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Book-Buying Habits & Returns

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Each time I sit in on a publishing meeting, the common thread that seems to develop is: “How do we handle returns?” This problem is not new. I look back in the early days of PMA (1983 or thereabouts) and remember the same concerns being voiced then.I listen to bookstore owners. I listen to wholesalers and distributors. I listen to publishers. All tell a different version of the returns story. And all have solutions that seem to be one-sided. However-and this is the largest factor of them all-no one makes money if the book doesn’t sell through, so really no one wants returns. This year, the new PMA Board of Directors will be focusing on the problem of returns and will hopefully be able to come up with some standards that can be accepted and agreed upon by all parts of the distribution-to-the-consumer channel.From the booksellers I’ve heard a variety of reasons for returns. Some of them make sense, some don’t. They look at it as a cleaning process for their stores and shelves. By returning books that haven’t sold through and have little or no consumer interest, they are making room on their shelves for other publishers and other titles that they may not currently have room for in their store. Many publishers feel that if a book is bought by the stores on a nonreturnable basis, the bookstore owners will really try to help the publisher sell that book to the consumer. The bookstore owners, in all cases, state that if the consumer doesn’t want the product, no amount of hand-selling can cause a sell-through. This I believe. When you consider that the typical US household buys an average of five books per year, and the number of new books per year coming into print is currently being estimated at 60,000, you can see that: (a) there is not enough room in any one bookstore to carry all of these titles, and (b) even if they did, the likelihood of purchase for many is limited.Light Shed on Purchasing Habits

by New Research Study

According to The 1997 Consumer Research Study on Book Purchasing by the Book Industry Study Group, “Consumers purchased only slightly more books in 1997 than they did in 1996, with the rate of increase below 1%. At the same time, the general population grew by approximately 1%. Therefore, when the adult-trade industry is viewed with population growth monitored in, consumers actually purchased fewer books on a per household basis in 1997 than they did in 1996.”Another interesting aspect of the study is the percentage of each type of product being carried by stores. In 1997, large-chain bookstores carried 33% hardcover, 36% trade paperback, and 31% mass market; while the independent/small-chain bookstore carried 28% hardcover, 51% trade paperback, and 21% mass market. Since most of our members seem to publish in the trade-paperback arena, we can now see that in the best case our titles would occupy 36% of the large chains and 51% of the independents’ stock.When asked why they purchase a book, the consumer indicates subject/topic was the main reason and author’s reputation the next. A conclusion from this? We’d all better be extremely careful in how we title our books. This is going to cause the consumer to reach for it or pass it by. Very few respondents stated that they bought books because it was on a “Bestseller List”; only 1% or less stated this as a reason.Further, in terms of what people are buying, the majority indicate popular fiction (44% for chains and 34% for independents). The next largest category is “general nonfiction,” whatever that means. Independents show 11% in this category, and chains show 12%. Cooking and crafts are next in line (11% for chains; 9% for independents). The only real significant change in the pattern of buying occurs in the area of religion. Chains report just 6% while independents report 18%, making it the second largest purchase group in the independents.This study provides lots of interesting, informative, and eye-opening data about book-buying habits, which also can be equated to returns. Another example of the data is in the price range for the largest amount of units sold. The highest were in the $5.00-$7.99 range, followed by the $15.00-$24.99 range. The largest number of units are sold in the following order: chains, book clubs, small chain/independent bookstores. The largest number of titles are purchased by the 40-44 age group, followed very closely by the 45-49 age group.The Book Industry Study Group in conjunction with the American Booksellers Association produced The 1997 Consumer Research Study on Book Purchasing (ISBN: 0-940016-72-9). For information on purchasing copies of the study, write to BISG at 160 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010 or call them at 212/929-1393. You can also check out other portions of this study at their Web site, www.bisg.org.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor July, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

 

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