We have been going on about this for years. Why can’t we do anything about what looks like a self-harming habit? A large proportion of the books which are bought in quantity by bookstores are returned to the publishers for credit a few months later, and a distressingly high proportion of these will be in unsalable condition. Worse are “special sales” to non-conventional sellers. Brooke Warner, at Huffington Post, describes a deal made with Target for 30,000 copies at a 60% (larger than normal) discount, 25,000 of which were returned and pulped. Of course many special sales do work out, and not all returns are as crazy as this, but it does seem that there are times when bookstores almost appear to “pay” for new inventory by returning older books to the same value. Occasionally smaller publishers have to refuse to supply the full quantities ordered by big retailers because supplying the full order would put the book out of stock, forcing a reprint which the publisher knows will prove unnecessary when the over-ordered books duly come back. There are enough ways to lose money on books — why do we voluntarily add to them? Why do we keep on offering return privileges? Is it just that antitrust law can be read as preventing our colluding over anything? Or are we just stupid?

Here’s a post from The Polished Publishing Group, via Linked-in’s Book Publishing Professionals Group trying to get us to do something about it. But rather than stop the nonsense we seem happy to allow the situation to get crazier. Not only will we accept the return of a print-on-demand book, a book printed specifically for the customer, but you can also get credit for an ebook you decide you don’t want!

Of course there are reasons for allowing returns. We do it to encourage bookstores to have massive quantities of our books spilling out of their front doors, so that passers-by may think “Wow. That must be a great book if they need to have so many copies on hand. I’d better buy one.” This may be silly, but it is certainly true that if the book isn’t available in bookstores many impulse sales will fail to take place. How many? Nobody has the guts to try to find out, though from time to time one or two publishers have experimented with non-return policies, or offered discount incentives for no return purchasing. Amazon, the last place to need to show passers-by the size of their inventory, take advantage of such non-return discount incentives quite a lot. It’s not that the industry doesn’t see that there’s a problem: it’s just that we haven’t yet managed to wean ourselves off the idea that large piles of books generate sales.

It was not always thus. Bookstores used to sell off any over-ordered books at a discount. I remember one great sale in White Plains when I first came to USA, where the price of all the books was halved every week: you had to gamble on how low they’d go before the last copy of that book you sort of wanted disappeared. It was as part of the attempts by big publishing conglomerates to make trade books into a mass-sale item that we discovered returns as a sales incentive This lead to the rapid adoption of returns on all books which has taken place over the past fifty years. Now that everyone is doing it, it is surprisingly hard for us to stop: nobody wants to be at a commercial disadvantage.

Now the commentariat is getting exercised about Amazon’s buy buttons becoming potentially available to third-party sales channels — Amazon says they’ll assign, via some algorithm, the buy button to the source which can deliver the product fastest and cheapest. Brooke Warner, again at Huffington Post, was the first to raise the alarm. The New Republic has an article about it. (Link via The Passive Voice which takes its usual exultantly anti-publishing stance. TeleRead and The Digital Reader have also posted about this.) The worry appears to be that those resellers who offer new books for 1¢ will garner all the sales — which of course will mean the author gets no royalty.

I suppose we have to believe that there really exist new books on sale for 1¢, do we? Nobody appears to know where these “new” books are coming from, though the most convincing explanation seems to be that they come from bookstore returns to the publisher, with a small number being review copies which typically do get into the second-hand market. I don’t spend a lot of time sculling around the Amazon looking for bargains in new books so it’s not a phenomenon I’ve witnessed. I did just take the time to click through (some of ) the New York Times Best Seller list books at Amazon, and failed to find any 1¢ bargains. I did however find one buy button leading to a second seller, but Shattered was available from Soapsix2 for a disappointing $6.50. The nearest approach to the 1¢ barrier was The Handmaid’s Tale, where there were 117 “new” paperback books from $4.05 — a price which probably means that buying one of these would still deprive the author of her royalty — but this is of course a book published long ago which has just gotten a new lease of life, so there can be all sorts of old stock swilling around out there. With a normal new book there just doesn’t seem to be time for “new” copies to accumulate in the unofficial trade. I suspect that the commentariat’s concern is based on nothing other than fantasy. Sure it would be “bad”, especially for the author, if you could get a current bestseller for 1¢ — but it rather looks like you can’t.

Returns, in a modern, well-run publisher’s warehouse, are diverted to a special section, and may even be farmed out to specialist dealers. The returns area/sub-contractors receive the books and issue credit to the bookseller. A little-known side effect of having a well-run modern warehouse is that it costs a significant amount of money to restock a book. Warehouses are set up to receive truckloads of books from binderies and put them cartoned and palleted into storage locations using large forklift trucks. This doesn’t work too well with a single copy coming back from a bookshop. Returns often/usually come back in mixed cartons which have to be opened to see what different ISBNs are involved, scanned to identify them, inspected to see if they are damaged or can potentially be resold as new. If they are damaged the system has to asses whether they are so badly damaged that they can only go for waste, or slightly bashed so they can be resold as “almost new”, or hurt so they can be sold off in bulk at low, low prices to the remainder trade. No one would assert that within this system there is not room for some jiggery-pokery or malfeasance, though of course nobody knows this. Even without jiggery-pokery large skips of slightly hurt books are being sold into the remainder trade for prices which may put the price of any single copy at less than 1¢ — the skip will be sold for some dollars without any regard as to what books it may contain, though hardbacks and paperbacks will tend to be separately binned.

Now this process means that there is a potential for ever so slightly shopworn books to filter into the regular new book trade, certainly into Amazon’s second seller universe. But it takes time for this to happen. Any bookstore is going to keep the books on the shelf for a while in the hope of selling out; when they give up and return to the publisher there’s a bit of time before the return can be processed (it’s not the publishers’ highest priority to process their returns) and then the dealer has to sort and sell the books into the second seller trade. Thus it is unlikely that books from this source can really be too widely available for current bestsellers.

One has of course heard of cartons of new books falling off the back of the truck, but this can’t be too large a problem; maybe a carton here and a carton there. Any systematic violation would become evident: you paid for paper to print 25,000 copies but the warehouse only received 19,076 — even the most inefficient publisher would notice.

Surely we can expect return policy to change soon. The impulse sale factor will never go away, but given that nowadays so much book purchasing can go on online, there’s no real reason for a book-buyer to go without after they have run into a bookstore just as the last copy is snatched up by the person in front of them.