AN IBPA ROUNDTABLE
Returns: Saying No and Coping Otherwise
Returns are counterproductive. In the decades since returns privileges were introduced in the book trade, many publishers and some booksellers have stated that view and argued for abolishing them (see, for example, the PMA Roundtables on returns in the January and February 2006 issues; Doug Shidell’s reports that ran in June, July, and August 2006 and March 2007; and “A Practical No-Returns Program Designed to Help Save the Earth” by Mike Dyer, in the August 2007 Independent, all available at www.ibpa-online.org).
Now, perhaps, a no-returns trend is developing.
Because the goal of Roundtables like this one is sharing the wealth of experience rather than compiling statistically significant data, it’s hard to say for sure. Impressionistically, though, IBPA members seem less inclined to wait for booksellers to change their ways and more inclined to act unilaterally. As you’ll see in the reports that follow—and in others coming up—several members impose strict limits on returns or simply don’t allow them.
Couple this with Penguin UK’s plans to make backlist sales nonreturnable and Bob Miller’s work on a method of distribution that doesn’t involve returns for his new HarperCollins imprint. Do you think something is happening here?
I have really paid attention to returns since we bought Dawn Publications in 1996 and inherited thousands of returned damaged books, many from Target.
With bookstores, we offer a better discount for nonreturnable books, and we don’t give credit if returns are not resalable.
With wholesalers, we watch the percentage of returns and the percentage of damaged returns. If a wholesaler’s percentages get too high, we don’t do business with that wholesaler any longer.
We go through all our returns, put the good ones back on the shelves, and use a lot of the shopworn books in marketing as review copies. Also, we do a lot of mailings to potential new accounts using our shopworn books. And we donate damaged books to causes that we support, so that all of our returns are used somehow.
Instead of remaindering books we do overstock sales through our catalog and online, all nonreturnable.
We applaud companies such as Baker & Taylor that package returns so they are not further damaged, and we have given feedback to Borders on several occasions about getting its act together (not that it does), since it tosses books in large boxes with no packing materials. We had a damage rate of more than 80 percent on the books that B&T returned.
I will be watching to see what other publishers do. Returns surely cost huge amounts of time and money, and of course it makes no sense that someone can return a product after they have damaged it, and whenever they want, even years after the sale.
Beyond the Book Trade
We have very few returns because we made a conscious decision not to sell through bookstores. Our best accounts are Amazon.com (almost never sends returns), catalog sales (books are nonreturnable), and special sales to nature centers, museums, zoos and aquariums, and schools (no returns).
We do receive returns from Baker & Taylor and a small distributor, but we recycle them at the “Half-Price Warehouse” on our Web site. Visitors to our site can buy new books at full price with free shipping or slightly damaged books for half-price plus shipping. This works well for us and for our customers too!
Trickle Creek Books
Sewing Up Sales
Palmer/Pletsch specializes in sewing, home decorating, and image books. We are now producing our first cookbook, about taking back the family one meal at a time. All our books are based on my background and experience as a home economist.
We sell to fabric stores with no returns, and we have several titles that have sold close to a million copies. Most of our books are evergreen, and we are well respected by sewers. In fact, I was just inducted into the American Sewing Guild’s Hall of Fame.
We avoided selling to bookstores for 20 years because of returns—not just the waste, but the costs of handling. If a bookstore bought three books and returned two, our small profit on the one sold would be eaten up by shipping and bookkeeping. So we just refused to deal with bookstores until we met the wonderful people at Independent Publishers Group. They run a tight ship and deal with returns for us.
However, we have them ship all shopworn copies back to us, since we can sell them once a year, as used or slightly damaged, at a consumer sewing show that 30,000 people attend. We get more than our printing costs back.
Update on a Partnership Program
Chelsea Green, a founding member of the Green Press Initiative, has been printing books on recycled paper since 1985, when we published our first list. One of the books on that list was The Man Who Planted Trees, an ecological fable about environmental restoration by the great French writer Jean Giono, Since that time we have continued to publish books on renewable energy, green building, organic agriculture, ecocuisine, and ethical business. We print 95 percent of our books on recycled paper, with a minimum 30 percent postconsumer waste and 100 percent whenever possible.
This past year we launched a Green Partnership Program, the first step in creating a zero-waste publishing model. A key part of this initiative is eliminating the incredibly wasteful and inefficient practice of book returns. In exchange for buying on a nonreturnable basis, our retail partners—now up to 43 accounts around the country —receive higher discounts; freight-free, carbon-offset shipping; and a host of other “preferred customer” benefits.
The results to date are impressive: an overall 87 percent increase in net sales over the same period the prior year, reductions in costly returns processing and unnecessary shipping by both parties (our overall returns rate for last year was 18 percent), and a demonstration that doing the environmentally responsible thing also benefits the bottom line, for both publisher and retailer. This is a perfect example of what is called a triple-bottom-line approach, one that benefits people, planet, and profits—the emerging model for sustainable business in the 21st century.
