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For years, I've purchased a significant portion of my inventory online. During this period, I've seen my purchases arrive in an amazing variety of packages - well, some you couldn't even call packages; some came stuffed in unpadded envelopes or sacks. To be fair, a relatively small percentage of these books arrived damaged to any significant extent, and it wasn't always easy to determine if the damage was pre-existing or not. Evaluating this requires a close examination of what we booksellers call tells - flaws on packages that match up with flaws on what's inside - similar to how a scrupulous collector would determine if a dust jacket had been married to a first edition.
What's somewhat unnerving about the state of packaging in the used book industry is that, despite the fact that only small numbers of books are substantively damaged in transit, many books that do arrive safely very often do so in spite of the packaging - and only because they were handled more or less carefully by carriers.
One could make the case, therefore, that the universal use of, say, padded envelopes to ship books would probably be a relatively safe approach for booksellers to take because, in cases where the envelopes receive at least some abuse, they do afford a layer of protection, especially for softcover, lightweight books, and only in instances of heavy abuse and a large and/or heavy book would there likely be a problem.
Fair enough. You won't get an argument here - and I should add that the great majority of books that get delivered to me do indeed arrive in padded envelopes. Safely. In some cases the book is simply shoved into the envelope, in some cases it's wrapped in something first - sometimes books arrive wrapped in bubble wrap and inserted in regular envelopes, which essentially accomplishes the same thing - and in some cases a piece of cardboard is added as a stiffener. Also, padded envelopes, which more often than not are produced in the form of bubble mailers, vary some in quality, but mostly, no matter what type they are, things work.
Needless to say, there are many other methods of packaging that work ok too, and, happily, there are a few methods that work so well that the chances of the book receiving any damage in transit, even if mishandled, are minimal. These latter methods interest me especially because I don't sell cheap books, and I sleep much better knowing that I've done pretty much all I could to ensure safe journeys for them.
Safety isn't the only issue, however. I'm also vitally interested in two other things: Cost of materials and speed of packaging. One or both of these two factors are what make most of the truly safe packaging methods non-starters for me. I don't want to spend $.50 or a buck per book on packaging materials, nor do I want to blow several minutes getting it packaged. 30 to 45 seconds and $.15 or so in materials is about all I can put up with - and there's only one method I know of that makes this happen:
Funny thing about this method is that, on balance, it's much cheaper than using padded envelopes and either as fast or faster - unless, of course, you're just chucking your books unwrapped into envelopes, but even then I think I could give bubble-mailer booksellers a run for their money.
B-flute is also one of the safest methods. Think about the parts of a book that are most likely to suffer damage in transit - corners and hinges or spines, depending (and there of course the possibility of water damage). Protecting books against water damage is easy: Seal them in waterproof bags before packaging them. Protecting books against corner damage isn't quite as easy. In the case of heavy books, it requires something more than padded envelopes. And hinges (or spines)? Again, if the book is heavy, it needs to be frozen in place, and a padded envelope won't get this done either.
What will get it done is b-flute. Books are simply rolled up in the flute, the flute is cut and taped, and the ends are stapled. Voila, a custom box, only thicker - and better because it also pinches the book and, for all practical purposes, eliminates any chance of hinge or spine movement - and subsequent damage.
Another name for b-flute is single corrugated. It's essentially two pieces of heavy paper, one flat and one fluted, glued together and usually sold in 250' rolls - or it might help to think of it as corrugated cardboard that's missing one of its skins. Various widths are available - 12" and 18" widths will accommodate most books - and there are two grades that I'm aware of. Both work well. There's also a product called a-flute. It's heavier, more expensive, more difficult to staple, and, as you'll see in Part II, overkill.
I started using b-flute about seven years ago. There was a brief, exhilarating interlude when I succeeded in bribing one of my sons to package books for me, but alas, for most of my bookselling life yours truly has been doing the dirty work. If there's an upside to this, it's that I've had ample opportunity to devise some shortcuts and tricks. In Part II, I'll share some of these with you and also describe the process of packaging books with b-flute in gruesome detail.
Packaging with B-Flute
In Part I, I suggested the use of b-flute for packaging books on the basis of its meeting three criteria: a high level of protection for contents, high speed of packaging and low cost of materials. Today I'll explain in detail how to use b-flute.
First, a list of tools and supplies you'll need.
Anti-Jam Extra Heavy Duty Stapler
There are many brands available, many are no doubt adequate, but don't skimp on price. You'll need something that will hold up under heavy use and have the capacity to staple through 4 to 6 layers of b-flute. It's also important to buy the type with an arm that angles sharply upward so that the head of the stapler will clear the package when in use. I use a Bostich 00540. It's about $60 or $70 new.
There are some booksellers who use tape in lieu of a stapler. The two most common reasons cited for this are the difficulty of opening a stapled b-flute package and complaints received from postal clerks who have been pricked by staples with partially open legs. Stapled b-flute packages can be difficult to open with one's bare hands, but bring a sharp knife or scissors to the task - simply cut off one end - and there's your book. If partially open staples are an issue, this can be quickly addressed by taping over the legs.
There are two reasons I don't recommend using tape only. First and most importantly, the closing points on the ends of a taped package are further from the enclosed book and therefore don't exert the same protective pinching action that staples do. It's more likely, that is, that the book will be able to move inside the package. Second, tape is expensive and more time-consuming to apply; staples are fast and cheap.
