Interesting, But Off-Base

September 15th, 2005 · 6 Comments
by Booksquare

We like radical notions (especially those that start with, “Maybe we should go out for Chinese food tonight”), but prefer solid plans (“Let’s go out for Chinese food tonight”). A plan to deal with the morass that is book returns certainly would catch our attention, but as we read one publisher’s call to arms, we were struck by the missing details.

Angela Hoy, who runs the Writers Weekly newsletter and owns Booklocker, a print-on-demand publisher, is suggesting that all all books be non-returnable. Her logic is that print-on-demand technology and smarter ordering would reduce the accounting nightmare that is returns.

Accepting returns ultimately hurts the author and the publisher and costs the bookstores very little (except when they agree to pay shipping or a small percentage of the loss as a penalty). 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? And think of all the trees that were wasted on those books that will never sell!

Now we’re very much in favor of trees, but also know there’s a little thing called human nature. Books cannot be equated with groceries or clothing*. And customers certainly can return these items, resulting in credit to the stores. Though we are not familiar with the ins and outs of every business, we do know it is possible to negotiate returns on unsold items (the store to the manufacturer). This is, of course, not factoring the wild and woolly returns policies related to music and motion picture products. Whoo hoo!

The fact remains that print-on-demand is not truly print-on-demand. If it were, then, sure, a bookstore could stock a large number of well-thumbed products, producing a fresh copy while the customer’s credit card is processed. Unlike clothing, you cannot try an item on, twisting and turning and cursing the fact that dressing room mirrors do not reflect a reality found on this planet.

Books can be tried on — we all do it — but the equivalent notion would be reading a good portion of the book (must see how it looks, front and back, not to mention the side view). Some might put the book, all stretched seams and hidden stains from dirty thumbs, back on the shelf. Others might take the book home and model it for the family before deciding it just doesn’t fit.

Our analogy, much to your relief, is going to break down now. Clothing can be marked-down until someone says, “Hey, that pink blouse with rust stripes is a good deal.” Books don’t undergo the same process. And, needless to say, once books are remaindered, authors suffer.

Hoy’s main argument seems mainly centered on the fact that bookstores get suckered into making unwise purchases — purchases that result in the little risk borne by the store and lots of risk borne by the publisher/author. She cites this example:

We heard one story about an author (not a author!) who convinced a huge, well-known discount store (you probably have one in your neighborhood) to buy 300,000 copies of his book. He was apparently related to someone in the higher ranks at that store. The publisher naively agreed to accept returns and processed the order. Well, when dealing with 300,000 copies of an unknown author’s books, you can probably guess what happened. Almost all of the books were eventually returned…at the expense of the publisher.

While this story has the quality of an urban legend, it also doesn’t represent life as we know it. Very rarely are well-known discount stores going to put out for 300,000 copies of a book on a whim. A business-savvy publisher isn’t going to put their financial future at risk in such a manner either. We do not make it a habit to comment upon the intelligence of our fellow humans (much), but someone wasn’t using both sides of the brain here.

Hoy then notes about the above scenario (and this is where she lost us completely):

By the time the books were returned, the publisher may have already paid royalties to the author. When something like this happens, what do you think a publisher’s chances are of recovering that lost money? Zero.

Again, a business-savvy publisher has factored risk into the equation, in this case by holding substantial reserves against returns. By substantial, we’re thinking percentages that start with a 9 and end with a 9. Contracts also, in that icky fine print, often provide mechanisms for recovering overpayments, should they happen. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s a possibility. The only real way we can see that the publisher would be out cash (other than printing costs) is if they’d been dumb enough to give the author a non-refundable advance.

Returns are a real problem in the publishing industry. Too many items are produced, stores are convinced to stock large quantities (book buying is largely a matter of gut, and it’s not always easy to gauge customer reaction), reserves are held far longer than is reasonable, and the window for returning product is far too open. The print-on-demand idea works better for non-impulse purchases — and how many books are impulse purchases? — and with online retailers whose customers don’t expect instant gratification.

Going with the print-on-demand model doesn’t address the real problems that accompany liberal returns policies and practices. Returns shouldn’t be abolished — they should be reformed. Seriously reformed.

* – Okay, we see your point, but there will come a moment when starvation is a real option.

File Under: Tools and Craft

6 responses so far ↓

  • Traci DePree // Sep 15, 2005 at 2:38 pm

    As a novelist, I must admit I like the idea of no returns, but if not having a returns policy keeps the stores from buying in aren’t we shooting ourselves in the foot? A bookstore is much more likely to try an untested author’s work if they have the guarantee of returning unsold books.

    My question is, won’t print-on-demand hold our books in “in-print limbo”? A few sales here and there meriting keeping the book in print for the publisher, but the author is left with no way to get rights back and sell to a new source while making just a couple of bucks here and there. Everyone wins but the author.

  • Elizabeth Burton // Sep 15, 2005 at 4:03 pm

    Your response misses the point. Print-on-demand CAN work if the bookstores realize they don’t have to order ten or twenty or thirty copies because (a) the books are never out of stock and (b) they can be replaced quickly should the title take off and stock get low. The problem is trying to make POD work in the existing model, which is doesn’t–and shouldn’t.

    I’m not talking about the superchains. They are a waste of time for just about any new or relatively unknown writer no matter who their publisher is. Nor am I saying the POD ideal of no returns is necessary. What’s preventing POD from taking a place in the market is less the issue of returns than it is that the books have to be paid for at time of ordering and the perception that all POD books are vanity-published garbage.

