Letters To The Editor For September 28th

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Hello Angela,

I’ve been reading on your concerns on book returns and have to say I agree with you completely. But I’d like to share something that I was recently made aware of by someone I met while at work. I work in a retail chain called Target. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Well there is a girl that comes in once a week when I’m working in the jewelry department. She’s what we call a vendor and she deals with a few particular brands of jewelry, stocking them, cleaning them, setting them up. (Forgive me if this is basic knowledge.)

Well I was chatting with her one day and she told me she also works as a book vendor. But what she does horrified me! She rips the covers off of books that aren’t sold!! Some are taken home by her and others are destroyed! I couldn’t believe this! I was raised to respect books. My mom wouldn’t let me color in or tear any kind of book (as you often see little children do). Books were special. I’m an avid book reader and amateur writer and to this day it bothers me if I bend a corner on a book. But to tear the cover off of them? Horrendous! And it’s made even worse by the fact the authors don’t receive compensation for these works.

If stores are so intent on over-ordering then perhaps they should pay the full price for each of these destroyed books and then donate them to charities, bookmobiles, libraries, hospitals rather than rip them apart and trash them!

Thanks for listening to my 2 cents.

Michelle R. Lyon

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Angela,

This whole discussion reminds us all of why Amazon is the future. Despite the zillions of books stocked in my local Borders and B&N, two-thirds of the time they don’t have what I came in looking for, even when it’s a local author or a business book that was just written up in the Wall Street Journal.

Vanderbilt professors, who are in the top 5,000 at Amazon, aren’t in the Borders store that is on the “border” of the campus. The clerks say they’ll order it, but it’ll take 7 to 9 days. On the off chance they do have the book, it is invariably more expensive, so I only buy at retail when I am on deadline for an article or didn’t plan well for someone’s birthday.

Meanwhile, I can go to an online retailer and be sure I’ll find the book, cheaper than in the store, and I don’t have to waste $3 gas. The books aren’t sitting in loads of superstores where nobody is looking for them and the people who really want the book can find it. Something’s gotta give if retailers are going to remain relevant.

Tim Leffel
Author, The World’s Cheapest Destinations
http://www.worldscheapestdestinations.com
Editor, The Travel Writing Portal
http://www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/travel/travel_writing/index.shtm

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Hey Angela,

I always come back to the old Seinfeld episode where George takes a book into the bathroom while at a bookstore, the bookstore forces him to buy it, then the rest of the episode he keeps trying to return it, but they have “marked” the book so he can’t return it.

I know not at all related to what you are talking about, but funny anecdote.

Kirk Neal
Communications Coordinator
Office of International Research, Education and Development
Virginia Tech

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Hi Angela,

As a former bookbuyer for a small bookstore, I can tell you that bookstores aren’t always able to make good choices about what they order.

To get Book A that you want, at a discount that will allow you a profit, you often must take a package deal – X amount of Book A that you want, plus X amount of Books B and C that you don’t really want. The art of bookbuying is to ferret out a deal that will get you the optimum amount of the books you want, at the best discount, and allow you to accept the least of those you don’t want (or don’t think will sell). Every publisher has many different sets of deals. If you’re lucky, you have good rapport with your publisher’s rep who will help you thread the needle and get a good deal. Bear in mind, however, that these folks are salespeople who have quotas to meet and finaicial incentives to push certain books.

The alternative is to order the quantity you really want of Book A from a jobber (middleman who has a warehouse and buys large quantities of all books directly from the publishers). The jobber’s discount rates allow even less profit to the bookseller, since the jobber also needs to make a profit.

We’re talking Scylla and Charybdis here, especially for the small independent bookstore. So be assured that bookstore owners and buyers aren’t stupid – it’s a lot more complex than just forecasting and buying only what you want.

Best regards,
L

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I’ve enjoyed reading all the arguments for and against booksellers being able to return the unsold copies. Part of the story is that they don’t have the patience for a book to build a following and want recent novels off the shelves if they don’t have runaway sales. Books like Dan Brown’s which stay at the top of the list pay for themselves in days but others take months for the word to get around.

They aren’t all pulped though. Remaindered books turn up on sales in other countries where the mark down is appreciated.

Here in Africa we have shops that specialise in returned magazines published overseas which are prohibitively expensive when new but acceptable a couple of months later and books such as classics, cookbooks, novels which have passed their popularity in their home countries. For the thousands who cannot afford new books these are a godsend.