The book industry is poised to go green. The Green Press Initiative has made major progress in getting the largest houses to sign on, and I applaud everyone for their efforts to increase recycled content, reduce energy use, and minimize waste. But we can’t stop there. We need to take on the issue of returns, and we need to do it now. Drastic climate change is upon us, and we can no longer tolerate a system that overproduces, oversells, and overships 30 to 40 percent of its product, a product—at least for now—that is made of paper and requires enormous amounts of nonrenewable energy to transport. And paper manufacturing is hardly benign: It is the fifth most energy-intensive industry—ahead of aluminum and mining—and the fifth-highest emitter of toxic emissions, beating out hazardous waste recovery, electrical equipment, and plastics.
There is no longer any reason to continue a practice that got its start in the Depression as a way to sell crossword puzzle books. We need to come together and solve this problem with a triple-bottom-line approach. Clearly there is a win–win solution, as we have demonstrated with our Green Partnership Program. We welcome other publishers and booksellers to join us in our efforts.
Chelsea Green Publishing Company
The Cap Tactic
We used to take returns openly but now limit returns to 10 percent of the original order. That’s our policy, and we’re sticking to it!
Richer Resources Publications
About a Textbook’s Returns
I have only one title—a textbook—and returns have been a minor problem except from Ingram, which sent back the equivalent of its orders for the previous six months. At the time, Ingram had a pending order for about 10 percent of those books on its site. Since then, it has sent me four different invoices for four different amounts. I have decided that I will no longer do business with them.
Most of the books Ingram returned have already been sold again, with the only other returns coming from college bookstores at the end of a semester. These quantities are small, and the books are in resalable condition.
What If . . . ?
Whenever I approach the stores in southern California about my book, Chessie Bligh, published via iUniverse, this is what I hear: “Sorry, kid, you’re POD—we can’t deal with you because we can’t return the books.”
I’m very concerned about our environment, and one of the main reasons I went with POD is that it is nicer on the environment. You want a book, you print a book. Talk about green! And POD works just fine with Amazon and B&N online.
I often wonder, what if food was returnable? Or cars? I can’t think of any other industry that has returns like ours. Can you?
Doesn’t it seem a ridiculous policy? You ship books in . . . they don’t sell . . . you get them back . . . you warehouse them. It’s mind-boggling. Do Shell and Exxon know you do this? Do FedEx and UPS and USPS? Hmmmm. This sounds like a detective story. Then again, if you’re paying the costs of returns it’s probably a thriller—and not in a good way.
Author, Chessie Bligh and the Scroll of Andelthor
Relying on the Internet
We get 99 percent of our sales online and have never had a return from those sales. In the three years we’ve been in business, we have had three returns, one from Baker & Taylor, two from bookstores. We dropped B&T, not because of the return, but because we thought its policies were inflexible.
Most of the bookstores we deal with are local, and we supply them directly. Having found that some ignore customer requests for our books, and others ignore our invoices, we now deal with just a handful of stores, and we have solid relationships with them.
Interest in our children’s-book series never seems to wane. We keep our advertising small and aimed at those we know will purchase from us, and we limit that advertising to the later part of the year when we can get the biggest bang for our buck. We’ve been quite successful with this marketing strategy. This year we expanded our advertising threefold.
True, we don’t have the enormous sales others boast of, and we probably will never make the New York Times bestseller list. But we make a living, and we make it without the frantic pace of life and the hassles of returns. And when books become shopworn after display at events such as school book fairs, we donate them to children’s cancer centers, which are eager to have them.
San Francisco Story Works
Addison & Highsmith Publishers has a runaway bestseller, Vegas Die by Stephen Grogan, released in April of this year.
Our good-news problem is that the book constantly sells out in Vegas-area bookstores, which keep demanding more copies. We have chosen to limit the number we provide to avoid accepting major orders that might sit unsold and come back. To avoid returns from a large consignment order that Amazon recently placed using formulas of anticipation, on our Web site we encourage buying at Amazon.
We would rather have stores eagerly requesting the book than a market that’s oversaturated. In four months, we’ve had no returns and constant demand.
Addison & Highsmith Publishers
Strategy for POD
As the self-publisher of one book, I do not offer returns. My goal has been Internet sales, and returns are a nonstarter for POD books. (Lightning Source is my printer, Ingram my distributor, with a little help from Baker & Taylor.) I published 3 Aces on May 26, 2008.
Barnes & Noble has been very slow in posting complete information to my page on BN.com. The local mall store has yet to place me on their company-wide Bookmaster screen, has given me no encouragement as to a signing, and will take only special orders for my novel, 3 Aces. In direct contrast, Barnes & Noble’s downtown University Store promoted an excellent full-day local signing. The average bookstore is not interested in stocking my book. Borders practically booted me out of its Scranton store when I showed up with a finished self-published novel. If any bookseller ever stocked me nationally, I’d probably get a huge pile of returns from the many stores I would never get to promote in. (I did sell 26 copies in two days of signings at two separate local stores, so I know I can sell my book in person. But I just can’t afford to do that anywhere but locally.)
