The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

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Nathan Bransford
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The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by Nathan Bransford » April 20th, 2010, 12:27 pm

Lots and lots of people around the industry want publishers to end the longstanding business practice of selling books on consignment: i.e. bookstores can order the books they want and if they don't sell they can return them to publishers for a refund. Because of the rise of e-books, online bookselling, and box stores with their own supply chains, this process is already fading on its own, without any (or at least much) industry pushing.

But what much discussion of returns lacks, and what Mike Shatzkin points out, is that the returns process helps publishers and authors by getting more books into stores and allows some books to catch on without being previously exposed to the public through marketing.

His conclusion:
So the days of returns may be numbered, just as the days of brick-and-mortar bookstores likely are numbered, but that’s not a good thing for overall book sales or even for the profits of publishers. For the books with highly-targetable audiences the effects will be less damaging but for the books that sell the most — the kind that agents represent to publishers — it will mean a great reduction in the chances that the book will take off and reach big numbers. And for the publishers that step down from returns by managing them before they eliminate them, there will be a real competitive advantage.
My personal opinion is that debut and non-bestselling authors especially shouldn't be wishing for the end of returns - if bookstores have to sell every book they buy from a publisher they are going to be less likely to take chances, and it would be even harder for people to break out. The market would favor known commodities to an even greater extent than it does now. This will probably be eventually rendered moot by e-books (where print runs and returns don't really factor in), but for now it's a tricky landscape for print books.

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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by marilyn peake » April 20th, 2010, 3:17 pm

Nathan,

I don't know how often this happened in the past, but a few years ago I spoke with someone who worked for one of the big chain bookstores and he told me that the bookstore where he worked often returned entire boxes of books by debut authors to the publishers without ever having even placed them on their bookstore shelves to see if they would sell. He said it was just part of an agreement the bookstore had with the publishers that they had to accept a certain number of debut authors' books, but the bookstore never planned to actually put all those books on their shelves.
Marilyn Peake

Novels: THE FISHERMAN’S SON TRILOGY and GODS IN THE MACHINE. Numerous short stories. Contributor to BOOK: THE SEQUEL. Editor of several additional books. Awards include Silver Award, 2007 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards.

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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by JustineDell » April 20th, 2010, 8:06 pm

marilyn peake wrote:Nathan,

I don't know how often this happened in the past, but a few years ago I spoke with someone who worked for one of the big chain bookstores and he told me that the bookstore where he worked often returned entire boxes of books by debut authors to the publishers without ever having even placed them on their bookstore shelves to see if they would sell. He said it was just part of an agreement the bookstore had with the publishers that they had to accept a certain number of debut authors' books, but the bookstore never planned to actually put all those books on their shelves.
Whoa...say what? That's insane! It's hard enough to find the agent, get a publisher and then sell the book. Tatics like this make it all the worse. I really hope this wasn't a thing something that spread through numerous bookselling outlets. Sad.

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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by mmcdonald64 » April 21st, 2010, 8:56 am

JustineDell wrote:
marilyn peake wrote:Nathan,

I don't know how often this happened in the past, but a few years ago I spoke with someone who worked for one of the big chain bookstores and he told me that the bookstore where he worked often returned entire boxes of books by debut authors to the publishers without ever having even placed them on their bookstore shelves to see if they would sell. He said it was just part of an agreement the bookstore had with the publishers that they had to accept a certain number of debut authors' books, but the bookstore never planned to actually put all those books on their shelves.
Whoa...say what? That's insane! It's hard enough to find the agent, get a publisher and then sell the book. Tatics like this make it all the worse. I really hope this wasn't a thing something that spread through numerous bookselling outlets. Sad.

~JD
If that's true at other bookstores, it's scary! It makes the thought of self-pulishing through Kindle or Smashwords more and more tempting. I just read an interview of author Karen McQuestion, and she has six books for sale via Amazon. She hasn't even tried to do Smashwords to get them into other devices like the Nook, iPad, etc, and she has sold 30,000 books in the last year! Her only 'marketing' has been particiapating on Amazon forums and occasional posts on other places. She even got a call from someone for the movie rights.

