Returns, Returns, Returns

Ask anyone that has been in publishing for more than ninety days what they like least about the industry and you will undoubtedly get the answer, “returns!” Returns are high on the list of frustrating and hard-to-accept aspects of the book business.

When I first began working in publishing years ago, I was told early on about returns during my training with our own Tanya Hall. I remember kind of chuckling when she told me that all sales could be returned for any reason at any time. Having never heard of such a practice in my prior retail, B2B, and direct to consumer experience, I thought surely she must be joking. Well, she wasn’t, but the hundreds of authors I have worked with over the years have certainly felt like the joke’s on them when it comes to returns.

They are bad for everyone involved for many different reasons, but there are ways to minimize them and sometimes it helps just to more fully understand why they happen at all. We’ll go over all three points here.

Books are returned for a variety of reasons, the most common being:

  • Insufficient demand to justify current stock levels either at the wholesale or retail level
  • Overstock following a promotion that required a large quantity of inventory
  • Damage of product upon receipt

Damages are relatively small in comparison to overstock returns so the main catalyst for returns is simply demand. Wholesalers will give your book ninety days max to start moving or an overstock return will be triggered. It’s all about inventory turnover and if your title isn’t turning over fast enough, they send it back for a full refund. With bookstores, your timeline could be as little as thirty days.

Returns are bad for everyone involved, even the retailer.

  • Author: Return rates impact future sales of your current or future books with retailers, cost you money in the form of damages and shipping expense, and can be hard to cope with from a morale standpoint.
  • Distributor: Return rates impact the distributor’s ability to sell future titles in the same category to retailers, are a reflection overall in retail buyer’s minds of the viability of a distributor’s overall title list, and cost internal time in processing, reconciling, and accounting.
  • Retailer: Return rates reflect directly on a category buyer’s performance and can ultimately make them very cautious about taking a chance on a new author. Plus, they cost them money and time with processing and shipping.

There are some ways to minimize your returns risk, including:

  • Take a conservative and slow approach to distribution rather than pushing too much inventory out there too quickly without adequate demand.
  • Pass on risky placements like airport co-ops unless they will bring you a benefit beyond book sales, such as credibility or exposure for your business.
  • Focus your efforts on creating demand with consumers so demand meets supply.

After reading all of this, one might ask the obvious. Why do we put up with this practice at all? Well, the short answer is that we put up with it because booksellers demand it. Harper Studio tried it with much resistance, except from Borders. Both are now out of business. If we were to move to a non-returnable norm, the majority of the industry (booksellers and publishers together) would pretty much have to make the shift at once. Of course, if books are sold non-returnable, the added risk to the retailer means an even smaller likelihood that anything but slam-dunk bestsellers will make it to their shelves.