• Brooke Warner
  • Putting an End to Returns: Utopian Publishing Dream or Eventual Reality?
This blog was featured on 08/29/2016
Putting an End to Returns: Utopian Publishing Dream or Eventual Reality?
Contributor

It’s time to blog about returns. Not because it’s a glamorous subject, but because it’s an important piece of the book publishing business that too few authors (and readers) understand.

The fact that books are returnable in the first place is cause for frustration, and it should be cause for concern. I’m hard-pressed to think of another returns-based industry like book publishing. (Name one if you know one in the comments, please!) The fallout from being a returns-based industry is that retailers have little incentive to order what they think they can really sell, and publishers rarely push back on what might be perceived as unrealistic orders because they’re desperate for a shot at getting their product in a position where it might really move.

As a small publisher (with authors investing in their own work to boot), I am cautious about Barnes & Noble, and outright against being carried in superstores like Target, Costco, or, god forbid, Walmart. Why? Not only do these stores take massive up-front buys at horribly steep discounts, but the product is returnable. I once worked on a book that went into Target, actually; they ordered 30,000 books at a 60% discount, meaning the publisher got 40% to divvy up between themselves and the author. Of course, the publisher held money against returns, because the likelihood that Target would return that book was very high. (Honestly, this was not a good gamble on the publisher’s part.) Guess how many came back? 25,000 books. Those books were a write-off for the publisher. Pulped. Destroyed. But this little scenario is why I avoid any possibility for this type of massive (steeply discounted) order like the plague. It can sink a small publisher, and be devastating to an author.

Barnes & Noble isn’t quite as bad as a superstore, but they still mostly take buys that they can’t or won’t sell through. (“Sell through” is the industry term for books that actually sell through the register, meaning a real sale.) It’s maddening, because most authors want their books to be in B&N, and it’s good for a book to have the “chance” to be in B&N, but their returns (on a given title) are often higher than 50%, when the industry standard is 30%. They’re also notorious for sending back damaged books. I attended a panel at Pub U in Austin in April where one of the panelists joked that the guys packing up the pallets run over them with their forklifts for good measure, but the joke landed a little too bitterly. All the publishers in the room were frustrated by the lack of accountability from anyone anywhere—bookstores, wholesalers, distributors—when it comes to damaged books. The publisher eats it. End of story. And returns are only slightly less frustrating than damaged books. Yes, they go back into inventory, but we pay for that privilege, and then we have more inventory than we can sell, which eventually turns into excess inventory, which we have to pay to store.

Somewhere once upon a time, the notion that a book could or should be returnable was a good idea. I read but can’t corroborate that Simon & Schuster came up with this idea to give themselves an edge on the competition—and then it became industry standard. The problem with book publishing is that the world has changed, but the model is still the same stagnant one that gives massive cuts to retailers and allows them to return whatever they can’t sell—even though the most massive retailer out there (Amazon) is nimble and knows how to order what it will sell.

When B&N goes out of business, I desperately hope that book publishers will rally together to say no more to returns. Being a returns-based business is bad from every angle, and the damage to the environment should not be understated. We’re printing more than we need. While books sit in warehouses not moving, inventory must be available to fulfill actual orders that are moving. This forces publishers to overprint, even publishers that are using print-on-demand technology.

Concerned publishers, authors, and readers can and should band together over this issue, but I fear it will take the fall of B&N and Amazon being reasonable (the prior an eventuality, the latter a near impossibility) for us to effect any change in this area. Understandably, small bookstores might be upset by this shift, but their returns are already (generally) relatively low, and they can do their part to reconceptualize the model, too.

Meanwhile, authors need to understand that you have to pay to play—whether you’re traditionally published or footing the print bill, it doesn’t matter. Saying that you will not accept returns, or marking your self-published book as “non-returnable” is the kiss of death for your book. You don’t want to do it because no bookstore will touch it, and you’ll look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Yes, the returns are painful. All authors see the hold against returns, the negative sales in later quarters, and the sheer volume of books coming back from accounts that never needed to have ordered so many books in the first place. But look around you. Book publishing is changing, and authors and new publishers need to continue to be the disrupters. We need to stop putting up with this. The cost is not just on a publisher/author level; it’s global.

