Yesterday I talked about how returns can be not so good for the publisher (any publisher, not just me). Today we’ll talk about how returns are not always so good for the bookseller either.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some serious pros from a bookseller’s perspective for keeping the returns model. And since in my other line of work I am a bookseller, I can tell you what those are. (And I can even sympathize and agree with them.)

  1. Reduction of Risk — this is a biggie, and it’s going to be a hard one to convince booksellers to give up. When a bookseller orders a book knowing that he/she will be able to send back unsold copies, it pretty much eliminates the risk. Yes, there are costs for the bookseller to doing returns (I’ll talk about them below), but in general they vastly outweigh the risks of being left with stock you just can’t get rid of (even with sales).
  2. Allows Optimism — Say you’re a bookseller who has read the ARC of a book and doesn’t particularly like it. You think it might do okay at your store, so you order a copy or two for the shelf. Then the publisher’s sales rep comes in all bubbly about that book. You may not like it but they are expecting x number of star reviews and they’re going to do y number of marketing things and be on z number of talk shows, and in the end the rep convinces you to take a 12 book dump. Because of your reduced risk above you can buy this dump even if you don’t think that book will do all that great. And if your gut turns out to be right, you just return those extra 10 books back. (All right, this pretty much has never happened at our store because I work for some astute buyers. However if there is a doubt in their mind, they do err on the side of over rather than under ordering because they know they can return.)
  3. Allows Events to Have Enough Books — And this is the only part of the returns system where the bookseller and the publisher in me agree. Books ordered specifically for an event should be returnable. Period. You never, ever want an event with too few books. I’ve worked events like that as both a bookseller and once as a publisher, and it is just a nightmare for all involved. You end up with missed sales, unhappy customers, unhappy authors, and stressed out bookstore and publisher staff. In this case returning the books is worth any loss on both sides.
  4. Take Orders without Prepayment — Right now you can place an order at most bookstores for a book they don’t have in stock without prepaying as long as the book is returnable. Why can’t you do this for nonreturnable books? Because a majority of books that are special ordered for customers are never picked up or are rejected when the book arrives. Of course, I have a pretty simple solution for that dilemma, but it would probably reduce the number of people placing special orders to those who actually want the book.

Those pros I just listed are pretty powerful, but don’t think that bookstores are in the returns system cost free. There are:

  1. Shipping costs — most bookstores pay their own shipping to return books. (I don’t know about B&N. When I worked there I was not in receiving but on the floor. I pulled returns, but didn’t box them up.) Shipping books ain’t cheap.
  2. Labor costs — employees have to physically get the books off the shelf to return. At B&N we were expected to spend a minimum of 25% of our week “zoning” which meant going through bookshelves with a scanner listening for the little ding that told us a book was marked for return. We were also supposed to be alphabetizing and making sure the book belonged on that shelf, but nearly all of us just ended up in a zone that glazed over and listened for the return. At the indie I’m at, we have an employee solely dedicated to returns.
  3. Loss of profit — This is the biggest drawback for a bookstore especially the independents. (Barnes & Noble buys differently. It also returns differently. When I did my post yesterday, I did a generic bookstore, not B&N. I actually lose more on a B&N return than one from anyone else. However, my issue is not with B&N, but the returns policy of the industry in general.) When most bookstores purchase directly from a publisher or distributor, they receive a 47% discount (unless there is a promotion). I’m not divulging a trade secret. You can find this discount in every catalog and publisher website out there. This is actually just barely enough for a bookstore to turn a profit. It’s one of the reasons so many are now going under. Many bookstores have greatly expanded their remainders and sideline (gift things) sections because these items are purchased at a greater discount. (Oh, and look, not surprisingly, these things are non-returnable.)

So, really in the end the only people truly profiting from this are the sales reps (who keep their commissions regardless) and the shippers (like FedEx) who are moving all these books back and forth. And I can’t really blame the sales reps for working the system. After all, they’ve seen their numbers greatly reduced, their pay and commissions cut, and their workloads greatly increased. *

But my big question for us all — authors, publishers, and booksellers alike — to ponder is:

Why if returns are bad for publishers and not that great for booksellers, does the returns system persist?

Eric over at Pimp My Novel has a theory on just this issue.

What do you think?

*(Again, all of this is my personal opinion and was reached by observation in the bookstores I’ve worked at. I have not had long heart-to-hearts with buyers on this topic, and I’ve done a total of 0 research on it from a retailer’s perspective. And the store I’m at has a great kids’ buyer. Although rates for a particular book vary, the return rate for our section (excluding events, off-site bookfairs, and Christmas catalog books) appears to me to be in the 5% range. We do not over-order bestsellers for display purposes, and many of our books remain on our shelves past the returns period. When they still don’t sell, we mark them down. The primary way BookPeople clears space in the kids’ section for new books is by selling the existing inventory, not returning it.)

© Copyright 2006-2011 Madeline Smoot. All rights reserved.
May be excerpted and duplicated for educational purposes.