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Eliminating Returns May Reduce Waste but Might Also Reduce Sales

HarperCollins is experimenting with a no return policy. According to the GalleyCat article yesterday, 31% of books printed are returned to the publishers. Removing the right of return would reduce environmental waste. However, no returns will likely result in fewer books ordered by the chain stores. Independents might eliminate ordering books with no returns altogether. Nora Roberts mentioned that her husband, owner of the Turn the Page bookstore, would not be able to order any books with a no return policy. What’s the industry effect?

So will the entire book industry change the way it does business based on these concerns? Maybe not: “‘It would require Random House or HarperCollins to develop an entirely new business model,’ said [Jim] Milliot of Publishers Weekly. ‘And that is not going to happen.'”

Via GalleyCat and my inbox.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Angela James
    May 08, 2008 @ 12:47:26

    Well, when I’m told by a store that they have a “no return” policy, I know I’m much more likely to 1) buy less and 2) buy a lot more cautiously. I’m unlikely to take a chance on an item. I don’t see how booksellers would be any less careful with their money, and since their livelihood depends on it, probably more so.

  2. Marianne LaCroix
    May 08, 2008 @ 15:56:10

    Why can’t they recycle the returned books? You know, reuse the paper for new books…and so on. This other alternative doesn’t seem well thought out. They put themselves on the same level as POD.


  3. Ann Bruce
    May 08, 2008 @ 16:14:02

    With MMP, I understand the return rate is 30-50%. Bookstores do not return the entire book to the publisher; they rip off the cover and return that to the publisher. I would assume (and you know what they say about assume) the bookstores recycle the coverless books, but I’ve never worked in a bookstore so I don’t know.

  4. Ann Bruce
    May 08, 2008 @ 16:27:04

    I’m not too keen on the no-return policy since I think they would have better success with curbing some of the advances. According to JA Konrath’s latest post, only 1 in 5 books make a profit, which I believe translates into A LOT of advances not earning out.

  5. Mary Winter
    May 08, 2008 @ 16:34:18

    They may recycle those books, but about ten-fifteen years ago when my uncle did janatorial work at a mall, he mentioned to me all the coverless books in the dumpster behind Waldenbooks. Of course things may have changed since then.

    Personally, as a small publisher, a reader, an author, a consumer, and an environmentalist, I am not a fan of returns. Books are one of the few industries where this is the case, and I think in the end it does more harm than good.

  6. Ann Bruce
    May 08, 2008 @ 16:53:45

    coverless books in the dumpster behind Waldenbooks

    The bibliophile in me wants to cry.

  7. Cindy
    May 08, 2008 @ 20:43:32

    I’ve never worked in a bookstore but I have worked in department stores. It used to make me sick at my first job when I saw books being tossed. I don’t know what they do where I work now…I’ve seen the book lady, I know she pulls them but where they go from there, i’ve no clue.

    Random thoughts from someone with no knowledge of the business:

    1. Smaller orders of each title and if there are minimum order numbers the publisher pushes, make them smaller.
    2. Bargain Bins in stores. I know Target and CVS used to, on occasion, have bins of Dorchester books for like 2/$5.
    3. Charitable contributions to libraries and women’s shelters…seems like a good tax write off.

    As I said, I have no knowledge of the business, so I could be way off base here.

  8. Nora Roberts
    May 09, 2008 @ 06:42:06

    Small independents like my husband’s store would not be able to order new authors, most mid-lists and unknowns. Just couldn’t. At this time he orders a lot of those. He’s able to give a lot of debut authors, mid-list authors a try, give them that shelf space, because he can return the book if it doesn’t sell.

    The profit margin for bookstores is very small–unlike, for instance, the mark-up on clothes.

    He does donate books to libraries, etc, when they come in with the cover bunged up, or an author messes up at a signing.

    But say he ordered three copies of a title for a debut author. Two of them, after a few months on the shelf, don’t sell. If he couldn’t return those books he’d have a stinging loss. Not just a loss of profit, but a loss. Without returns he’d have to skip the chance to shelve that debut book–and the author would lose that sale.

    May not seem like much, but it adds up.

    Stores like Target–big chains–may be able to afford the Bargin Bin. (I bet they won’t order though, with no returns.) However small independents just can’t.

  9. Janie H
    May 09, 2008 @ 06:52:07

    Recycle books? That’s a novel idea. LOL! No, they take all those coverless paperbacks to a dump and trash them. I’ve seen one of these dumps in TN. It’s awful to look at. You’d think they would give them away, but *no can do*–no sale, off to the dump. It is a LOT of waste, but that is seen in grocery too. I suggest that Dear Author and others take a trip to a distributor and talk about the dark side of publishing, stacks of books in the back from six months ago, remaindered items, and so forth. I know some people who are trying to change all this waste, but it does mean, printing less. Who knows?

  10. Christine Merrill
    May 09, 2008 @ 07:54:59

    One of my many crap jobs, before writing full time, was as a paperback merchandiser. I was one of those people who threw away books for a living.

    You take as much as you can hold in your left hand, grab the top right corner of the cover and rip straight down. Then you flip the rest of the book straight into the dumpster. And you do it quick, because you are paid by the hour but they don’t want you to spend much more than a specific amount of time per store.