At least Amazon gives the same 'shelf space' to everyone, from Stephen King to John Doe debut author. Will Barnes & Noble or Borders--supposing I can get an agent and publisher first? Not likely.

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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » April 21st, 2010, 9:10 am

Well, there are good things that can result from ending returns, too. I think Nathan's point is just that it's not all rosy. It's complex, and if it happens it's going to have a number of consequences which the industry will have to sort out.

As for self-publishing... it's all about making people aware of your book. Yes, Amazon will give you "shelf space". But that shelf space is entirely invisiblle until people actively search it out. You can't browse all the books and stumble on it like you can in a brick and mortar store. I have a friend who just self-published through Create Space, and it's an agony of going nowhere. How do you get the word out? She has a blog, she has it up on Amazon and other places, does stuff on Goodreads. But it's a drop in the pond. It's all about crreating awareness, and that's hugely difficult. All that plugging for a few dozen sales... it's tough out there. If you go that route you have to be really aware of this and really determined. You have to push and push and push. That's what I've seen, anyway.
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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by mmcdonald64 » April 21st, 2010, 9:41 am

Ink wrote:Well, there are good things that can result from ending returns, too. I think Nathan's point is just that it's not all rosy. It's complex, and if it happens it's going to have a number of consequences which the industry will have to sort out.

As for self-publishing... it's all about making people aware of your book. Yes, Amazon will give you "shelf space". But that shelf space is entirely invisiblle until people actively search it out. You can't browse all the books and stumble on it like you can in a brick and mortar store. I have a friend who just self-published through Create Space, and it's an agony of going nowhere. How do you get the word out? She has a blog, she has it up on Amazon and other places, does stuff on Goodreads. But it's a drop in the pond. It's all about crreating awareness, and that's hugely difficult. All that plugging for a few dozen sales... it's tough out there. If you go that route you have to be really aware of this and really determined. You have to push and push and push. That's what I've seen, anyway.
Here's the link to the interview. http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2010/04/i ... stion.html As far as making people aware, yeah, that's a problem, but I think it's also a problem for a traditionally published author. Sure, there's some help, but if the brick and mortar stores aren't actually putting the books on the shelves...well, how is anyone going to find them in a back store room? That's what prompted my comment. The one advantage--getting into the bookstores--vanishes if the bookstore just pays lip service to the agreement to take so many books by debut authors. Hopefully, this isn't widespread practice and just one unscrupulous bookstore.

I'm not sure I would ever do hard copy self-publishing. I think I'd stick with e-publishing and make it cheap. Unfortunately, unlike Ms. McQuestion, I don't have a half dozen books sitting in a drawer that I can upload. I think it helps to have several books ready to go. What it does make me think is that I should go ahead and write the sequel to my novel. I've wanted to, but figured if I can't get an agent for the first book, why waste time writing the second in the series? But, if I went e-publishing on my own, a second book in the series would be a smart move.

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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by gonzo2802 » April 21st, 2010, 6:38 pm

marilyn peake wrote:Nathan,

I don't know how often this happened in the past, but a few years ago I spoke with someone who worked for one of the big chain bookstores and he told me that the bookstore where he worked often returned entire boxes of books by debut authors to the publishers without ever having even placed them on their bookstore shelves to see if they would sell. He said it was just part of an agreement the bookstore had with the publishers that they had to accept a certain number of debut authors' books, but the bookstore never planned to actually put all those books on their shelves.

I would have to think/hope this is the short coming of this particular store and NOT what all chains do. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure the publishing houses would eventually notice if their debut authors sold NOTHING. I go to my local B&N all the time and I'm constantly stumbling on debut authors. I can see where debut authors may wind up getting lost in the shelves at big book chains and have a larger number of returns, but this practice seems like it'd end up hurting the book store as much as the publisher if they did this with all new debuts.