Gasoline prices are going to kill mall shopping. The aggressive Internet bookseller has a better future, and that’s where I am—at Amazon.com. I am using my new Web site and its blog to social-network my book, and my name, hopefully to prominence.
Incidentally, Amazon.com moved very quickly in putting me up on a page and gave me the Search Inside feature immediately. Other Web booksellers are adding me from Ingram’s “i page” feed at a sluggish pace, but I suppose all of it will count in the long run if my 3 Aces Web site and blog ultimately provoke viral marketing.
Despite the depressing news about Amazon’s tactics with POD self-publishers, so far the company is leaving me alone with my LSI printing connection.
That’s it for me. No returns, feature the Web bookseller, and forget the bookstores. Special orders can be handled through Ingram or Baker & Taylor if someone insists on buying the book at a mall bookstore.
Button Top Books
Price Pays a Role
I am a publisher in higher ed. The first book I ever published (when I was at a larger house) was the perfect candidate for large returns—a first-year, one-semester science book for nonscience majors—but the returns were much lower than for similar titles. Why? It was a good book, and one that students liked. They held on to their copies, and the adoptions lasted for years.
Well, that’s one strategy.
I think that we (higher-ed publishers) have created and fed a used-book market by setting prices of our books too high. That’s why it is standard practice for bookstores to let us provide desk copies and the like and secure adoptions, while they’re really more interested in the far-more-profitable used books.
Some returns to us are fine and expected. I would rather that the bookstore order too many and return what they can’t sell than order too few and lose sales. But as the new books account for a diminished part of total sales, the returns we get become a higher percentage.
Nothing we have tried or thought of will limit our returns, except selling books directly to the customer.
I don’t think that it is going to be easy for the big houses to eliminate returns. POD is nice, but limited for the time being. If backlist books became nonreturnable, they probably won’t show up on the shelves anymore.
Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company
When Readers Get What They Want
Our small company sells more than 100,000 copies annually with a return rate of less than 0.5 percent, because we publish books that readers want. So many books out there are heavy on marketing and opportunism and light on content. We have found our success is a result of doing our homework, providing well-researched books, and giving people who invest in our books exactly what they want. In short, we listen to our public carefully and provide them with how-to information that solves their problems.
Our main author, Jorge Cervantes, is well known for written works and photographs about cannabis cultivation. He writes a Q&A column in High Times magazine (English) and Soft Secrets magazine (Czech, Dutch, French, English, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish), and he uses the questions to learn what readers want. He also attends seven or eight cannabis fairs in Europe annually, where he listens to what readers say they want.
George F. Van Patten
Van Patten Publishing
As a small publisher who is friends with independent bookstore owners, I understand the benefit and importance of returns to stores whose sales, particularly in a tanking economy, are critical to staying afloat. However, I also know that the open-return market means that no sale is ever final and that, inevitably, a (possibly large) percentage of books will never be sold.
This raises both financial and environmental concerns. I have four titles, and the first two were carried in both chains nationwide via Baker & Taylor and fully returnable. The buyers often overordered, and every return I got was unsalable as a new book. When one of my books went into its fourth edition, I still occasionally got returns from the first edition, published four years earlier.
So, considering the cost of printing, the cost of shipping, and the loss of salable stock, I began to feel that being carried in the chains was not the holy grail. I complained about the returns being scuffed and even attempted to refuse some of the worst returns, using photographic evidence and many emails to make my case.
Once I went no-return, I got many more books back; B&T has a six-month window for returning inventory—and it does. All of it.
I spent many weeks wondering if I’d made the right decision, and I can still remember the difficult phone call I had with the children’s-book buyer from Borders. With my third book in her hands, ready to order for nationwide placement, she told me that she would not place the order unless the book was returnable. I offered a 55 percent discount and free shipping, but she would not budge.
My returns had all gone to First Book, which gave them to disadvantaged children, and I was happy about this, generally speaking, but I couldn’t run a profitable business with the returns I was getting for the sake of being carried in the chains, no matter how great the donation cause was.
By going nonreturnable, I have increased my profits, simplified my business, and become freer to focus on my own audience, people who loyally continue to support my work. (Incidentally, I still offer returns to library wholesalers but get them rarely, and only when books arrive damaged from my own warehouse.)
My warehouse owner told me recently that, of all his small publishers, I move the most inventory. I laughed and said, Well, yes, but I move them mostly off the loading dock and into my minivan! What I meant was that, for the most part, I hand-sell almost every single book, mostly at school visits and educational conferences and speaking engagements or directly to my independent bookstore clients, always nonreturnable, with the resulting higher profit margin. And, the way I see it, being nonreturnable lets me create a better product. I know how much I depend on my client base, and selling nonreturnable to them forces me to be a more discriminating author, illustrator, and publisher.
I think, in business, being discriminating is a good thing. I can’t cast a big, wide net and throw out whatever isn’t the catch of the day. I have to get the big fish every time . . . or, at least, try to.
Brown Dog Books