When I posed the idea of starting a petition on this subject, one industry insider thought it couldn't make a difference—that it would be like throwing a pebble in the ocean. And yet book publishing as it’s going, with more titles every year, more inventory, more paper, is not sustainable.

Your thoughts? What will it take to change?

 

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Comments
  • Thank you, Michelle!

  • Michelle Cox

    Hi, Brooke,

    Thanks for this post.  The many aspects of publishing are mind-blowing to me (a definite newbie!).  I can't imagine what your daily calendar looks like!  

    As for the returns issue, there is nothing for me to add, except that, as you've pointed out before, perhaps the antiquated publishing model will crack with little companies, like She Writes, now in game.  I am always trying to promote She Writes to people I know, and one of the things I like to say is that it is exciting to be a part of an evolving company in an evolving landscape.  Thanks, yet again, for all you do!

  • Veronica, yes, retailer returns.

    Again, Zetta, thanks for this extra info/insight. Very helpful!

  • Zetta Brown

    This discussion has grown since a few days when I last checked! LOL After reading the comments, a few things struck out to me and they are things authors should know if they don't already.

    1) Ebooks can be returned. Brooke mentioned it and I've written about it here. If you're selling through Amazon, which most of us are, ebooks can be returned within 7 days of purchase.

    HOWEVER, it appears that Amazon has gotten more strict with their policy (finally) since I wrote that post in 2012 to counter abuse, but abuse still remains and it's costly. I know several publishers who saw a disturbing trend with Amazon Spain. We're talking a 95-100% return rate--and for new releases. Hmmm...I smell fish. So, what's Amazon doing about it? Nothing, from what I hear.

    Also, publishers have reported returns being honored AFTER that 7-day window. If you're a publisher with 100s or 1000s of titles, or a successful indie author who makes a ton of sales, it adds up.

    2) Publishers and bookstores - I'll echo what Brooke says but will also add that authors come to expect (even demand) that publishers get their books in bookstores. Many smaller, indie publishers try to accommodate their authors as best they can, but most of us just can't risk it. I know of one publisher who normally didn't sell to bookstores because they didn't want to deal with the scale of returns. They tried to appease an author who assured them with an impressive marketing & promotion plan that they would be the exception and not the rule. The publisher took the risk and, as expected, there were huge orders and huge returns that crippled the publisher for a long time after. Meanwhile, the author got disgruntled and left.

    If you are an indie author and want to be in bookstores, you have to play this game too, or go the consignment route as Brooke mentioned.

    The returns system is costly to both publisher and author--and unfair. It affects print and ebook formats. But until the industry gets its act together, it ain't gonna change.

    The truth in the matter is that if you want your name known far and wide--you have to go far and wide. Bookstores have come to rely upon this inefficient system, and like Brooke says, publishers find it hard to go against if they want their books on store shelves.


    3) Getting Reader Support. There is (or at least was) a group on Goodreads called "Authors Without a Yacht" (aka AWaY) made up of indie authors and small publishers as a group to help send the message that ebook piracy hurts and that authors, ebook and print alike, don't make tons of money. On the bright side, there are readers out there who go out of their way to support authors. Some are quite vocal, so maybe it's a matter of reaching them.

  • Nathalie Thandiwe

    I think the industry should adopt a restocking fee standard for all book returns.  This is increasingly common for electronics and other items which actually only have use if you keep them, so why not for books, which have the asymmetrical seller disadvantage of consumer use based on personal access to the book- the ability to copy, use as needed etc and then return.  With a 50% restocking fee on "paper" books and higher on e-books, most customers will be careful to only purchase books they desire to keep or simply resell their book purchases themselves if they no longer desire the book(s).  Given that you can search most book content online via the amazon feature and other forms of electronic samples, this seems fair.  Customers are gaming the system by using booksellers as libraries, let customers put skin in the game with a restocking fee.

