Publishers using the short discount print-on-demand model rarely accept returns and don’t worry about losing out on bookstore stocking. This certainly has a depressing effect on short term sales, maybe even on mid-term sales for books that could have broken through, but it completely eliminates book returns and has a strong positive effect on long term sales, since the book never collapses into remainder status. There are several factors in the life cycle of a book that a publisher has to take into account when trying to maximize profits and minimize risks, the most important of which turns out to be the shelf life. I define the shelf life of a book as the length of time, in years, for which the copyright date won’t prejudice a potential customer from buying it. The shelf life may be infinite for fiction or poetry, or less than a year for journalism about contemporary events or technology. While I know some publishers who use the print-on-demand short discount model and have succeeded with publishing books with very short shelf lives, I think it’s a lot riskier than starting with titles that should be able to survive for five or more years.
The shelf life of the book is obviously important to sales in the sense that the longer the book is viable, the greater the number of years you have to sell it. A long shelf life is a terrific boost for books with no bookstore stocking, as long as they are available to stores through special orders, or directly to customers through online stores and direct sales from the publisher. Ironically, a long shelf life doesn’t make very much difference in the lifetime sales of the average trade book with a successful sell-in to the Barnes & Noble and Borders chains for the simple reason that the average trade book is a failure. Despite their huge superstores, the chains manage their inventory every bit as carefully as the smaller independents, and with their large networks, they have more information available to quickly determine if a book is succeeding in the marketplace. Whether the average trade title lasts on the chain shelves for two months or six months before being returned in quantity isn’t as important as the fact that most books don’t last for a year.
So why do trade books that initially have higher sales than their unstocked, short discount print-on-demand equivalents tend to collapse completely after six months, even if their potential shelf life is years? It comes down to the difference in models. When a well-stocked trade book fails on the store shelves, it means a couple thousand books coming back to the publisher from both retailers and distribution warehouses. These books are typically remaindered, which means they quickly appear on Amazon Marketplace and through other used books outlets at a steep discount, bringing to a rapid end the sales of any copies at the cover price. The failure in the stores causes the salespeople at the trades to completely lose interest in promoting the titles, the extent of which was usually just to get them into the stores in the first place. Depending in the accounting system and returns policy at the publisher, they may hurry to declare the book out-of-print and write-off their losses against more successful titles.
Books published with the short discount print-on-demand model are only ordered for stock in quantity if they establish a strong sales record, and are almost never remaindered. Book returns are minimal, and then only if the publisher accepts returns, and sales can actually rise on a year to year basis. My own print on demand titles have seen increasing sales for three years running, and I’m aware of at least one popular title which sells several times as many copies now as it did six years ago. Publishing books with a long shelf life is only effective if you can maintain their availability over the long run, and print-on-demand certainly achieves that goal. So, next time you hear somebody talking about the shelf life of a book, find out whether they are talking about how long the chains will give the book to prove itself before dumping it, or how long the title will be a viable seller. The offset publishing model can generate big sales quickly, rather like the hare in the immortal race, but if you’re publishing a book with a long shelf life, it might pay to be the turtle.