Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Return Process Further Explained

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.

18 comments:

ORION said...

I am fascinated with posts of this nature. With my book coming out in a couple weeks it interests me hearing about the process booksellers go through and the decisions they have to make when ordering books.
Thanks.

Varun Gupta-Indian vedanta" © said...

In India,it is common with the Academic Books.,where Publishers receive back from 60% to 80% stocks of books,from booksellers, while making payments.

astairesteps said...

Thinking back to Beatrix Potter and Louisa May Alcott days, I think I'd prefer having less middlemen involved. There are so many people (agents, publishers, buyers, bookstores, etc.) all wanting a piece of the pie that not much is left for the author. But what is more sad to me than loss of profit is the rat race writers now face if they hope to see their book in print. Alas.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

I find it funny that there is a strong anti-Midwest bias when it comes to who the big publishers choose to publish (i.e., it seems that especially when it comes to memoirs, authors must be from NYC to be taken seriously by the NYC pubs), but the books themselves are _printed_ here in the Midwest. (Mostly by R. H. Donnelly & Sons, located here in my hometown of Chicago).

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Yep, Jill.

They'll savor the sirloin raised out here in the hinterlands, but they'll look askance at the farmer who brought the cow to market.

I wrote a mystery set in St. Louis. It's absolutely eerie that all of my six requests for partials came from California and Florida agents. None from New York.

It's definitely a lesson learned. Next novel will be set in a big burg, fer sure fer sure.

The Rejecter said...

OK guys, knock it off. There's a MILLION agent websites that will tell you that publishers/agents do not care where the author is from and do not demand, or even recommend, that the author is from NY.

Marsupialis said...

Rejecter, the entire system of selling books essentially on consignment and allowing them to be returned is archaic, and an outgrowth of an economic situation that existed nearly 80 years ago. Barnes & Noble buyers can tell you how noble they are, let me give it to you from a small press perspective. We have observed repeatedly the chains waiting until the exact moment when payment is due and then returning a ton of books only to turn around and reorder the same amount they just returned. We have observed Barnes & Noble employees who go through the shelves to prepare books for returns and just toss stock onto the floor, damaging each and every one, making those books no longer fit for new book sales. So please, no sympathy for the poor gigantic chain bookstore. The entire model is screwed.

Every publisher should simply declare it their policy that they won't accept returns. What it'll mean is you won't have piles and piles of books on tables at the front of stores. It'll probably mean you'll get less choice in the bookstore. But that frankly isn't a bad thing.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

"The Rejecter said...
OK guys, knock it off. There's a MILLION agent websites that will tell you that publishers/agents do not care where the author is from and do not demand, or even recommend, that the author is from NY. "

---True, they SAY this. But it does not reflect who they actually publish. Of all the new memoirs I've read in the past 6 months (I follow the genre closely since I write it myself), 8 out of 10 were by authors who live in NYC. And my own (and my agent's) experience with the NYC publishers definitely shows an anti-Midwest bias. The fact that the publishers who are buying my books (all major pubs) are not headquartered in NYC (two are in the Midwest; one is in London but is a division of Random House nonethelesss) certainly reflects this.

If you were from the Midwest yourself, you'd better appreciate the bias we have aimed at us from the East.

Anonymous said...

Quote: “There's a MILLION agent websites that will tell you that publishers/agents do not care where the author is from and do not demand, or even recommend, that the author is from NY. "

Said on websites and actual practice are two very different things. How many times did ms Snark say, “it’s all about the writing!”

Kate said...

Why can't books be recycled? It seems like such a waste.

The Rejecter said...

Kate,

It has to due with the glue for the binding and the ink on the paper. If it was just blank paper that wasn't bound, it could be recycled.

Katrina Stonoff said...

I've also heard that independent bookstores (the kind that B&N and Amazon are rapidly running into the ground) would not be able to take a risk on mid-list books if they couldn't return them.

Think about it: you're a Mom-and-Pop shop in Timbuktoo, Kansas. You don't have the money to invest hundreds of thousands in books that might not sell. You'd only stock the bestsellers and Grisham/Roberts.

Anonymous said...

"It has to due with the glue for the binding and the ink on the paper. If it was just blank paper that wasn't bound, it could be recycled."

I thought a lot of returned books were indeed recycled into pulp. Is that no longer true?

Joni said...

"It has to due with the glue for the binding and the ink on the paper. If it was just blank paper that wasn't bound, it could be recycled."

Uh, as someone who has worked with one of the nation's largest paper recyclers and is pretty darn familiar with the process, this is not true. Neither ink nor typical binding materials are a big hurdle in recycling. (For heaven's sake, how could we recycle newsprint if ink were a problem?)

There's probably an economic issue -- costs too much to ship 'em to the pulp mill, perhaps -- or a logistics issue, or a political issue. Or an issue of sorting out too many books with foil stamps or high-concentration plastic gloss coatings or the string in stitching might cause a headache.... But it's not impossible by any means.

That said, I agree with marsupialis.

Issendai said...

Astairesteps, I agree that it would be great to have fewer middlemen, but the money saved wouldn't go to the author. It would go to the publisher. The manuscript market is a buyer's market; there's no incentive for companies to offer more money to authors when authors are already pouring in by the thousands for peanuts.

The one place I've seen higher pay for authors is in the ebook business. Small online presses that open primarily to sell ebooks aren't locked into the system that print publishers are locked into, so royalties of 30%-40% are standard in some genres. They probably needed to start that high because ebook houses had to offer more to authors to attract them away from the print market. Now that ebooks are an established small market of their own, authors have come to expect high royalties, and the ebook publishers are locked into THAT system.

But even in ebooks, middlemen are springing up. Online ebookstores demand a cut of the profits, and the author gets paid their royalty out of the net, not the gross. Right now ebook authors in the genres I read don't need agents, but more and more houses are overwhelmed with submissions, so agents aren't far off. Eventually those 40% royalties will be whittled away to something like what print authors get now.

As they say, in a gold rush, you don't get rich mining gold. You get rich selling shovels.

Anonymous said...

Me again. Yes, I certainly see the upside if being able to resell books rather than have them end up in incinerators or on landfills.

But isn't the cost for them to ship them back a lot less than the cost for the publisher to store and get rid of excesses?

I was under the impression print runs were at least partly decided based on advance orders and if they send half of it back, it's the sellers that are at least partially responsible for costs the publisher could've avoided.

Renegade Writer said...

I'm a part-time B&N bookseller, and I'm of two minds when it comes to returns...

Ok, pulling returns is a bitch. Usually, you get the pull-list when the month's lists download, and you have to take a scanner and a cart and head into the wilds of the section to quest for that one copy of 'Dust Mites of America' that needs to go back to the publisher (little do you know that it's languishing in Wedding Planners, which hasn't been scanned yet for the month).

However, a book being 'Due Out' or returned isn't always a bad thing. The publisher usually pulls the Trade Cloth edition a month or two before the Trade Paper or Mass Market is set to be released. Some publishers even authorize a title to 'go Bargain', and it's assigned a new ISBN as a bargain book. These book still sell, BTW.

Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

"and it's assigned a new ISBN as a bargain book."

Why a new ISBN? Can't you just keep the current ISBN and price and call it what it is: a discount?