    -Nathalie

  • You're talking retailer returns, not reader returns, right? I would never dream of returning a book unless it had some material defect not apparent at purchase. Otherwise, the only time a book should be returned is when it is due at the library. :-)

  • Great post, Liz. Thanks for sharing.

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    Per my earlier comment, check out my blog post on this topic from an author's point of view: http://www.lgoconnor.com/site/author-101-the-harsh-truth-behind-print-sales/ 

  • @Leigh, if you want your book to go into bookstores you need to click that returnable button through Ingram. Right now this is the only way to get in, unless you just want to do consignment through your local bookstores. Another option. Smaller playing field.

  • Jett, regarding POD in stores, it's just not working...

    We use POD at She Writes Press, by the way, and all major publishers eventually go to POD. Those books are subject to these same terms and must also be returnable if you want them to be in bookstores.

  • Sheri, to answer these questions here:

    First, e-book purchases completely eliminate this issue. 

    Not completely. Ebooks are also returnable. It's just less frequent and there's no up front buys from retailers because it's just a digital file. So yes and no.

    Second, why do publishers allow large orders if they worry about returns being an issue? 

    Because they want the distribution. they want their books to be well stocked and available in these stores. And preorders also speak to a book's potential success. Publishers don't typically want to push back against retailers because saying you want a smaller order sets you up to say that you don't have confidence in the book. It's a lot about perception.

    I know making large sales is great, but if a publisher is fairly certain the entire order won't sell through, than what's to be gained by doing so?

    A publisher is never certain of this. That's the problem. If you have faith in your books then you should be positioning them accordingly. Publishers are all about the gamble, and publicity efforts are about getting the sell-through. Everyone's disappointed when books come back, but these are measures that we account for as publishers. This is why it's really the little guys that get hurt so badly. The big publishers can absorb the blow pretty easily.

  • I would support some type of movement to curtail all the returns.  I agree with the need to let the public know that most authors make a modest income, if any, from sales of their books, and most are not JK Rowling or Stepehn King.

  • Leigh Goodison

    I agree. I'm a small publisher that will release an expensive children's picture book next year, illustrated by a well-known illustrator. I had planned on going with returnable books through Ingrams but after reading your column I'm rethinking it.

    The other return I loathe is Kindle's one week return policy. I've had a lot of how-to nonfiction ebooks returned just short of a week. It's my feeling that the buyer finds the info they want, then asks for a refund. Not fair.

  • Jett Wilson

    Excellent post, Brooke. Know what would change the system even faster than B&N going out of biz? If someone plugged the tax loophole where it was a write-off for publishers. Publishers then would have to quite doing returns, the stores would go along because they need the stock.

    I'm like you, I don't understand why POD isn't ALREADY in the stores. The tech is there. Great post - as usual :).

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    Great article, Brooke. I have an Author 101 post lined up on my blog talking about this as well from an indie author / micropublisher perspective. I'll post tonight and share the link here. I think it may address a couple of points Tammy threw out below regarding economics.

  • Stephanie Kelsey

    Brooke Warner, I would be in, and I would be willing to gather others as well.

  • Crystal: RE this:

    Also I think I read somewhere that in the future in book stores they would be able to print a book right there and sell it to the buyer.

    Yes, espresso machines. But they break and they're super expensive so I've heard from most people who've tried them that they're kind of a bust.

  • Stephanie, there are so many issues to confront here, seriously. I think we need a secret publisher FB group to start to list out the main points of advocacy and then see what we can tackle and what's realistic. Would you be on board for that? I can/will invite you as a founding publisher.

  • Stephanie Kelsey

    I honestly have more concern over Amazon's don't-ask don't-tell return policy than I do about print distribution. They allow returns up to 7 days, which is plenty of time to read a book, and all they have to do is click to return it. People even brag about how to easily get "free books" and encourage others, and it makes it easy for pirates as well. As publishers, we can see habitual abuser patterns, such as all the book in a series being purchased and returned. I would imagine that this would be particularly devastating to a self-publisher who is only putting their own work out there to see that. People who run scams will always run scams, and tracking behavior and closing accounts, as they state they do, won't stop them, because they'll just create new accounts.

