During the bookselling portion of my career, I was a buyer at an independent bookstore in Grand Central Station—no, not Posman’s (which has been replaced by a Warby Parker showroom), but a place called Commuter Books. It was part of a larger empire in Grand Central that included a card and gift shop and a tennis shop. There was an additional paperback-only book stall on the lower level. Commuter Books was a weird place in a lot of ways (not least because of the embezzling). But it is where I learned about the process of returns: hardcovers and trade paperbacks get shipped back; mass market paperbacks have the covers ripped off and sent back.
The returns process has become something of an industry metric that both publishers and booksellers rely on. Publishers overprint, because not having inventory means a possible decrease in interest in books while they reprint and restock. Bookstores overbuy, for the same reason. Historically, returns have caused issues on both sides of the equation. Publishers pay the shipping for bookstores to return the titles. Bookstores, meanwhile, pay for personnel to cull the books and pack them up. The cry to reduce returns is heard from publishers and booksellers alike.
When digitization of supply-chain information became possible, there was a hope that more real-time data would allow publishers to print “just in time,” while booksellers could restock more readily, reducing returns to a bare minimum. Additionally, in the mid-2000s, POD technology was hyped as a way of reducing returns. But publishing any title is a bet—a POD-only model means gaps in supply as new titles are generated.
As Sabrina McCarthy, v-p and general manager, Ingram Academic, Two Rivers, and IPS International, said in the panel “State of the Supply Chain: Distribution” at this year’s BISG annual meeting, returns are still a robust process between bookseller and publisher. “You want to aim for 30%–40% returns,” she noted. This way, a publisher can be assured of enough inventory to fulfill a bookseller’s needs without having to pulp too much.
The 30%–40% range still sounds like a lot of returns. But if we think about the trade publishing model these days—emphasis on big sellers, celebrity authors, the bulk of sales mediated by distributors and jobbers as opposed to direct-to-store—it probably isn’t. If we think about the retailers that are big players these days—Costco, Target, Walmart—it probably isn’t. If the publisher emphasis is on big books for big box stores, then 30%–40% returns is probably conservative.
Then there are disruptive trends. Coloring books led to a spike in returns as the fad began to wane. Should a celebrity fall out of favor when a biography is being marketed, as was the case with Bill Cosby, no amount of digital information about the book’s availability will help it. And world events—natural disasters, election results, public mood—can prevent even the most brilliant books from selling through.
The returns story doesn’t end when the books are shipped back to publishers. If the title receives a second wind—due to news events or a belated positive review—it turns around and goes back to the store. In fact, further printings may result. And if sales fail to materialize, it gets heavily discounted and sold in the remaindered section of stores. If the title still doesn’t sell after a publisher-determined period of time, it finally gets pulped—only then does the story end.
Digitization affords our industry a lot of efficiencies at an unprecedented scale. It certainly shortens the gap between publication of a book and its sale. Digitization allows us to communicate with trading partners immediately—which assists greatly in dealing with embargoes, bestsellers, and even backlist titles. But the hope that digitization can reduce the rate of returns to near-zero is misguided. The returns process is so baked into the supply chain—due to the market fluctuations I mentioned previously—that it will take a lot more than communication speed to begin to wind it down. It’s an industrywide form of hedging our bets at every point along the supply chain.
We can place as many or as few titles in a store as our systems see fit to recommend, but the ultimate arbiter of success for a book is not in the hands of the publisher, the distributor, or the retailer. It ultimately comes down to the customer to determine whether the book will sell or not.
It’s worth noting that BISG is hosting a panel called “The Business of Returns” on November 14. In the words of executive director Brian O’Leary, it aims to assist “the book industry supply chain understand current challenges and potential options for improvements in this area.”