Richard Charkin, writing at Publishing Perspectives in recollection of his years of work with the Publishers Association tells this tale:

. . . it was common practice for overseas booksellers to tear out and return title pages of [medical] books for credit rather than incur the cost of shipping heavy books back to the UK. One of our members, Peter Wolfe, noticed that a particular Singaporean bookseller’s returned title pages had four straight edges rather than three. The bookseller had worked out that it was more cost-effective to reprint title pages for credit than to pirate whole books and that big Western distribution centers wouldn’t spot the fraud. It took a small medical publisher to do so and put an end to the practice for the whole industry.

We book publishers tend to assume that, because we are obviously not motivated by money (otherwise we wouldn’t be in the business!) nobody that we deal with could possibly be afflicted with that bug. It always comes as a surprise to us when someone pulls a fast one. This is a good feature of our business, but too much abuse cannot but tend to erode this philanthropic world view.

The reason why we would accept for credit just the torn-off covers from mass market paperbacks was that the books were not worth the cost of sending them back to the warehouse: the same reason, at a different scale, for the decision not to have medical books shipped back from the other side of the globe. As my earlier post, End returns? suggested, the returning and crediting of books is a cumbersome and expensive process, so avoiding it with cheap books is absolutely logical. The assumption of course is that the bookseller will destroy the now coverless book, and NOT sell it off at a huge discount. As a publisher, I naturally assume that booksellers do all comply with this deal, and that those coverless books which seep into the market all come from the garbage pickup crews. (No doubt there are people out there willing to write in support of the inherent honesty of dustmen, and I apologize for using them as a whipping boy even if ironically.) It’s obviously a bit more expensive to print up a cover for a mass market paperback than it is for the title page of an expensive medical text, so I would imagine nobody’s ever tried this one on.

Publishers need bookstores. The relationship between these two branches of the book business is however potentially fraught. As it’s the publisher who sets retail price and discount on their books booksellers can be imagined occasionally to chafe under their inability to improve margins. Of course a bookseller can mark up the price of a book, but with easy access to pricing information customers can also walk out and buy elsewhere, so only the most ballsy bookseller can try this one. To the extent that book prices rise in step with inflation the problem is mitigated, but the difficulty comes when rents, especially, race upward at their own frenetic pace.