be remaindered but for a book to still go on to later printings: one example of this was Robert Olen Butler’s collection of short stories “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” which was quickly remaindered as a first printing and then won the Pulitzer Prize and brought back into print. Individual collectors differ in how distasteful they find a remainder mark, but the mark and its location (if not on the bottom edge) should always be noted in a book description. The effect on value can also depend on the title. Virtually all of Cormac McCarthy’s early books wound up remaindered, so even collectors who might normally reject copies with remainder marks, will make an exception for his books.
Some examples of remainder marks are shown below.
|Remainder marks are generally simple; they often look like random dots or streaks from a black or colored magic marker. Remainder marks vary from the discreet, to the flamboyant, to the apparently accidental.|
|Sometimes symbols are used.Ace Fantasy uses a capital “B” on one edge. Simon & Schuster, uses its logo “the sowing man.”Not illustrated is the Random House icon of a little house.|
|From the 1960s to the late 1980s, Doubleday (and to a lesser extent, Delacorte and a few other publishers) used a purple or multi-colored dye sprayed over the entire top or bottom edge of the book, giving a speckled effect. When lightly applied, the effect is rather decorative, but when heavily applied, it is sometimes even coats the edges of the boards. Both of the books shown at left were published by Doubleday, in the 1980s.|
|A remainder mark on the top of the book, however discreet, is worse than one on the bottom, because it can be seen when the book is shelved.|
A final note: while a copy of a book with a remainder mark might be less valuable to a collector of modern first editions, remainders are not necessarily all bad. First of all, no publisher can afford to warehouse all unsold books indefinitely and the alternative to remaindering is pulping. In addition, while authors do not receive any royalties from the sales of remaindered copies, they are often given the opportunity to purchase them inexpensively, and finally and most significantly, it is a way to give new readers a second chance to discover an author’s books inexpensively, especially books published earlier in their career (in addition to Cormac McCarthy mentioned above, Anne Rice’s first few books were widely remaindered also.)