Former Bookstore Owner Says…
As a former bookshop owner of 90% ‘used’ books, 10% new books and as a self-published author (booklocker.com), I agree wholeheartedly. My shop and I are in a small, historical town. I had the pulse on what the people of my town would buy, what interests they respond to, and acted accordingly. If one is not sure what books will sell, ordering a small amount is sensible. A small amount of unsold books can always be placed on the Sale table. I also think people should be responsible for all purchases they make, whether it is clothing or other items, including books. Credits may be given, but invoices cannot be paid with returnable goods.
Arlene S. Bice
Ghosts of Bordentown by
Another Permanent Temporary Solution…
One again we see that the most dangerous words in the language are “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you.”
Someone, I forget who, told me that the practice of allowing bookstores to return unsold merchandise was instituted during the Depression as a temporary measure to keep bookstores from going out of business entirely. Like many supposedly temporary government measures, such as the phone tax to pay for the Vietnam war, somehow it never came to an end when the temporary situation it was designed to alleviate, was over.
I’ve tried to talk bookstores into the idea that Print-On-Demand is a good idea. My pep talk goes like this: “It’s not that big of a risk. Order one copy, and if that sells, order two copies, and when they have sold, order three copies.” I have even offered to GIVE the store the first copy, to prime the pump. So far, no luck.
Author Supports Both Systems
First, thanks for a very well-written and thought-provoking article – this is a debate that is well worth having. Here is my two cents:
I am an author for both Booklocker.com and a couple of mainstream royalty publishers, and I like BOTH systems for different reasons.
My POD books have a defined sales channel, namely my own consulting and training practice. Having these books be non-returnable keeps the cost of POD publishing affordable, and lets me get quality books out to my clients. (And if you are even halfway computer-literate, you’d be crazy to do POD publishing with anyone but Angela and Booklocker.com.)
On the other hand, the fact that books from large royalty publishers are returnable means that a lot of different books get on the shelves at bookstores – including mine! – and the market gets to decide what they want. If you are Dean Koontz or Ken Blanchard, you will get shelf space in a bookstore no matter what. But if you are someone like me – recently the 46,378th most popular author in America, according to Amazon – the return system allows me to be right there on display with them, and I’d hate to lose my turn at bat.
There is already a trend amond royalty publishers to only want potential bestsellers, and the midlist has been shrinking for years – making books non-returnable would accelerate that trend even more, which means fewer advances and book contracts for us working authors.
Finally, as far as recouping royalties from authors for returns, most contracts provide for that – at least mine certainly do! – and unless you are dealing with rare cases of outright fraud, returns are usually a modest percentage of what gets ordered in the first place. (300,000 copies are New York Times bestseller numbers, so shame on the publisher in your example.) Most books get returned after four months unsold on the shelves, and with every royalty book I’ve ever written, there’s usually a modest debit on the first or second year’s royalty statement – you expect it and move on.
So I respect your views, but would vote to keep both systems as-is. Thanks again for a great article!
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If all books were non-returnable, bookstores would buy books based on their marketability, not based on which books can be thrown away if they don’t sell.
Book Signings A Problem
A comment on bookstore returns. Some bookstores in my area have told me that they would do author signings and buy copies of my book if it were returnable. Your article on bookstore returns raises awareness of the problems when bookstores order too many books and expect them to be returnable. While this may be an exception, this situation may exist in other areas. This can be especially true of an author who has a great book but cannot get bookstores to purchase copies without them being returnable. I agree however with the concept of not having books to be returnable for the reasons you cited in your article.
Thanks for your time and consideration.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Bookstores should be able to accurately estimate how many books will sell at a signing. If they’ve hyped the signing like past signings, there’s no reason they can’t estimate approximately how many will sell. Blindly ordering 100 copies when they usually only sell 20 per signing is irresponsible…but it happens ALL the time.
If they took the time to estimates sales based on historical figures, instead of just ordering a bunch of boxes they know they will never have to pay for, they wouldn’t be worrying about returns.
The only reason they demand returns for signings now is because that’s they way it’s been done since the depression. Something has to change so the author and publisher aren’t continually victimized by this ridiculous practice.
Another Opinion On The History Of Returns
Your article on book returns omits–because it lacked pertinence–the story of how the concept of returns came about. I learned the story from Max Schuster during our discussions in the mid-1960s. I had had financial backing from W. Clement Stone, the late Chicago millionaire, to get into the business after I had great success in reprinting some titles I had acquired from a small mid-western publisher that Stone owned.
At the time I was editor-in-chief of Fawcett Publications book division, publishers of Crest Books, Premier Books, and Gold Medal Books. Stone approached me suggesting I find a hard-cover house I could purchase with his financial backing. As it happens, the publishing house I broke into the business with after 14 years as a newsman–Hawthorn Books, a Prentice-Hall subsidiary–was being put up for sale. And in January, 1965, I took over Hawthorn.
