How to Package Books

by Craig Stark

#82, 27 November 2006

Part 1: Making A Case for B-flute

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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.


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