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Bookstore Returns

I agree that returns are ruinous and inefficient. Let's imagine a world without returns.

So bookstores will buy on a final sale basis. Great! Except:

1. Publishers and their publicists and testimonial writers will no longer be able to lie about pub dates, formats, content, and quality. Or put it this way, they can lie once and then forget about ever getting a store to order anything from them again. Do any of us tell the truth, the whole truth about all the books we publish? Do our schedules slip? Do the books sometimes come in a bit underweight? Of course you can always hold off on getting orders until you actually have a book to sell: so do you overprint or underprint? You tell me. Nothing like a garage full of books with no place to go!

2. But let's assume the bookstore has your book. Can't return it. Can't sell it either (because maybe you liked about how Rowena Kachunker was the next Judy Blume or whatever). So bookseller now sells to a whole new class of bookseller that has arisen, the purveyor of new "used" books: look just like those on the Borders shelf, but priced at half of those, and smart shoppers now know that all they have to do is wait and guaranteed the book they want will shop up. These are not bulk overstocks or hurts, folks, but the full range of published material available within only six months (or fewer) of publication at half price (or less). That's what has happened in Japan, and it has slashed revenues at publishers. Yes, you've already sold that book to the retailer and been paid for it, but now you've created a new class of consumer who will not buy your book at full price, even at Amazon price. Again, fewer advances.

3. Where before a store might order 2-3 copies of your book, now they order 1 or none. And oh, you can't give them 40%, you now have to give them at least 50%, just like all those other nonreturnable vendors. So there goes 20% of your income on those sales. And in order for wholesalers to sell nonreturnable to those same accounts, maybe you have to give wholesalers discounts as high as 60 or 65%. That's more less money to you.

The point is, booksellers will respond to publishers' policies by reorganizing their businesses to maintain profits and minimize risk. If you don't want any returns, get used to the idea of fewer sales and more meager distribution.

The idea that a hodgepodge of indie publishers can remake the rules is ludicrous. Instead:

a. publish fewer books and publish more books that sell through; stores are under no obligation to purchase crap or stock their shelves with books that customers don't want or need.

b. stop relying on bookstores and measuring your success and stature against that of deep-pocket publishers with extensive publicity and marketing programs; find alternative, nonreturnable markets

c. look forward to the days when consumers will browse virtual books on Handiscreens, thus eliminating the need for bookstores to maintain stock and thus generate returns. But for now, you are better off pricing your books at least 10 to 12X ppb and assuming 7.5% loss through damage, croissant stains, and UPS trucks hauling returns over potholed highways.

PMA should perhaps be spending as much time educating its publisher members about returns as it should trying to eliminate returns from bookstores.

Peter Goodman
Stone Bridge Press

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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