After 14 years of being in business without ever turning a profit, Hawthorn began to make a mark in the book trade. And Max Schuster, from whom I had acquired a good many S&S books for the Crest and Premier lists, invited me to lunch one day. The purpose of that meeting is another story, but the story of “book returns” is one that astounded me.
In the early ’20s–about a decade after the Crossword Puzzle fad began in the New York World, later to become the now deceased World-Telegram and Sun–Simon and Schuster was “born” in New York. And Max, ever the farsighted editor, felt strongly that the game created by Arthur Wynne, an editor at the newspaper, had book potential. They proceed with the idea, but Max’s partner Richard (Dick) Simon felt that the game book did not fit the editorial qualities of the other S&S titles, whose inaugural list had yet to be published later that year.
So they came up with an idea: publish it under a different trade name so as not to demean the rest of the as yet unlaunched S&S list. This they did– as Plaza Publishing…and bookstores were curious, and interested. But, because it was a newspaper gimmick, they were reluctant to stock the title. Max dreamed up an idea, convinced Dick to go along with it, and the book was sold with a guarantee: unsold copies could be returned to the publisher.
The idea worked, and other publishers jumped on the band wagon–both by adding crossword puzzles to their lists _and_ offering to take returns. It proved to be a great way to get more books into the stores. It’s been more than a half-century now since publishers have been trying to end the “gimmick”, but then you know the rest of the story.
We tried to prevent the sales force from overselling any book–but, regardless, returns hurt our business.
Only when I took over as Editor-in-Chief of Harlequin in 1975 did returns not hurt–in fact I encouraged getting bigger sales because Harlequin’s returns were well below the average of any publisher, which meant to me that we were not getting enough books out there.
Fred Kerner, Publishing Projects Inc., Toronto
Another Way Returns Can Victimize Publishers
Many, many moons ago when I worked for a small publisher, we noted we hadn’t gotten a check from a large distributor in months. We also happened to be doing physical inventory at the warehouse at the same time. I noticed a dozen or so boxes of returns from the distributor of a book that had shipped only about a month earlier.
The distributor was over-ordering, taking immediate credit for returns, and paying on its normal 90-day cycle. Thus, even though there was a balance of tens of thousands of dollars, the distributor could simply return as much as (or more than) was due in a given month and not send us a check.
We have a similar story.
When we used to give bookstores credit (no more!), we had a firm, no-returns policy and made each bookstore sign our order form stating they understood our terms.
When the bookstores and smaller distributors (including library distributors) did pay us, often four months later, we kept finding deductions on the checks for previous orders. We were also receiving boxes of books, despite our no-returns agreement. The bookstores wouldn’t return my phone calls and kept returning books and deducting the entire amounts from future checks.
We also noticed that our past due accounts receivable was growing steadily. After just a few months, we had more then $4,000 in receivables that we knew we’d never collect. The culprits were bookstores, distributors, libraries and even schools. Yes, in fact, schools seemed to be the worst at paying their bills.
I knew I’d have to hire a collection agency to handle the mess but I did something more drastic. To stop the bleed, we stopped giving credit to everyone. No more credit to bookstores, distributors (except Ingram, of course – they never took advantage of us), libraries and schools.
Each entity had to complete our order form when ordering which, again, specified our no-returns policy. They then either provided us with a credit card number or a check. Amazingly, all these companies that had previously claimed they couldn’t pre-pay now did, and quickly, when we told them no-cash, no-books. We didn’t lose any customers and we instantly stopped the bleed. That was about three years ago. Our wholesale/retailer sales have continued to increase by record numbers each year and our accounts receivable (after I wrote off that old $4K) is now zero.
Non-returnable books may work for POD, but if it were the practice for books published in the traditional way new authors who are not celebrities would find bookstores refusing to stock their titles, or stocking only one or two copies. One bookstore owner I spoke to about this said she would stock only best sellers and order other books only as they were requested.
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If no books were returnable, bookstores would have to order non-best-sellers because there simply aren’t enough best sellers on the current lists to stock those big stores. I mean, can you imagine a bookstore filled to the brim with only a few dozen titles to choose from?
Bookstores count on their patrons to come in looking for one book (a best seller perhaps) and leave with many more, titles they didn’t even know existed until they walked in the door and started browsing.
Bookstores must continue to serve the academic buyers (history, biographies), the business buyers (tons of non-fiction, non-best-sellers there), art, music, crafts, children’s, etc. as well. The majority of the books in stores are not best sellers but they represent a huge percentage of a bookstore’s profits. Bookstores would definitely not stop offering those books just because they’re not best sellers. Those impulse-buy and how-to books are their bread and butter.
Regardless of whether a book is returnable or not, the fact is that not every book published each year by traditional publishers is stocked by bookstores. It’s not just self-published books that get ignored. It all depends on the marketing savvy of the publishers’ sales agent when peddling new titles by unknowns. Again, there just simply isn’t enough shelf space to display all the new books on the market.
So, yes, if all books were non-returnable, they’d continue to stock non-best-sellers. They just wouldn’t overbuy them for no reason, knowing they can return them later for nothing.