Yours,
Anne

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Angela, here’s more on the non-returnable book roundtable—–

I was an assistant store manager a few years back with the largest specialty book retailer in the country and unless things have changed drastically, here are some other practices (ones their competitors do as well) that defy explanation.

a.. Virtually all of the mass market paperbacks are not returned, but instead are turned into ‘strips’ which means the front covers are torn off along with at least the first 20 pages of the book. The front covers are boxed and sent to an independent company to verify the accuracy of the reported counts and the store gets credit for the unsold titles. I would estimate that for a large volume store, a year’s strips would easy fill two or three dumpsters. No chance for these books to be donated or resold at a discount. If you write for magazines, you might be interested to know that a similar procedure is followed for the newsstand. What a waste!

b.. Unlike with small, independent stores, the superstores have much less control over what gets sent to them from the wholesalers. I can’t begin to count the number of times the backroom would fill up with dozens to hundreds of copies of books that had no chance of selling through. The agreements among the big retailers, wholesalers, and publishers often determine almost all of the “buying decisions” any individual store makes. Attempts to convince the home office to stem the tide of ordering overkill were futile. We heard, “Just send them back with the next return cycle.”

c.. If you wonder why it is sometimes hard to find someone to help you in one of these stores it might be because the staff is busy trying to meet the next return deadline. If designated titles are not shipped by deadlines they will sit on the shelf or in the backroom until the next return cycle, tying up money and space that could be used for new titles by talented and deserving authors.

Thanks, and keep up the great work you do.

S.B.

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Dear Angela,

Thanks for your two-part piece on why books shouldn’t be returnable. I agree that this practice needs to stop. Think about it from a practical standpoint: If I only eat half of my loaf of bread that I bought this week, can I take the other half back to the grocery store for a refund next week? I think not. For some reason, the idea of getting paid to write makes a lot of people balk. They don’t realize this practice is damaging a lot of professional livelihoods. Like any other industry or consumer in America, buy what you need (or can sell) and no more. If you have doubts, be conservative. Buy a smaller loaf, guys.

But what do I know? I’m only a lowly POD author. Alas, perhaps one day I will break into the big game and better understand that which I am not a part of yet.

Cheers!

Sherri Fulmer Moorer
Author, Battleground Earth – Living by Faith in a Pagan World
http://hometown.aol.com/bgearth/index.html
http://journals.aol.com/bgearth/BattlegroundEarth

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Dear Angela:

RE your ‘All Books Should Be Nonreturnable’ article — all I can say is, AMEN! Thank you for an informative and timely reminder of what authors must deal with if they go the traditional publishing route.

This makes all the stronger argument for self-publishing, as well.

All the best,
Caroline Ryan
Author, The Other Side Of Belfast, about life in
Belfast, Northern Ireland since the peace agreement.

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And, one of the ONLY letters we received supporting returns…

Over the past decade or so, one of the most widely lamented problems for authors has been the practice of large chains’ basing their orders on past sales figures. Donald E Westlake even based a novel on it (“Corkscrew,” 2000). The only way some authors have been able to escape this vicious cycle is to switch to a pseudonym and keep all connection with their previous work secret.

It’s remarkable to read an authors’ advocate actually suggesting that this is exactly what bookstore chains ought to be doing!

You write, “Grocery stores aren’t allowed to return unsold food to manufacturers and your local department store isn’t allowed to return unsold clothes to the factory. So, why should bookstores be allowed to over-order and then return items while expecting the publisher or self-published author to bear the expense of their poor judgment?”

But this is economic nonsense. For one thing, returns and promotions at the wholesale level are more common than you may realize. For another, predicting sales of a book isn’t remotely like predicting sales of corn flakes. There’s a reason you don’t hear about cereals becoming runaway best-sellers. Moreover, the price-cost difference is simply drastically different for books (and a handful of similar things) and almost all other products. Most items sold in a grocery store retail for something much closer to their underlying cost than is the case with books, which represent a large up-front expense for the publisher but relatively little per copy.

And thank goodness for that. It makes it practical to treat books, magazines, and some similar items as returnable. It means that a bookstore or chain can take a chance and buy extra copies just in case a book turns out to sell really well. And that makes it *possible* for a book to sell really well. A reader can’t buy something that’s already sold out.

I’m sure most small publishers hate returns. But authors have a good reason to like them.

D Gary Grady

EDITOR’S NOTE: While I’m sure there are a few items (not many!) other than books, magazines and CDs that are returnable, bookstores expect everything to be returnable while other stores do not, with good reason. I’ll say it again – bookstores should be responsible for their own sales forecasts. And, no returns don’t help authors. If all publishers refused returns, authors would still have the same chance of getting stocked on bookstore shelves. And, finally, the trees! We will never endorse something that wastes millions of trees each year.