Returning Books Beats Burning Them

Today's Wall Street Journal carried an in-depth interview of Borders CEO George Jones. Jones was quoted at the very end as saying, "Also, some things don't make sense, such as physically returning books all the time...There has to be a more efficient way."

Book returns are even more painful for publishers than for retailers, which is why stripping off covers and sending them back in lieu of the books for credit was once seen as an acceptable alternative to returning the physical books. I don't know if it's still commonly practiced, I only know about it because I used to buy stripped books at a neighborhood paperback shop when I was a kid. Obviously, then, it wasn't working exactly the way the publishers had envisioned. I didn't understand the ethical questions involved in reselling stripped books when I was twelve or thirteen, I just though that tearing off book covers was a mean thing for anybody to do.

Many publishers using short discount POD for printing and distribution have found a solution to book returns, they don't accept them. When I first changed over from offset printing to using Lightning Source for POD, I didn't accept returns either. I figured there was no point accepting returns when I was selling at a short discount because no store would order for stock anyway. At some point, perhaps because I was worried about the Amazon availability of my titles back around 2005, I started accepting returns. To my great surprise, one of my titles now occasionally gets ordered in quantity by the Barnes&Noble chain, and starts popping up on the shelves of some of their superstores. Retailers may regret having to deal with returns, but they have little motivation to order books for stock unless the publisher accepts returns or offers them a heck of a non-returnable discount on a book with proven demand, like 65% or more off the cover price.

While publishers and retailers alike bemoan the effort and expense of dealing with book returns, the alternatives are worse. An easy solution for bookstores would be to only stock books that are selling like hotcakes or classic fiction that they know will sell eventually. While that wouldn't hurt publishers whose books aren't getting any shelve exposure, it would mean the end of the standard trade publishing model that's driven the business since the Depression. It would also result in bookstores that stocked a thousand or so "bestsellers" and a few thousand classics, and not much else.

The superstores that the Borders and Barnes&Nobles chains are built around stock 100,000 or more titles, and most of them aren't going to be big hits. Returning the books that don't sell (chain-wide average) after a couple months is the best way to ensure that the maximum shelf space is being used for books customers may actually purchase. If the chains wanted to declare that all but the top 10,000 sellers in each store were there for wallpaper, they could treat the others as a capital expense and not worry about whether the wallpaper titles ever sold. Of course, after a few years, the affect on the book industry would be the same as if they'd simply filled 90% of their wall space with photographs of bookshelves and kept the real books close to the cash registers.

I don't really understand the complaint on the part of Border's CEO. It's the willingness of the publishing industry to provide his superstores with returnable books that allows them to fill their shelves with a variety of fresh titles and keep the people coming in. It makes a little more sense to me when publishers complain about "reckless" ordering for stock, though school bookstores may be bigger culprits than retail chains. Barnes&Noble has been working on their own solution to limiting book returns by publishing more and more of the books they sell, especially evergreen titles, classics and certain nonfiction. Barnes&Noble stock is up about 60% over the last ten years, Borders is down about 20%.

In any case, tearing the covers off books or burning them for fuel isn't a solution I want any part of. If Mr. Jones was referring to putting POD machines in stores or pushing ebooks, it wouldn't have any effect on the crux of the problem, namely, what to do with all that shelf space if not trying new titles?


Jon said...

Electronic books. They can be printed at the store in a few minutes if the customer really wants a hard copy, and distributed electronically if they don't. No shipping costs, no polluting trucks, and dead trees are kept to a minimum.

Morris Rosenthal said...


That's not a solution for what to do with a superstore, that's a solution for how to run a bookstore in a small space. The reason people go to superstores is because they have lots of books.

I'm not against the ebook or POD approach, using both myself and making a living at it. However, they haven't proven to be a displacement technology for the basic trade model yet.