Sunday, February 27, 2005

Say You Want A Revolution? End the Returns "Subsidy" of Booksellers

Thanks to Booksquare for bringing to my attention Doug Seibold's "cri de Coeur" in the BookStandard, Returns Suck: So Do Something About it. Like Doug [former bookseller and now president of Agate Publishing in Chicago], I know nothing about the historic origins of this ridiculous policy, nor even do I know to what extent previous (or even current) coalitions of publishers have tried to find a way to get booksellers to acknowledge--and participate in amending--the policy.

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,

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?

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.]

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.


Anonymous said...

Regarding your comment about "loving independent bookstores," as an author, I can't really say that I do. Indie bookstores are often terrible at keeping titles in stock (eg, those that are selling out regularly) and are sometimes simply bad businesspeople. I have done huge events off-site where indie bookstores have shown up with two copies to sell because they "didn't have time to re-order." No, thank you. Since then, I have gone with Barnes and Noble. They are efficient, they show up with a huge box of copies, and they let me sign all the ones they haven't sold to take back to the store. I love the *idea* of independents, and I still patronize the good ones, but as an author, my time is better spent making signing vists to and using B&N for any off-site events. It's sad, but true.

Jay said...

Mad Max wrote: I know nothing about the historic origins of this ridiculous policyMy understanding was the returns policy was instituted to encourage booksellers to promote a new title with a big initial buy. Later it morphed into covering all books all the time.

The one reference I've found was in a tribute book to Carl Kroch, owner of Brentano's in Chicago. I'm paraphrasing from what I remember in the book...In the 1930's he told publishers he could sell more books if they let him order a huge stack and fill his window and display tables than if he ordered a smaller quantity because he couldn't return unsold stock. The publishers went for it because it was more efficient to let him order big and run the risk of returns than to pay for extra signage for new books.

Kroch was also the bookseller who ran ads in Chicago papers with the guarantee that if anyone read the book advertised and didn't like it, he'd give them their money back. He was a merchandising genius, but he had to be. He competed against Marshall Field's and other department stores in downtown Chicago.

Anonymous said...

So... we have Kroch to thank for this crock?

I think your sliding scale is inspired, Max. Whether it exists or not... it certainly should in some form or another. Publishers that want to put a push on a certain title can provide it with a more generous slide, hoping to encourage a longer shelf life. Having a basket of terms (payment, returns) for publishers to attach to any given title would give booksellers clear signals on how eager the publisher is to support the title, while giving booksellers the latitude to make the right choices for their retail profiles and ways of doing business. Perhaps administratively daunting in the short run (aren't all substantive changes), but in the long run adaptability (Darwinism) would previal, and perhaps a greater sense of control would be enjoyed all around.

Anonymous said...

Over at Backspace Richard Curtis has the third installment on how publishing has changed and where it is going that may make the returns policy a moot question. If more people are getting their information from the virtual universe, then paper copies may become hopelessly unwieldy for the purposes of entertainment, research or education. This discussion (returns) is about taking a step that might provide short-term relief for publishers when what publishing needs is a quantum leap of imagination to develop a new business plan.

Owen said...

OK, I have a question. I am taking a bit of a leap of faith and starting my own teeny tiny publishing company - partly in order to publish a few books that would never be touched by a big publisher with a bargepole - and those big publishers may be right.

Anyway - the question is, do I have to allow returns at all? I don't see why I can't make my contracts (whether with distributors or direct with bookstores) specify no returns at all. I don't expect and am not planning to get any shelf space in any but local bookstores anyway and am expecting orders to come from people walking in and asking to buy the book and -- to your last point -- from direct sales.

So, why can't I? (Apart of course from being ostracized by all booksellers for evermore) Will it really kill all my sales dead before I start?

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