Small Returns Are Beautiful

Publishers like to complain about returns, but few seem to do anything about them. How do I know? Return rates keep climbing, costing the publishing industry over $7 billion a year.

Why do books come back to publishers from stores, distributors and wholesalers? The reasons are many. Tom Woll offers a dozen in Publishing for Profit. What I find fascinating, however, is that he lays responsibility for ten of the twelve reasons right at the feet of publishers. Only two of Woll’s reasons have anything to do with those who return the books–and even with those two, publishers bear some responsibility.

Most publishers, I would guess, would assign responsibility for returns primarily to others, not to themselves. So where does Woll see publishers creating the returns problem? Among other things,

* Large advances–if they are excessive and therefore require larger sales (and therefore larger print runs) to make the project work financially, books come back.

* Overpricing–this tends to be more true of publishers tied to conglomerates that are margin driven.

* Lack of promotional and marketing support–often only the highest-profile books get backing. Many others are expected to sell on their own. Often they don’t.

* Reprinting too soon and too many–a book that is selling well can generate automatic reorders that may not be justified.

Don’t accounts bear some responsibility? Yes, if they succumb to excessive publisher enthusiasm and overbuy. Yes, if they pay for new books with returns of old ones instead of money. But you can see that publishers bear some responsibility even in these dynamics as well.

Is there a silver bullet for the returns problem? No. It takes discipline and hard work to solve. But the returns on that investment are well worth it.