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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by Nathan Bransford » April 21st, 2010, 8:10 pm

I'm sure the unopened return thing happens, but bookstores still take plenty of chances that wind up on the shelves. They also have extra stock of big books on hand in case demand exceeds their expectations.

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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by marilyn peake » April 22nd, 2010, 2:22 am

gonzo2802 – The person I talked with wasn't talking about all debut authors, just that the bookstore where he worked didn't plan to ever unpack and stock all boxes of books by debut authors that were sent to them. My understanding is that the major chain bookstores charge more money for prominent placement in the front of the store or ends of aisles. I would imagine that those books probably sell much better than the books simply shipped in boxes but left up to the stores whether or not to unpack them. There are lots of debut authors who can't get a publishing contract for their second book because their first book didn’t sell enough copies.

mmcdonald64 – I love hearing about self-publishing successes. Unfortunately, self-publishing rarely ends up working out for paperbacks and hardcovers because the author doesn’t usually have access to bookstore distribution channels. Of course, eBook publishing changes all that. I have an author friend who’s experimenting with offering her novels in eBook format at Smashwords. I just finished reading the entire interview with Karen McQuestion. Thanks for the link. I noticed that she talked about pricing – how she feels it’s best to set the price for a self-published eBook below $2. I’ve recently noticed that the best-seller Kindle lists now include many free and inexpensive books, and that many are from indie presses. Interesting stuff.
Last edited by marilyn peake on April 22nd, 2010, 8:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Marilyn Peake

Novels: THE FISHERMAN’S SON TRILOGY and GODS IN THE MACHINE. Numerous short stories. Contributor to BOOK: THE SEQUEL. Editor of several additional books. Awards include Silver Award, 2007 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards.

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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by Mira » April 22nd, 2010, 11:06 am

I think Mike Shatzkin is absolutely right.

It makes sense to me - predicting what readers will or won't buy is difficult - so eliminating returns would just tighten the whole process.

I think the direction to take is to build better tools to size up the market and be better able to predict consumer preference. Also, increased advertising. If those tools were in place, the return system would probably die an organic death because publishers would have a stronger bargaining position, and bookstores would feel more comfortable stocking large quantities of books knowing they could move them.

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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by Greg B » April 22nd, 2010, 2:50 pm

Nathan Bransford wrote: My personal opinion is that debut and non-bestselling authors especially shouldn't be wishing for the end of returns - if bookstores have to sell every book they buy from a publisher they are going to be less likely to take chances, and it would be even harder for people to break out. The market would favor known commodities to an even greater extent than it does now.
I'm not convinced, since, from the article:
Most returns from major retailers to publishers are on big books for which the publisher wants to force out a quantity that creates a noticeable presence in the stores.
Returns are predominantly "sure things" that are hideously overprinted and overstocked, not debuts and midlist/backlist titles. Now, it may be a fine idea for publishers to incent booksellers to stock and actively promote new authors and midlisters, but surely there's a more efficient way to do that than shipping bloated printruns of bestsellers to-and-fro?

Non-returnable merchandise earns the retailer better discounts, which is likely to improve their increasingly sqeezed margins more than returnability. And, freed from the costs (and worse, the uncertainty) of returnability, publishers may be able to pursue more economically efficient methods of promoting sales.

The only losers are the ones who skim their taste off the inefficiencies, namely the shipping and printing companies, and the sales reps who push boxes of the latest celebrity memoir that will never be opened in the store.

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Re: The unintended consequences of eliminating returns

Post by marilyn peake » April 22nd, 2010, 8:17 pm

mmcdonald64 – Thanks again for the link to the interview with Karen McQuestion. I purchased a couple of her books today. :)
Marilyn Peake

Novels: THE FISHERMAN’S SON TRILOGY and GODS IN THE MACHINE. Numerous short stories. Contributor to BOOK: THE SEQUEL. Editor of several additional books. Awards include Silver Award, 2007 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards.

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