Most people outside of publishing don’t know anything about the concept of book returns, but for those of us in the industry, it’s a constant topic of conversation. Either we’re bemoaning the number of books that are returned (usually not in salable condition), or we’re wondering whether we’re missing opportunities by not allowing returns.
So, what does the term “returns” actually mean in publishing?
Thanks to a Depression-era tradition that encouraged booksellers to take books on credit and return any unsold copies, books can still be returned to publishers by booksellers, unlike nearly every other consumer product out there. Despite the fact that we’re no longer in the midst of the Great Depression, the tradition continues. For the booksellers, it means they can take a chance on books without having to sell them; if they don’t sell, they can simply return the books and not have to pay for them.
For publishers, particularly small presses, it’s a bit more complicated. While the Big Five publishers are better able to absorb the losses incurred by book returns, it’s not as easy for the little guys. Publishers are expected to cover the return shipping, and books often arrive in damaged, unsalable condition, which means not only a tremendous amount of waste but losses for both publisher and author. It’s especially difficult for small presses to stay in business with such losses, which is why so many small presses (like us) can’t afford to take returns.
Yet we’ve found ways to work with both authors and booksellers to make sure that our titles are visible and available to readers. Sometimes it means offering free shipping; sometimes it means asking authors to take extra copies because the bookseller prefers to under-order; sometimes it means selling our books to bookstores one book at a time. While most booksellers initially do balk at the idea of no returns, we’ve found that many are also happily willing to work within our parameters to support the authors in their communities.
As more authors publish with small presses (as well as self-publish), there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to bookstore events. After all, the goal for both author and bookseller is to sell out — so whether you’re with a small press, a Big Five publisher, or self-published, these are good tips for authors to keep in mind.
- Work with indie bookstores to gauge the number of books you’ll need for an event. Ask the events manager to collect names for a free registration, and sent out e-invitations with RSVPs so that the bookseller can try to order just the right amount (studies have shown that one in four attendees buy books at author events). Always bring extras of your own in case.
- Promote your event! Many authors are under the mistaken notion that it’s a bookstore’s job to bring in the crowds — yet many booksellers don’t do as much promotion as a new author may need (also, they can simply return any unsold stock without losing a penny). So if you want to avoid returns — and especially if you want to avoid facing an empty room — be sure to go the extra mile to promote the event: in addition to alerting friends and family and sharing it on all your social networks, send announcements to local media, get your event into community calendar listings, create a flyer that the bookstore can post — and most important, ask the bookstore how you can work with them to make the event as big and successful as possible.
- Hold your events in cities in which you’re confident you can draw a crowd, either via friends, family, and colleagues or by the topic of your presentation.
- If the bookseller over-orders your book, offer to sign them and ask if the store will hold onto those extra copies and work on selling them rather than packing them up and shipping them back the next day (which is often exactly what happens). If your publisher doesn’t take returns, you can buy back the books at the publisher’s discount and sell them at another event.
Managing returns is helpful for everyone involved — not only does it behoove authors and publishers, but it limits the vast amount of waste in publishing (the carbon footprint involved in shipping books back and forth, the destroying of unsalable copies) is good for the planet, and it’s worth everyone’s time in the long run.