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Returns and the Book Industry

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Few topics create such passion in the book industry as that of returns, and I’d like to address some of the issues surrounding returns in this commentary.

How Some Avoid Returns

It’s clear from what many PMA members have said that returns are a major problem for them, both in theory and practice. It’s also clear that many members, perhaps more than half, have developed products and marketing techniques that mean a good portion of their sales are effectively returns-free. Selling directly to customers, in bulk to organizations, or through nontraditional retail stores-ways that more than half of all books are sold-can keep you completely out of returns territory. Very few books come back from libraries, even those that operate on an approval system. Very few books come back from Web booksellers. Not that many books come back from individual customers. Many traditional book publishers, if they were starting their businesses today, from scratch, might well opt to publish and market in a way that keeps their returns exposure to a minimum, and to those of you just starting, this advice is well worth taking.

Selling via Bookstores

For many members, and most independent publishers, the traditional retail store remains a primary source of selling books. It is necessary constantly to remind yourself that when you have sold a book to a store, it’s not fully sold. It needs to be on someone’s private bookshelf before that’s true. And when you sell a book to a wholesaler, it’s even less sold than it was when you sold it to the store. Unless it’s a specific customer order, you’ve really only transferred it from your warehouse to someone else’s warehouse. And that wholesaler is not in the business of ensuring that the book gets sold, either to a store or to a customer. They are simply the middleman, and although of course they don’t want their warehouse littered with books they can’t move, they do need to ensure that they have enough stock to meet demand quickly and efficiently, because that’s their job.If you don’t create the demand for your book, it won’t sell. It’s as simple as that. If you sell a book heavily into retail stores, and you haven’t got in place the publicity or marketing machinery to get word of that book out to the public, it will come back to you, one way or another. A retailer, even a Barnes & Noble, can help you sell the book-by where it’s placed in stores, by co-op deals you may be able to offer, and by advertising their store so that people come there looking for books-but they don’t consider it to be their responsibility to sell your book to a customer. YOU have to create that demand. All too many publicity campaigns and sales efforts stop at the bookstore door- “Hey, we’ve put 80% of the print run into the stores, let’s sit back and relax, and we don’t have any more marketing money anyway . . .”Well, that’s not going to do it. As the publisher, you must bear the ultimate responsibility for getting the book sold.Yes, things can go wrong with publicity campaigns, and yes, even the biggest publishers can get astonishing returns rates, even up to 80% with some recent high-profile “authors.” Industry averages have fallen in the past year, but 20% to 30% is still what many can expect as an average returns rate. If you’ve decided to take the bookstore approach, this is what you must expect, and you must budget accordingly, for cash flow and for planning reprints. There is no excuse for being surprised or running out of money because of unexpected returns. They are as certain as death and taxes. You must plan for them.

A No-Returns Environment

for Bookstores?

There are many publishers who advocate a no-returns scenario for bookstores as the only solution for the dilemmas they face with the way things are now. I believe any such business environment would be disastrous for the independent publishing sector. One of the main reasons that bookstores stock such a diverse range of books from publishers big and small is the very fact that they are not required to take the whole risk if their buying decision turns out to be a mistake. If they had to pay for all of those decisions, you would very rapidly see a bookstore developing which stocked only the bestsellers from the major publishers, and core backlist titles that always sell. Nothing risky, nothing original, and certainly nothing from a small publisher with an optimistic sounding publicity campaign and little marketing money. Remember that a 20% returns rate means that of every five books you sell to a bookstore, four of them are sold. A no-returns rate would mean 0% returns, but in all likelihood, many fewer books sold overall.

Seeking Other Solutions

Having said all of the above, I do believe the time has come for booksellers and wholesalers to take more of the risk than they do now. I think the concept of full returns in any condition, saleable or unsaleable, is unreasonable and unfair to the publisher, big or small, but especially small. I would like to see a series of discussions between the bookselling and publishing community from which a code of conduct emerges. I would like this to include:

  • Bookstores would keep the book on their shelves for no less than three months and no more than twelve.
  • Bookstores and wholesalers can only return to the publisher books they purchased directly from the publisher.
  • Books shall be in a resaleable condition, or only 50% credit will be given for books in less than resaleable condition.
  • Bookstores and wholesalers should not return books in lieu of paying invoices that are due, especially when credits are taken in advance of books being returned.

I would welcome comments from PMA members and other people in the bookselling community on these ideas.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor August, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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