Book returnability is a destructive artifact of the Great Depression (approximately 1929 - 1940).
Sales of books, like most non-necessities, had fallen off greatly. In an effort to get bookstores to take in new books, the publishers offered guaranteed sales. Stores received the books “on consignment,” and, after several months, the money for the books that had been sold would be paid to the publishers. Unsold books would go back. This arrangement kept inventory on the bookstore shelves and helped create exposure for books on obscure topics or by unknown authors, but the logistics and waste added substantially to the cost of publishing.
When books are bought on consignment, bookstore owners don’t have to care if they order slow-sellers or outright flops because almost all unsold books can be returned to the publisher, or even be destroyed, and still generate a refund or credit from the publisher. This adds to the cost of publishing (increasing the prices of books) and wastes natural resources.
- There have been accusations that major book chains arrange to send back books -- and reorder the same titles at the same time -- so the stores always have inventory with no concern about paying for them.
Selling on consignment may have been a good solution in 1932, but 80 years later it has become very expensive and wasteful. Book publishers and bookstores are in trouble.
If a bookstore operator knows that sales are guaranteed, and if a publisher’s salesperson is sufficiently pushy, and if money is offered for promotion, little thought may go into making a purchase. The store may “overbuy” and inflate the initial sales of a book, but the day of reckoning comes a few months later. If most of the copies of a new title are still sitting on the shelves, they get sent back to the publisher, where they are either remaindered and redistributed for the buck-a-book tables or shredded and pulped to become raw material for new books.
- Sarah Palin’s second book sold poorly, and many thousands were returned to the publisher. The cost of the waste was partially covered by the profit made on her first book, a bestseller.
- Small publishers may be crippled when cartons of soiled, tattered and unsaleable books come back -- books that were assumed to have reached readers and would generate revenue.
The system hurts authors.
It takes time for book promotion to have an effect and for word-of-mouth to build for a new author or niche subject. Nobody knows how many books, which might have been successful with another month or two or three on display in the stores, are considered flops.
Only now, in the 21st century, is there some slight movement away from the burdensome, wasteful process that was an important innovation that kept books available in the 1930s.
HarperStudio was an imprint (brand) of HarperCollins, launched in 2008. It started an experimental program to sell books to booksellers in a one-way transaction, in exchange for providing additional gross profit. The experiment failed and HarperStudio was shut down after two years.
Many bookstores have also shut down.
Print on demand and ebooks avoid the perils of returnability; but there are still millions of books that are returned each year, and must be paid for by someone.