Heavy duty, 3/8". About $5 or $6 for a box of 5,000. 1/2" staples may be necessary for thick books wrapped in more than several layers of b-flute.
Heavy Duty Paper Cutter
This is an optional tool, but I wouldn't want to be without mine. You'll see why later. Again, shop for quality, also a capacity to cut through several layers of b-flute at once. And do get the guillotine type. I use a Boston 2612 (discontinued, I think), and it gets the job done, but I'm strongly considering upgrading to one with a 15" cutting capacity. Prices vary widely - $30 to $100 or more - but I see many used ones at sales. Since most of these have self-sharpening blades, the age of the tool usually isn't an issue.
There are many brands, and quality varies here as well. I'd spend at least $8 to $10 on this.
3" wide, clear. Experiment with different thicknesses until you find the thinnest one that will do the job for you. Too thin, and you'll have problems with the tape breaking and/or sticking to itself; too thick, and you'll be spending more money than is necessary. Buy in bulk; this is an expense that can add up fast.
You could use a box cutter, but this would expose a blade to your work surface. Better to use sharp scissors - and 8" Fiskars work great. You can simply push the open scissors into a seam and make a clean, fast cut.
This assumes you'll be using sealed poly bags to waterproof your books. You can also use Zip-loc bags or, alternately, tape poly bags closed, though the latter may not give you as good a seal and of course will consume more of that expensive tape. In any case, a good impulse sealer can cost over $100 but will save you time and money in the long run. Get a 12" capacity sealer minimum. 16" or 20" is better, and, if you can afford it, get the type with a built-in cutter.
Definitely buy these in bulk. Two or three sizes will accommodate most books, and the excess you burn off can often be used for smaller books. A 2 mil thickness is fine for books that will be subsequently wrapped in b-flute. If you're using the poly-bag-on the-outside-method, you'll need 4 mil.
The most important consideration here is the location of your supplier. In almost all cases you'll save a significant amount of money buying your b-flute locally. Check your yellow pages for listings under packaging or shipping supplies. Sometimes paper suppliers will carry it. Numerous vendors will ship b-flute to you, but shipping costs can equal 50% or more of the cost of the b-flute itself - and worse, shipping rates will be going up in 2007. Typical prices for a 250' roll of b-flute are $12 for 12" widths and $18 for 18".
The Packaging Process
The packaging process for most books is alarmingly simple. After sealing the book in a poly bag, drop it on the b-flute. It can be parallel or perpendicular to the orientation of the flutes.
Next, line up the end of the roll parallel with and near to but not quite meeting the spine of the book.
Holding the unrolled portion of the b-flute against the work surface, grab the book and the flute resting on top of it together with your other hand and push until the book is snug. Then turn it over twice. Again, holding the unrolled portion of the b-flute against the work surface, push the book tightly into the rolled portion of the b-flute until its snug. Place a weight on the book to prevent any unraveling - a stapler works great for this - then cut the b-flute so that the end will lay an inch or two from the edge of the package, giving you enough room for a strip of tape to be applied.
Next, tape the seam and push the book through the package until a portion of it extends out the other end. This latter step enables you to staple the opposite end with absolutely no danger of penetrating the b-flute with the head of the stapler.
Pick the half stapled package up and tap the stapled end on your work surface until the book is snug against the closed end. Staple the other end (see tips below) - and you're done, usually in well under a minute.
Most staplers don't have blunt or protective tips, and it's especially easy when packaging thicker books to penetrate the b-flute with the head of the stapler. Not good. There are several things you can do alone or in combination to virtually eliminate this problem. First - this is more important than any other tip - round over the leading edge of the stapler head. Usually, the tip is made of relatively soft metal, and a few minutes with coarse sandpaper or a Dremel tool will get the job done. This step alone may prevent almost all of your tear-through. Also, staple at a 45-degree angle to the end of the package. This at least eliminates the possibility of both corners of the head penetrating the b-flute. Generally, if only one corner of the stapler penetrates, it won't affect the strength of the connection much.
Other preventative tactics include pre-pinching the end of the package before stapling, lifting the opposite end of the package slightly off the work surface (to reduce the angle of penetration), and taping over the ends of the package to add a protective layer to the b-flute. Finally, if possible, store your b-flute in a relatively humid environment. It will become somewhat brittle at low levels of humidity and more prone to stapler head penetration. If this sounds at all complicated, don't sweat it. With practice, you'll soon be stapling quickly with no or almost no tear-through.
By the way, I've seen b-flute tutorials that suggest tucking in the corners of the ends before stapling.
While this may appear to make the package beefier, what it in fact does is expose the corners of the book to potentially more damage. Visualize a packaged book being dropped on one of its corners. With the tuck method, the package meets the floor directly at the corner of the book. With my method, the package meets the floor at the corner of the package - fully one or two inches ahead of the corner of the book. I've tested this with a packaged board (which telegraphs damage quite well) and am confident you'll have better luck not tucking your corners.
Thin items cross-packaged with method #1 often are too large for these envelopes as well. In this case, I "make my own" cardboard, again with b-flute. Using a paper cutter I cut four rectangles slightly larger than the item, two with corrugations oriented in one direction, two in the other, make a sandwich, and seal it with the item in a poly bag.
Finally, what about valuable books? Even though a b-flute package will almost certainly deliver them safely, I'm a total chicken when values rise into three or four figures. I still use b-flute but shove the package inside a box!
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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