Many publishers using Lightning Source to print their titles on demand for distribution through Ingram don't accept returns. I didn't accept bookstore returns when I started out either. I had never planned to get my titles onto bookstore shelves, having set a short discount to maximize profit per sale and minimize risk. After a year or so of publishing, I realized that getting swamped in massive returns from bookstores wasn't going to be a problem, and isn't a problem for most small publishers. Getting bookstores to order the books in the first place is the challenge. At a short discount, it should be a nearly insurmountable challenge that can only be overcome by special orders through customers.
So I started accepting returns to see if it would make any difference in the ebb and flow of my business. Since we don't suffer from multiple personalties (stop that!), I didn't have to worry that my alter ego would be running around to bookstores all over the country and placing orders for my books in an attempt to get them on shelves. I remember seeing a trade author on Book TV years ago, boasting about how his mother did this for him, and I'm sure he wasn't unique. These days, Barnes&Noble and other retailers don't shelve books that are special ordered which aren't picked up, they send them back to the warehouse. And I can't imagine that there are many bookstore clerks left out there who are so naive that they would special order short discount POD books for "customers" calling in by phone, whether returnable or not.
April saw my returns at the highest level I can remember, a little over 4%, compared to 1.5% for the 2006 year and 2.0% for 2005. Compared to the double digit figures some trade publishers see in bad years, it's a drop in the bucket. More to the point, bookstore returns indicate a very interesting phenomena. Namely, that bookstores sometimes order my short discount books. From my perspective, getting returns from bookstores is a positive. It means that my marketing has been successful enough to get some customers to walk into stores and persuade the sometimes reluctant clerks to order my books. Clerks have good reason to be reluctant, by the way. I've heard that no-show rate for special orders that aren't secured with a prepayment can run as high as 40%!
Last year, I saw one of my titles shelved at the local Barnes&Noble superstore. I bought it, and the next time I was there they had another one on the shelf, so they actually had it modeled for some reason. I know that visitors to my website produce walk-in demand for the title because they occasionally e-mail me if they have trouble getting clerks to order it, but I was still surprised to see it sitting there at a short discount. They didn't have a copy in stock last time I looked, so maybe that was one of the returns.
Where I think accepting returns really helps out is with academic bookstore sales. One of my titles is used as a class text at a dozen or so technical colleges, and college bookstores have notorious stock management problems with uncertain class enrollments. In this case, they could always pop onto Amazon and sell it in Marketplace rather than returning it, since it sells well online. I don't know if any college bookstores are using Amazon Marketplace for inventory management, so my accepting returns through Ingram may be helping with my non-direct college bookstore business. I do know that one regular bookstore I sell to direct does use Amazon Marketplace to boost his bottom line a little, and I actually net less (and for more effort) selling him books that he sometimes turns around and unloads online. Can't really begrudge him making the extra buck or two, it's a tough business.