What business do you know that lends brand new items to the seller and allows those items to be shipped back, anytime, often in lousy shape? What business do you know that wants many of those items to be defaced prior to being shipped back?
Welcome to the wonderful world of book returns.
Amid all the conversations about book sales, the publishing industry, finding the right agent, we don’t hear much about returns. I think I know why. It’s a crappy system no one understands fully and NO ONE seems to know how to fix.
A little history:
Back during the Great Depression, publishers sought a way to get booksellers to continue buying books and to try new authors. So, someone (maybe one of you readers can give me the name) came up with the idea of offering more books without risk. If something didn’t sell, it could be returned for credit — no questions asked.
Back then, I think the model worked well for everyone because
1. There wasn’t the volume of books published today (and that’s an issue that deserves more than one post).
2. Though illiteracy may have been higher, I suspect many more people per capita turned to books and reading for their entertainment and information gathering.
Flash forward to today. The book return system aggravates just about everyone.
It can be good for new authors because bookstores can "taste" new works without worrying about being saddled with clunkers. However, any traditionally published author is never going to know how sales are going . . . not really. A book can be returned months after publication, sometimes even years. Publishers often hold back a portion of royalties against this possibility. Sales may look magnificent at the beginning of a book’s life because bookstores will order in large quantities. And then poof! Three quarters end up getting returned or, if they’re mass market paperbacks — they’ll be stripped (it’s heartbreaking, really).
You’d think bookstores would adore this arrangement; after all it was created for them. But with the ever increasing number of titles, it’s impossible to predict what will and won’t sell. Over the years, publishers have changed their return policies and bookstores need manuals to meet their specifications. Some stores now only deal with wholesalers because of this (and other reasons of course. . . that’s another post if I can ever get enough info on it).
Even if everything is totally hunky-dorey with the system, returning books is still labor intensive — there’s packing, labeling, removing stickers (autographed copy! discount!) and keeping track of this revolving inventory. That’s why people like Steve Riggio of Barnes and Noble are calling for a major revamp of the system.
It seems obvious why they’d dislike the system, doesn’t it? So why the hesitation to change? When HarperCollins announced a new imprint that would be return-less, many people screamed. What would happen to new authors? What would happen to the booksellers’ freedom to have a broad inventory? EEEEEEEE!!!!
I don’t know how they feel about the system. Their existence depends on variety and making life easier for bookstores, but in my research for this piece, I didn’t find anything specific on the subject. If I do, believe me, I’ll write more.
So, what to do?
* Authors could write fewer books. Uh hunh. (I can just hear the response to that suggestion: "We’ll do that when we get paid more.")
* Booksellers could stop over-ordering AND/OR commit to selling what they order. But how would they decide? What would be best for their customers and also great for the business bottom line?
* Publishers could stop publishing as many books AND they could commit more marketing dollars to the ones they do produce. Has anyone ever seen that happen?
Right now, I think it’s important to talk about returns and changing the system.
What do you think? Booksellers? Publishers(editors)? Writers? Readers?
Is there anything we can do to transform a dinosaur into a dragonfly?
Next Monday, Roberta Isleib takes the reins for a guest visit. Please join me in welcoming her.