Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Shall I return?

OK... here's a question for those of you in the publishing and book trade: How do you deal with returns? Meaning, if you are a publisher, do you allow returns? And if you do allow them, is it across the board or are you selective? Do you set any limits?

And if you are a bookseller/storefront, will you order books that are non-returnable? More to the point, will you shelve books that are non-returnable?

I ask these questions because I'm trying to formulate my own returns policy, and I'm getting a lot of mixed messages, both from other publishers and from booksellers. For example, one bookseller has said she simply will NOT order books to shelve, if they are not returnable. Another said that they want the books returnable, but will pay the return postage. And another has said that they want returnable, but will only order books that are both returnable AND returnable at no expense to them.

One thing I have discovered in my investigations is that Baker & Taylor, at least, seem to have the best of all possible worlds when it comes to returns. If a bookstore returns a book they have purchased through Baker and Taylor, the bookstore must pay the postage to return the book. If I ALLOW returns through Baker and Taylor, I am charged $2 per book for the privilege, plus I must pay for the shipping to get the book back to me, else it is destroyed. And of course along with this, there is no guarantee that the books will be in a resalable condition. As one publisher acquaintance of mine has said, "If I want to sell damaged books, I don't have to send them to [bookstore name here] first. I can do the damage at home and save a lot of transaction costs!"

Understand that I'm not griping about the situation. The situation is what it is. I'm just trying to come up with a policy that is fair to both sides of the equation. Problematically, if I allow returns through my primary North American distributors (Amazon, Ingram, Baker & Taylor), I have no way of setting any limits. I can't say, "This bookseller can return books but this one cannot," or "I'll accept returns of no more than XX% of the bookseller's order." It's flat, across the board returns. For a small press, one or two bad orders under those sort of conditions could spell disaster.

So... what do you think?



Pauline B Jones said...

You may have opened a can of worms with this one. (grin) My daughter worked for a small press for a few years. Ingrams would order enough books to qualfity for free shipping, THEN, before it was time to pay (from 3-6 months), they'd ship all the books back AND order more.It almost put them out of business.

I never heard how they dealt with the problem, but it is obviously a HUGE problem.

My publisher allows returns, but only if the books are in good condition for resale.

This policy started during the depression when publishers needed a way to entice booksellers to buy books.

I don't know what a good solution is. I just know its the author in the middle who keeps getting squeezed. Publishers hold onto their money, waiting for those returns, after all.

Personally, I think POD is the only answer. And getting rid of the middle man, the distributor. (grin)

Karen Syed said...

Speaking as a publisher, it was a deal breaker that we be returnable. It is simply the way it is most effective for a retailer. It is a risk for both sides. I am dealing with the returns in a big way with my new Ingram account. Once a book goes out, you must assume that if it comes back it will be damaged to some degree and you will not be able to send it back out as a new book. Unfortunately that is the risk and the cost of doing business.

As a former bookseller, I took both and I paid shipping to and from. That was what I was taught the standard was. Now, I have the lucury of cutting deals on shipping. If they choose non-returnable I will give a bigger discount and perhaps a discount on shipping.

You really have to decide how much of a risk you are willing to take, but I would say that returns will ultimately increase your sales potential.

Karen Syed

Tony Burton said...

Oh, I'm sure it's a can of worms... that's why I'm trying to untangle it. I have NOT allowed returns up to this point, but have been lucky enough to have books shelved at a couple of Barnes & Nobles stores, as well as at a couple of Hastings stores. I'm sure that allowing returns would increase sales, but increased sales doesn't always mean increased profits. If 30% of books ordered are returned (and supposedly that is an "acceptable" amount of returns), essentially the profit margin goes away. And actually, in my situation, it's the authors AND the publisher who get a little squeezed.

I was familiar with the history of the policy, and unfortunately it's an unfair one. But it is what it is. The books I publish are printed using POD technology (up to this point, anyway), but it's a catch-22 re: the distributor. I'd be much more willing to accept returns if the bookstores would work directly with me, but so many booksellers insist that they must be able to order through Ingram, or they won't order.


Tony Burton said...

thanks for the comments. You're right, it's a risk for both sides. And I'm willing to share the risk--meaning that I am willing to compromise on things if the booksellers will work with me. But it's difficult to get past that "I will only order from Ingram or Baker & Taylor" mentality.


Sarah said...

As a former bookseller, I would be very reluctant to order books that were not returnable, especially from an author still building their reputation (and perhaps even if they were very high profile - a friend of mine got stuck with a big pile of Terry Pratchett paperbacks after a signing - everyone wanted cloth.) One example - some years ago a sales rep for one of the big publishing houses came around touting something he said was going to be the biggest book of the centure. Absolute dynamite; SO explosive he couldn't give us any details of the plot except to promise it would be huge. This was a rep we knew reasonably well, so my boss ordered a whole carton of the things. And when it arrived.. it was called - I kid you not - "Harold Holt Was A Chinese Spy!". For the edification your global readership, Holt was the 1960's Prime Minister of Australia who went swimming off the coast of NSW in rough seas and was lost, presumed drowned. The thesis of the book was that he had been picked up by a Chinese submarine and defected to the Communists. Why he would do such a thing was never really clear (surely he would have been more useful to the Chinese had he remained PM?). The book was utterly ludicrous, completely ignored by the public, and unreturnable. Our only consolation was that every other bookshop in town had fallen for the same schtick.

Tony Burton said...

Thanks for the comment. Ye gads! Yes, I remember reading about Harold Holt's disappearance, and the numerous theories surrounding it. Grist for the rumor mill! I'm curious, though--if this was one of the big publishing houses, why were the books non-returnable? I thought all the big houses allowed returns, period. At least, that's what I've been told by booksellers who want me to allow returns across the board.