origins of returns in the book business aren’t entirely clear.
first decades of the 20th century, the bookseller’s right to return was
“granted sparingly and selectively,” and “it began to be offered more broadly
in the 1930s and 1940s,” according to one authority, who adds that the right
pertained then to “particular titles.” Mass market paperback publishers “had to
adopt” a no-returns policy in connection with “the paperback revolution, which began
after World War II,” another source says, explaining that these publishers
depended on magazine distributors, which were accustomed to returning stock for
full credit. More specifically, a third authority recalls, “Simon &
Schuster, part owner of Pocket Books, introduced the magazine-style returns
concept to books when it offered booksellers a 100 percent returns privilege”
on just one title.
things about returns, however, are entirely clear:
returns policy didn’t work the way it was supposed to—or, in the words of
the observers quoted above, it “soon got out of hand”; returns became “a drag
on the economic stability of retailers and publishers and the livelihoods of
authors,” and the returns situation “went out of control.”
book business didn’t always allow returns.
once upon a time, it functioned without them, perhaps it can again. With that
thought in mind, we asked both PMA members and independent booksellers to
imagine that a genie had granted the power to abolish returns, and to share
thoughts on what the consequences of exercising that power would be.
44 percent of the publishers who responded were in favor of eliminating
booksellers’ right to return unsold copies; about 7 percent said they weren’t
sure whether they’d eliminate it if they could; and roughly 13 percent were in
favor of maintaining it, as were all but one of the responding booksellers. The
contributions below are drawn from these groups. In the next issue of <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>, we’ll feature ideas about other ways to deal with
the question of returns, which came from more than 35 percent of the PMA
members who confronted the genie’s offer.
Try These Two Scenarios
if—publishers and wholesalers dramatically increased the discount,
abolishing returns would greatly assist independent bookshops like mine by
reducing cost of goods sold, freight costs of returns, and labor costs for
administration of returns. Under those conditions, since our return rate is
relatively low due to wise selection, we could improve our bottom line. Note:
We have been told for years that returns are the reason the cost of books to
retailers is so high.
· Many bookstores would take fewer
chances on books outside the mainstream. Fewer unknown, obscure, and first-time
authors would be published.
· Smaller publishers would have a
harder time getting their books into stores.
· The cost of goods sold would rise
in an already pinched economic model.
· The sales emphasis would shift
away from new books toward stale books. Remainder tables would take up more and
more space in independents, leaving less space for fresh titles.
· Because so many books that would
once have been returned would be marked down instead, customers would balk at
high list prices of fresh titles. Book retailing would be forced into the
fashion-clothing paradigm: high prices at first, and then constant markdowns,
with costs for the administrative labor.
· Inventory management systems like
Anthology and IBID would need to be revised to take the constant markdowns into
I would bury the idea of
abolishing returns in the circular file, or try to trade for the magical power
to create several dozen J. K. Rowlings.
Step by Step
A no-returns policy works in the
gift industry just fine.
With magical power to abolish
returns, we’d do a test run and ramp up to a complete prohibition. In the first
phase, we’d limit returns either by type of purchase (e.g., only new titles or
only first orders are returnable) or by time (e.g., orders placed after <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>X date are
Bear Press, Inc.
For the Sake of the
We’d all love a system under which
bookstores would buy at least as many of our books as they buy now, without
ever sending any of them back. But that’s a fantasy. Instead, without a returns
option, bookstores would order far fewer of our books, giving us far less
chance of reaching their customers.
Of course, some of the most
successful small presses already stick tightly to their niches and sell most of
their books in venues other than bookstores. Financially, that’s probably the
most sensible business model anyway. But some of us still have wild-and-crazy dreams
of publishing a breakthrough title that could become a bookstore bestseller.
That would never happen if the bookstores had to shoulder all the risk.
In short, I’d love to find better
ways to reduce the number of returns. But abolishing returns would be a
disaster for small independent publishers who hope for a chance to sell
significant numbers of books to stores.