    I belong to a group with many publishing houses who are just as unhappy about this policy, and I would be willing to share a petition as well as sign. We've been contacting customer service ourselves in the hope that if enough speak up, they'll realize that it's not just OUR bottom line, but theirs.

  • Someone on Huffington Post shared this with me, for continued reading:

    http://www.bookmakingblog.com/2015/01/the-great-depression-is-still.html

  • Great post. Readers would have to get behind this effort, as authors alone would be seen as self-serving. To Zetta's point below regarding the public's perception that authors make a ton of money, can we dispel that? Does it make sense to publish stats like the average amount authors make per book, the average amount of books sold per author by genre, a breakdown of the costs associated with publication, etc.? I think people are stunned when they learn how little of the retail price goes to the authors under any model - even self-publishing. If we removed the top 2% of authors ( or whatever the % that represents the likes of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, JK Rowling, Jodi Picoult,etc., who clearly are exceptional in the industry in terms of sales, so removing anyone who has sold more than XX books in 2014, say) the stats may be compelling enough to make the readers want to champion their favorite nascent authors. Many debut authors, like moi, are clearly operating in the red :-)

  • Brooke,  I agree with you.  This system is outdated and not working for anybody in the publishing or book selling business.  I thought that print on demand would change some of this.  Also I think I read somewhere that in the future in book stores they would be able to print a book right there and sell it to the buyer.  This would be new technology but it makes a lot of sense.  The pebble in the ocean statement doesn't make sense to me because a pebble can cause rings that spread out in the water. A whole lot of pebbles could make a lot of rings of change.  I am glad you wrote this because most of us don't really understand how publishing works.  Also I didn't know you could return ebooks.  That doesn't seem right unless there is something wrong technically with them.   Crystal m

  • Sheri Alexander

    Thanks for the enlightening post.  It brings to mind a few thoughts:  First, e-book purchases completely eliminate this issue.  Second, why do publishers allow large orders if they worry about returns being an issue?  I know making large sales is great, but if a publisher is fairly certain the entire order won't sell through, than what's to be gained by doing so?

  • Joanne Barney

    Your blog reveals the other side of the "No returns" scene, one I've never personally experienced, but I'm very glad you have stated, so emphatically, the publishers' viewpoint.  As an indie writer, I have visited all of the indie bookstores in our area, books in hand, and have placed a number of them on consignment.  After a few months, most of the bookstores have asked that I come get those that haven't sold.  When I suggested to the booksellers that they could order my books from Amazon and other sites (and save me time and gasoline), all told me that the No Return policy of POV publishers meant that they would have some books on their shelves (or in their wastebaskets) forever,  books they had paid for.  Small bookstores can't afford that kind of loss, they explained.  Now, I am understanding the other side of this problem and I certainly hope folks like you, Brooke, can find an equitable solution for both sellers and publishers––and we writers will join you in those efforts. 

  • As sad as it sounds the fact that books -in such huge amounts- are being returned, I love Barnes&Noble as a reader. It has been my absolute favourite bookstore for many years. Everytime I was in N.York with my kids we spent a whole day at B&N, what a great fun!

    I decided to publish ONLY eBooks, using as platform Smashwords. From Dec 2013 up to date I have published 2 romans and 19 short stories in Spanish, English and Dutch -fiction- + 1 non-fiction.

    I have more than 2.200 downloads in 18 months and more than 3000 views in my webpage. Also my soundcloud links with songs, audios, etc. is frequently visited.

    This April, when I participated at the Los Angeles festival of books I printed a special -reduced editon- of 6 short stories. I sold some and many I gave as gift. They provided me with great reviews from writers and critics.

    My vision of living, thinking, writing in a sustainable way compelled me to only offer my work as multimedia-digital books.  A different scenario would be if a publisher does the work so that I can sell printed versions of my stories in a way that they will not be returned or destroyed. 

    The race of writers to ge published ergo: printed- is apalling. I don't participate in it.