    No recycling. Maybe, if the big stores have a system in place for it. But generally not.

    No giving of donations, or taking copies of stripped books. That is shoplifting from the store. And stealing straight from the author as well, since they are not getting a royalty on the stripped book. Also, no one needs as many donations as you would have. Returns are 50%, plus or minus.

    Please don’t suggest a lower advance to save money for the publisher. For most of us, the advance numbers aren’t that great. The good news is: I will always earn back my advance, even when they throw half my books in the store dumpster. But it’s kind of hard to live on a couple grand, while waiting the year and a half it takes to see royalties. The publishers may complain about not making a profit, but trust me, they are getting more money than the authors, and I will not weep for them.

    And a no-return policy is suicidal. Independents won’t support new authors, and department stores would probably drop their book departments, all together. And small town readers would have to get used to ordering everything on-line, since there would be no guarantee of ever seeing the books they liked, outside of big cities where the stores get enough foot traffic to justify keeping a variety of stock.

    My recommendation would be developing a reliable POD kiosk system, small and cheap enough to be purchased by independants and department stores (or provided by publishers) but with high quality printing and good binding. You want a book? Maybe they keep one on the shelf for browsing. If you like it, you place an order and pick up the finished book at checkout. I think we are inching closer to the technology. The initial expense would be high, but if it worked, it could pay for itself by reducing waste.

  11. Corrine
    May 09, 2008 @ 08:08:02

    I would assume (and you know what they say about assume) the bookstores recycle the coverless books, but I've never worked in a bookstore so I don't know.

    My employer is an international book wholesaler and when we have damaged paperbacks, they are then put into an employee booksale. In the instance of mass-markets that have the cover removed, they are given away to employees on the understanding that they not be resold (as it is illegal).

  12. Shiloh Walker
    May 09, 2008 @ 08:46:25

    Seems self-defeating. Most bookstores, even the major chains, don’t order a whole lot of books that aren’t returnable. A major name that they know will sell, yes.

    Midlist, unknowns, newbies? Nope. Not even for signings.

  13. lisa
    May 09, 2008 @ 10:34:50

    Years ago I worked for a company that printed and packaged paperbacks. The amount of books that were discarded before and after they were in a bookstore was shocking to the book lover in me. I once had to strip (remove the cover) autographed copies, I filled a dumpster. What I’m trying to say is that, returning books is a just part of the industry and I don’t see how it will work, other than reducing the amount of books ordered by the stores.

  14. Susan
    May 09, 2008 @ 17:21:04

    I tend to avoid stores that have a no return policy. I would be less likely to try a new author or when an author changes their style of writing.

    When I worked at one of the major bookstores, we had people who would come in and return books because they said they didn’t like them. They would have their receipts but there was a trail saying they did this all the time. What I think they did was read the books without breaking the spines then return them for new ones without paying any additional cash. Those kinds of returns have to stop.


  15. Ann Bruce
    May 11, 2008 @ 16:02:41

    What I think they did was read the books without breaking the spines then return them for new ones without paying any additional cash.

    You should hand out library card applications to these people.

  16. Emmy
    May 13, 2008 @ 14:44:57

    So all this time, I could have been getting free books by walking behind Borders and dumpster diving? Well dang, now ya tell me.

  17. Bonnie L.
    May 13, 2008 @ 15:26:52

    When I worked for an entertainment store, one of the employee perks was being able to strip one book a month so that you’d be familiar with the merchandise and be able to direct customers better that way. The stocking room manager knew I was a bibliophile so he’d always let me take my pick of the stripped books before he threw them away.

    It really broke my heart to deface books that way, but I was newly married and living in a town with a small library so I wasn’t about to turn down free books. Now that I know more about the industry, I really wouldn’t do that to all those authors, but I didn’t know better. Sorry.

  18. Lynne
    May 23, 2008 @ 06:44:19

    Eliminating all returns would be retailer suicide, IMO, but there’s definitely room for tightening policies. The large retailer I used to work for had a very liberal returns policy once upon a time, but the abuses were so extreme that they had to start requiring receipts, set time limits, and stop accepting returns from people who had obviously used the merchandise and/or whose return patterns clearly showed a habit of abusing the policy. There were people who would buy expensive equipment on a Friday, use the living hell out of it all weekend long, and then return it on Monday for a full refund.

    If I don’t like a book, returning it isn’t an option. I “used” the merchandise, even though I didn’t enjoy it. But if the book is missing pages, I would definitely return it.

    I like your POD idea, Christine!

  19. Buddha8888
    Jun 26, 2008 @ 10:18:52

    I came to this thread in hopes of finding an answer to my question about stripped books, and im not sure if it was answered or not. I would like to know if instead of selling a stripped book is giving it away for free still legal? I went to an Ed McKay’s in my town and they had a shelf of Free books, I found this unusual honestly, but some of the books were stripped of their front cover, some perfectly fine, although all of them had this black 0 mark drawn on the cover to show that they were free. What I want to know is, is what they are doing is illegal? Because if so I would have let them know so they could avoid potential allegations, but if they are free does that drop all the wierdness and laws surrounding the whole stripped book thing?

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