We’re In This Together
We in the book writing/publishing
business need the booksellers to be successful. If they invest in books they
can’t sell, they lose money and will go out of business, or require a larger
discount on unproven authors. Either way would not be good.
In the Alternate Universe
If a genie offered me the magical
power to abolish returns, I would ask the genie for return privileges and give
back the power. Of course, I’d expect full credit within 30 days. I have a few
other wishes that might be more interesting . . . and probably easier for the
genie to grant.
A Mix of Consequences
The buyers would have to forecast
and be accountable for their purchases; they would have to actively market
every title they bought to ensure sell-through; they would need to pay their
bills on time, instead of leveraging future credits to pay past bills; they
would have to buy smarter and reorder more frequently; reps would not give
publishers false or inflated figures based on the sales inbound; we would have
more credible sales numbers; publishers wouldn’t have to offer incentives to
keep books on the shelves; we would print less up front and waste less paper. I
could keep on going!
Of course, opening orders would be
lower; more independent stores might close; major retailers might become even
more dominant; if a major retailer chose not to take a title it might have to
be canceled; booksellers would have cash-flow issues. The industry’s whole
business model would have to change.
Still, I would abolish returns. As
a small publisher I cannot risk a sale to a large wholesaler or retailer of
which 50 percent—or more—will be returned in unsaleable condition.
Do It Now
With a no-returns policy, bookstores
would order the number of books they needed, and they would market them more
effectively to eliminate financial loss. They would value every book; the
publishers and authors could depend on income from their book sales, instead of
keeping a reserve for returns. This is the way the industry should always have
been and the time is now
to change to no-returns. With the existing returns policy, we publishers and
authors are always the losers.
I’d abolish the returns policy
immediately and use the extra dollars that I know would be in my pocket for
more marketing and publicity. A dream is a wish with a timeline. When are we
publishers going to demand that returns be abolished?
On Taking Chances
A no-returns policy would be good
for booksellers in the long run, although there would be a relatively long
period of adjustment. No doubt, some would prove incapable of adapting and
would go out of business, but then those stores were probably hanging by a
financial thread anyway.
And it would be great for
publishers, despite the rhetoric of the naysayers who claim bookstores would
never take a chance on books from independent presses. Very few of them do so
And Another Thing
I wouldn’t just remove the right
of return. I would also remove the retail price from books. The book industry
is the only industry I know of that bases wholesale prices on the retail price
and prints that price on the product. Other industries sell at a wholesale
price and let the retailers sell for any price they think is right for their
markets. Do you have $22,950 stamped on the side of your car? $89.95 stamped on
your shoes? $24.95 stamped on your shirt? $395,000 painted across your house?
The Bright Side
Booksellers would have to come up
with a new business model and invest some time in training their employees, but
with some business savvy—evaluating total store capacity, characterizing
target customers and ordering the books that customers want, ordering only
quantities that sell based on past history, discounting in place, and generally
managing inventory better—they would figure it out.
In the long run, no-returns would
be good for booksellers because it would help them figure out how to run their
businesses more profitably and eliminate the constant shipping of returned
books, time spent on collections, and other drains on their time and budgets.
Abolishing returns should go along
with other changes in the ways booksellers and publishers do business,
including more emphasis on instant delivery direct from publishers, more
electronic systems for ordering and tracking, reevaluation of discount
schedules, and arrangements for bringing in large numbers of books for book
signings and the like.
Think of the freight costs of
bringing a book from the printer to the publisher, then shipping it to a
wholesaler or distributor, who ships it to a bookseller, who then may ship it
back to the distributor, who will ship it back to the publisher. The only one
making money is UPS!
Books are subjected to so much
handling that often the only thing a publisher can do is ship them again, this
time as a donation. These expenses have an unhealthy effect on book prices.