    All we ask of booksellers is that they not reject good books out of hand solely based on the way they are printed. We have no problem being snubbed by the Big B’s. What frustrates us is when indie bookstores won’t even look at one of our books because “Oh, that’s POD. We don’t stock POD.”

    Need I mention that up till the point this enters the conversation, they have often been very enthusiastic about the book in question? And, note: they will even refuse to take the books on consignment unless they get the full 40% discount. Excuse me? We (or the author) pays for the books, pays for the shipping and then is supposed to give the full retail discount? I don’t think so.

    As for your analogy that customers of other versions of retail can take items home and return them if they don’t suit, have you ever actually worked in a retail store? There are some that will accept returns without question, but many more require there actually be something wrong with the return–wrong size, flawed construction, whatever. Nor will they accept returns that have obviously been damaged post purchase.

    And ask publishers how many returns they’ve gotten from Barnes & Noble that are coffee-stained because the customer spilled his nosh on it while snacking then put it back on the shelf.

    One way of competing in bookselling is offering deeper and deeper discounts on the books everybody is selling. Another is to look for alternatives to the books everybody is selling. We try to encourage booksellers to try the latter–not in place of what they do now but as an adjunct. Some of them are listening.

  • Booksquare // Sep 15, 2005 at 6:33 pm

    Elizabeth, I really do agree that the system needs overhaul — until then, the ideal of no returns is a long way away. I’m not even sure that the (traditional) technology permits rapid turnarounds of relatively small print runs at a reasonable price.

    As for straight POD titles, I’m not sure what the answer is. If it’s a one-off situation (where the customer orders and puts a deposit on a single or multiple copies), then I can see compromises. Retailers are in an unfortunate position of being faced with limited shelf space and a never-ending, always increasing barrage of new releases. And, in defense of booksellers, the quality of POD titles varies greatly — there are the straight vanity titles and there are titles that have gone on to win major awares — and while blanket policies exclude quality work, it’s going to be hard going to change perceptions.

    Then there’s the question of impulse purchases — not an issue of the store is willing to stock POD titles, but it is an issue if not. I’m willing to cogitate on ways to change the system, but it needs to be a mix of solutions. Suggesting that no returns is the ultimate goal seems, on the surface, to be a way to discourage booksellers from taking risk.

    And, yeah, worked lots of retail in various types of stores. I can even make change without having the register calculate the amount for me!

  • Wendy Duren // Sep 16, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    local department store isn’t allowed to return unsold clothes to the factory

    Sorry, not true. Departments stores can and do return unsold garments to manufacturers.

    The print run of 300,000 for a mid-list author does sound like urban legend, especially when you consider that Brett Easton Ellis’ latest offering had an initial print run 125,000. Generally New York publishers don’t get to be corporate behemoths by following that listen-to-the-author business model laid out in Hoy’s argument.

    While “books held against return” do hold up authors’ royalty payments—seemingly forever—the bottom line is that books are products just like electronic equipment, sporting goods, or furniture. And, there isn’t any reason why return policies for books should be different than for other products.

  • Tod Goldberg // Sep 16, 2005 at 1:00 pm

    “By the time the books were returned, the publisher may have already paid royalties to the author. When something like this happens, what do you think a publisher’s chances are of recovering that lost money? Zero.”

    This is absolute bullshit. Usually, something like half of all the books printed are held against return, often for a year or more, so the idea that the author had suddenly reaped great profits from this mythical sale to Costco is hardly believable. As a writer and a reader, I must admit that I find POD dubious. Why? Because most of the POD books I’ve read have been foisted upon me by weird, possibly insane, people at writers conferences. As a writer, it’s not a viable publishing model for me because it’s not publishing, it’s printing. And while I’d prefer that my books were able to sit on shelves until the end of time, the truth is that it’s called the publishing business, not the publishing gallery, and if your work is subpar, at least according to the reader, they certainly have the right to return it.

  • Booksquare // Sep 17, 2005 at 11:55 am

    Telling me that you’re seeing 50% reserves is depressing but not out of line with what I’ve heard recently (another author said she had a 75% reserve, but then thought maybe some math-checking was due). I would guess, based on other industries, that it would not be unusual to hold reserves for closer to 18 months — this is because larger retailers are often lackadaisical about processing returns. Presumably these are truly reserves and, when liquidated, result in payments to the author. I only say this because actual returns of 50% are a scary thought.

    There is definite room for increasing efficiency in the publishing industry.

    I would (and do) separate the technology of print-on-demand from the product. The product ranges from vanity publishing to self-publishing (this was the route that MJ Rose took with her first book — that was ultimately picked up by a major publishes) to certain houses that use the POD model quite effectively for their business. And, if I may, some people are magnets for the weird and possibly insane. . .

    The technology, if it ever achieves its promise, could lead to improvements in the distribution process. If, for example, high-speed presses that could produce lower print runs at a reasonable cost were to become the norm, then bookstores (and salespeople) could order in lower volumes, knowing they can fufill demand if a title sells in unexpectedly high numbers. The benefit to the author would be more accurate sales figures and lower reserves, leading to more timely payment.

    Until then…

    Wendy, I’m not even sure the urban legend author was a mid-list. I got the impression that we were dealing with a total unknown. Either way, it sounds improbable.