WH Smith has launched a used book buyback service, offering readers vouchers in exchange for their second-hand books.
Through the BookCycle program, which launched on Tuesday, readers register their books online, bring them to a branch and receive an e-voucher that they can spend in store or online. The books will “be passed on for another reader to enjoy or recycled responsibly,” according to WH Smith’s website.
Users register a book using its ISBN number before receiving a price, which is based on “criteria such as its condition, the popularity of the title and its demand in the market”. A paperback version of Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club is valued at 30p, while a hardcover copy of Britney Spears’ recently released memoir is valued at £3.10.
The program is one of several launched in recent years that claim to address the environmental impacts of the book publishing industry, including deforestation, paper production, printing, packaging and transportation. In 2021, the Publishers Association launched a sustainability pledge called Publishing Declares; it now has 162 signatories, including Penguin Random House UK, Simon & Schuster UK and HarperCollins. In April, the Society of Authors launched Tree to Me, a campaign to encourage publishers to reduce their impact on the environment.
“It makes perfect sense for our customers and our business to support a circular economy for books as we strive to minimize our impact on the environment and support our local communities,” said Ian Sanders, commercial development director at WH Smith .
The retailer is running the program in partnership with Zeercle, a company that offers buyback services. WH Smith’s website states that “the majority of books” will “find new homes through Zeercle’s resale channels, which offer second-hand books at discounted prices”.
Chris Edwards, owner of independent second-hand bookstore Skoob Books, said while the scheme will help readers get rid of unwanted items, he believes it is more like a “recycling service” than a bookstore. He doubts whether the scheme has “anything to do with the second-hand book trade” because there is “no evidence that there is an increase in second-hand sales” of the type of popular books the scheme is likely to attract. Before Brexit, booksellers sold surplus book stock to Europe, but this rarely happens now as sales are subject to 20% VAT, Edwards explains.
Edwards also questioned how it will be financially viable for WH Smith and Zeercle to recycle books, given that Britain has “not been a favorable recycling environment since Brexit”. WH Smith could instead launch the program to increase attendance or encourage people to sign up for an online account, he said.
“This sounds a bit too good to be true, as the amount of used books is already overflowing [the] market here,” said sustainability organization Sussed in the Forest in a message on X.
Eric Gagnaire, CEO of Zeercle, said that “our company is not in the business of recycling books, but of reselling books in Britain” through online marketplaces including Amazon and eBay.
Authors are not compensated through the scheme. “While we would like to see books reused from a sustainability perspective, this initiative could harm authors’ incomes,” said Nicola Solomon, CEO of the Society of Authors. “Most authors receive full royalties on books sold in major bookstores,” but “rarely receive royalties or other payments from sales of used books.”
Gagnaire said that if the plan is a “success,” the company will “study” solutions like AuthorSHARE — a plan launched in 2021 that allows authors to be compensated for books sold through major online used bookseller World of Books.
“We want to help our customers with living costs and encourage reading across all levels of the community,” a spokesperson for WH Smith told The Guardian. “Our partnership with Zeercle delivers both: we help customers by giving them money back for books on their shelves at home, and allowing them to exchange that money for new books in our stores.”
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