Friday, June 10, 2005

Look At the Dark Side--Returns

Writers practically never think about this aspect of the book selling business. I guarantee publishers think about it constantly—but rarely discuss it with anyone outside of their company circles. It’s the area of returns.

When you walk into a big box bookstore (Borders or Barnes & Noble) and see all those bargain books? They are remaindered or discounted for a reason.  Those titles have been slashed and in many cases returned to the publisher—then shipped back out to be sold inexpensively. It’s a tale-tell sign the particular book is on the way toward going out-of-print. Or maybe the book was initially a hardcover and the publisher is about to release the paperback edition. The publisher will want to clear out their remaining stock of the hardcover.

Often I’ve asked publishers about a particular title. Maybe their publicity is touting a large print run (say 50,000 books). I will hear things like, “Yes, we sold it deep into the stores (a good sign) but we don’t know about the returns.”


Yes, if you read Michael Korda’s Making The List you will learn that after the Great Depression, retailers told publishers they couldn’t absorb the risk of buying all these new titles. They started a policy which continues today. After a period of time (different for each book and each store), the retailer can return the book to the publisher for a refund.  So writers need this reminder: in traditional publishing situations who is absorbing this risk? It’s not the writer. It’s not the retailer. It’s the publisher.

According to Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, Time Warner Book Group has two warehouses near Indianapolis. One building is called the “happy warehouse” and another the “sad” warehouse. Trachtenberg’s article is fascinating and can be part of your ongoing education about the bookselling business.

So what can writers do about this dark side of publishing? Again, they can actively enter into all the various marketing aspects for their books.  They can produce stellar book proposals and include marketing sections. Most importantly, they can write remarkable books that everyone wants to buy and talks about.

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