At the current rate,
brick-and-mortar bookstores will be obsolete in 20 years. Baby boomers are now
the largest demographic, raised on bookstores and keeping the offline retailers
afloat. But when the next generation, raised online, comes into its own, there
will be little need for offline bookstores in their current capacity. And
that’s sad. The world needs bookstores. So I would use my magical powers to
keep them around by encouraging them to embrace the changes in the industry,
You Buy It, You Keep It
Abolishing returns would mean
eliminating the extra work of checking each box of returns to see if they are
resalable, and the lost revenues when the returns must be discarded because
they are torn, bent, dirty, or otherwise <span
For booksellers, I believe a
no-returns policy would barely cause a hiccup since they get such deep
discounts anyway, and they can always sell off stock not selling at full retail
in their seasonal “sale bins” and still make money on the titles.
In an ideal small-press publishing
world, I’d abolish returns, period. New policy: You want it, you buy it, you
keep it. We would take a return if and only if the item was not the one the
bookseller asked for (a picking error) or it was found to have a printing or
binding defect not apparent upon shipping.
The grass is always greener, but
in those wistful moments of reflection, I often wonder what in the world all
the other manufacturers are doing with their extra time. None of them has to
create a new marketing plan, new flyers, and new branding each month. They
don’t yearn for banks that understand the nuances of their field. They don’t
scrounge around the world for software and computer hardware capable of keeping
track of the infinitely complicated business system that includes payments to
authors, distributors, jobbers, wholesalers, independent retailers, retail
chains, retail chain distribution centers, multicentered and international
manufacturing, and special sales outlets—with special discounts ad
And even if Ford or Caterpillar
does do that, they get to charge $15,000 to $250,000 for each finished product.
I only get to charge $14. Then I have to worry that my $14 item is coming back.
There has to be an easier way to make a living.
Aye, there’s the rub. I like it. I
like authors. I like ideas. I like the creativity. I even like having to be so
creative. I like making a difference (at least we try). But it sure would be a
lot more fun without returns.
If I had magical power to abolish
them, I would just say, “That’s it. No more returns.” Poof! Zap! Maybe even
Ding-ding. And, hopefully, Ka-ching!
What I’d Do for Love
I would abolish returns for the
love of good books, for the love of good bookstores, for the love of creating
the best product I can—the one that makes book lovers say, “What a
beautiful book,” the one that makes people want to start a book club simply
because of what they read, the one that makes people tell everyone they know
about what they just read. I know this is a Utopian notion, but it is why I
write, illustrate, and publish books, it is why I visit bookstores, it is why
my home is filled with more beautiful and wonderfully literary books than any
of us can read.
In the end, the open return market
reflects our society’s low-interest-loan-buy-now-pay-later mentality: it
doesn’t matter if it’s junk; we don’t have to pay for it anyway. And the
publisher can say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s junk; maybe they won’t notice.”
Taking a Look at Tomorrow
Both publishers and booksellers
need to get wise to the changing paradigm. Returns is an antiquated idea. Its
day is done. Readers need to do their selections online and then buy their
copies off the Web.
Returns Made the Difference
In my opinion, returns is a
critical part of bookselling. Without returns, many books would not be tried.
We take a chance on a broad selection of titles because we know they can be
returned. If we had no returns our author signings would sell a lot less. I
feel that most stores would take a chance only on the books they know will
sell, and soon we would all be clones of each other with no distinct
I started with two tables and no
money. Now I have three stores and still less money, but I would not even be
here if it were not for returns. My first month (in 1984) I had 30 days to pay.
I sold what I could, returned some to make up the difference, bought more, and
the rest is history.
There are stores that can get by
with no returns. We have a very active events program that would dry up if we
had no returns. How many times have I called one of my sales reps and said, I
am doing this event; please send a selection of books relating to the event?
Many times, those books sell, and sometimes they do not, but it gets them out
of the warehouse into the light of day. Our returns are higher because of this.
Red Hook, and Cold Spring, NY
Getting rid of returns would kill
the small bookstore. We’d no longer be able to take chances. Think of
Christmastime. I couldn’t bring in a pile of books, hoping to sell them.
It’s all a gamble. We gamble on
the books. The publishers gamble on
the authors. If it’s a good book,
returns should be OK (because publishers won’t get piles back). If it’s not good,
it shouldn’t be printed and promoted.