What’s the problem? According to a recent article in The New York Times, upwards of 30% of books being sold into trade bookstores today are returned to the sender-for full credit-and the number is rising. The cost of physically handling billions of dollars worth of books, and processing the attendant paperwork, is staggering-for the publisher, the bookseller, the distributor, the wholesaler. And returns play hell with the publisher’s cashflow, inventory management, and bottom line. Nobody profits from this revolving-door policy-except, perhaps, UPS, RPS, and other freight carriers. Tackling this problem has been an on-again, off-again effort by a number of groups over the years, with no real progress.
So what is PMA doing about it?“Book Industry Returns”-our in-depth study of the history, magnitude, and impacts of this odd and unproductive practice-is available as a pdf file on the PMA Web site and in hard copy from the PMA office. It’s free to PMA members; for non-members, the cost is $25.
To bring attention to the report and stimulate discussion throughout the publishing industry, we held a press conference in New York in April, at which Tom Woll, who wrote it, presented an overview of the problem and suggested some remedies. A lively-call it fiery-discussion developed, in which almost every aspect of the well-researched report was questioned.
After that we ran a panel at Book Expo America-more widely attended, with more broad-ranging and productive debate. This prompted Fred Ciporen of Publishers Weekly to offer sponsorship of a follow-up panel in New York in September, which we hope will generate a lot of press coverage.
What good is all this talk? It remains to be seen. But in a multibillion-dollar industry, with trade practices dating back many decades, change does not happen easily. A groundswell of concern, controversy, and debate is how change begins (short of rioting and blowing things up). And the fact that PMA is taking a leadership role is entirely appropriate. Our 3,500 members represent a surprisingly large share of the unit volumes and dollar volumes in this industry. And, as independents, we are at least as heavily invested in trade practices that promote healthy business.
What can you do? Read the report. Understand, inside out, whether and how returns are affecting your business. Talk to booksellers, wholesalers, distributors, other publishers-anyone you come in contact with who is involved with this problem. Stay open and empathetic about how other players in the supply chain are affected. Bring the issue to your local or regional publishing association. Keep it alive. Together, we can go a long way toward solving the problems that returns create.