My sense (again, based on no research whatsoever; I'd love if those more knowledgeable would set the record straight) is that the rationale behind the unlimited-returns policy on publishers' parts was a way of subsidizing a retail niche that has almost always operated at the thinnest of margins--and, so, as a way to encourage booksellers to take risks they'd otherwise be loath to undertake, they essentially said, "Don't worry--you don't sell 'em, we'll take 'em back, full cedit." It's funny: publishing gets lambasted for emphasizing "brand name" authorsto the exclusion of others--but imagine a typical bookseller's order if the policy of (virtually) unlimited returns were to be banished. Naturally ALL orders would be diminished, including the James Pattersons of the world. But those that would suffer most would be first books by unknown writers. It's heartbreakingly common for a first literary novel to ship between 3500-6000 copies. What would those numbers look like in a universe with no returns? The consequence, ironically enough, is that the proportion of brand-names to fresh new writers would get even worse than is currently the case.
On the other hand, such a policy--or, to speak more broadly, the elimination of this "subsidy" that publishers provide booksellers through current returns policies--is that it might force booksellers to do something that, historically, they're pretty lousy at: promotion. We LOVE to love independent booksellers, and much of the applause they receive for hand-selling is indeed well-deserved. On the other hand, for all of the hand-wringing that goes on about the big chains driving the independents out of business, for most of my authors on book tour, it's the Indie stores that draw the smallest crowds. A sign in the window that someone sees in passing at 8:00 that morning isn't going to persuade him to come back 12 hourse later to hear this author read. As an editor recently said to me,
One of the things we all bemoan is what seems to be the diminished shelf-life of front list titles. Surely there's a way to link these two issues in some meaningful fashion, i.e. rewarding booksellers who keep the titles on display longer by some sort of sliding-scale returns schedule with an inverse relationship to the amount of time the story keeps the book out there: the longer they keep the book, the higher percentage of their initial costs are recoupable. [Here again I must confess: It may well be that a strategy/pricing schedule of this sort already exists.]
Who really cares if the bad [independents] go out of business? The horror stories of authors who travel miles for a reading that was a) scheduled the night of the big game in the same neighborhood and b) not advertised anyway, is not the fault of publishers. It's the bad independents--the same stores that everyone bemoans when they go out of business. Maybe the ones that went out of business did so because they weren't run like a business. I shopped in my neighborhood independent for 13 years before I moved, and NOT ONCE did anyone ever offer to recommend a book to me. What kind of store is that?
It's naive to think that returns policies that have been in place for decades are likely to change in any meaningful way. On the other hand, Booksellers, consider this: an unwillingness to reform on this score gives publishers all the more incentive to develop more and more aggressively their own direct-to-consumer outreach. And I'm fairly certain there's no store out there who relishes that outcome.
"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."
PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."
PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."
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- ▼ February (16)