Let's start by not allowing shops to return unsold books. Perhaps that'll make them stop overordering (which means it stops you overprinting in the first place)
During the program I had the opportunity to speak with two highly distinguished Barnes and Noble buyers, who explained their job and the challenges behind it. 114,000 books a year are published in America, and while these particular buyers dealt only with major companies and not small presses, and dealt only in their individual genres, that still equals dozens of books presented to them a day, on which they must make a very quick decision based on a lot of factors – content, price, author’s previous selling history, topic popularity, etc.
It’s an incredibly difficult job because it involves what amounts to guesswork, but if they guess wrong, they don’t last long as buyers. If they overguess, it means returns, at the expense of B&N, which is responsible for shipping them back to the publisher. If they underguess, it means they have to go back to the publisher and hope the books are ready to go or can be produced quickly enough to replenish their stocks before they lose potential business from customers. Obviously it’s expected that some books are going to become break-out hits and they are going to under-buy and then be ordering tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) more, but those books are extremely rare. Pinpointing the exact number is something the buyer is asked to do, even though it’s really impossible.
Addressing the poster, the shops being able to return unsold books is actually positive to both the store and the publisher, even if it’s a thing as well. The stores have to pay to get rid of them, but they would otherwise have to pay to rid of them as well. The books would go to scrap, and they would have to hire someone to pick them up and deliver them to the city as trash (recycling centers won’t take them). If they return to the publisher, the publisher has at least some hopes of reselling them at cost to the used market and recovering the cost of printing. Also it floods the used market, which means you can buy books for cheap. So, everyone wins/losses when the books go back to the publisher.
It’s a very complicated process, but it’s the best one anyone can think of until P.O.D. technology (as we’ve discussed) replaces printing books.
While we’re on the topic, let me dispel a myth. Books are not printed at publishing houses. Books are printed by massive printing centers somewhere in the mid-west and then shipped to warehouses of store. Presses are large machines, paper production smells bad, and we’re talking hundreds of thousands of books per month, so the center has to be large. Most mass market books are printed on Indian paper, which is cheaper and of lower quality, and keeps the cover price down on the book, so the paper is flown in from India and set to the printers in the mid-west. Most editors have never been to the place where the books they edit are printed, or if they have, it was once in their lifetime.