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.
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.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.