Why All Books Should Be Non-Returnable

Bookstores have a long history of ordering too many books and then returning them for a credit, often damaged and at the expense of the publisher or self-published author. At other times, the books are simply destroyed (or sold to a big salvage bookstore), again, at the expense of the publisher or self-published author. It is my strong opinion that bookstores, like other retailers, should be financially responsible for their own sales forecasts. I just can’t find anything in the “returns” equation where the publisher should be responsible for a bookstore’s poor estimation of sales.

Accepting returns ultimately hurts the author and the publisher and costs the bookstores very little (except when they agree to pay shipping or a small percentage of the loss as a penalty). Grocery stores aren’t allowed to return unsold food to manufacturers and your local department store isn’t allowed to return unsold clothes to the factory. So, why should bookstores be allowed to over-order and then return items while expecting the publisher or self-published author to bear the expense of their poor judgment? And think of all the trees that were wasted on those books that will never sell! We simply won’t participate in that game.

Booklocker.com books have always been non-returnable. POD books are printed as they’re ordered (hence the name – Print on Demand) and, due to the very nature of this business, we, nor our printer, have any warehouse capabilities. The customers’ orders go directly to a database that results in a printed book and instant fulfillment. There is simply no way to divert orders to a stack of books in a warehouse. Bookstores know our books are not returnable yet we continue to sell thousands of books to bookstores on a regular basis. It’s quite obvious that if a customer wants one of our books, the bookstore is going to order it regardless of its non-returnable status.

We heard one story about an author (not a booklocker.com author!) who convinced a huge, well-known discount store (you probably have one in your neighborhood) to buy 300,000 copies of his book. He was apparently related to someone in the higher ranks at that store. The publisher naively agreed to accept returns and processed the order. Well, when dealing with 300,000 copies of an unknown author’s books, you can probably guess what happened. Almost all of the books were eventually returned…at the expense of the publisher.

By the time the books were returned, the publisher may have already paid royalties to the author. When something like this happens, what do you think a publisher’s chances are of recovering that lost money? Zero.

And, the publisher now has thousands of copies of a book stored somewhere that will never sell. The store should have never ordered that many copies and the publisher should have never let the transaction occur! But, since the books were fully returnable, the store knew they wouldn’t be out any money if the books didn’t sell. Bookstores and large retailers that carry books are usually only concerned about their own bottom line. They’re so used to returning unsold books that it seems they really don’t care what the final outcome will be…since it’s not their skin on the stove.

Finally, there’s a common scam in the industry (I won’t tell you exactly how it works) that results in false bookstore orders that eventually lead to massive returns. The scammers are usually the authors of the books themselves. Some so-called book marketers perform this scam, too, getting money from authors up-front and leaving the authors with a garage full of returned books months later. Watch out for the ones that guarantee bookstore sales!

If bookstores don’t require prepayment on these “special orders” (almost none do) and are then permitted to return the books, the publisher could go out of business paying for this scam. (And, remember, by the time the returns start coming in, the publisher has probably already paid the author’s royalties for these false sales.) You can bet the large bookstore chains aren’t going to take the hit on this scam – a scam they are very familiar with – even on non-returnable books. And distributors won’t hesitate to accept returns (forcing the publisher to accept them, too) if any type of author scam is suspected. Two of our authors in the past have done this and they are, of course, their contracts were instantly terminated. There’s no faster way for an author to ruin their reputation than by scamming bookstores and their own publisher! Though they don’t like to talk about it for obvious reasons, most large POD publishers have also been victims of this scam.

Bookstores can prevent this scam by requiring prepayment on all special orders. In fact, the last time this happened to us, we directed our distributor to tell one large chain that we would no longer accept the loss for this scam. The bookstore knew the simple solution to avoiding the scam was to require pre-payment for special orders! But, they weren’t implementing this obvious and painfully simple solution and were then expecting us to once again take full financial responsibility for something they could have easily prevented.

That particular chain isn’t a big enough piece of our revenue pie to warrant taking the repeated financial hit for their repeated mistake.

For all these reasons, we don’t accept returns.

One bookstore we work with orders 10 copies of one particular book about every other week. It’s a book by a local author in her town. If the books just stop selling one day, she’s only out the expense of a handful of copies. That’s the way all bookstores should be doing business. Order conservatively and, if you sell those copies, then order some more. The largest distributor (Ingram) can get our books to bookstores in just a few days anyway. And, the large bookstores get free shipping from Ingram. When I learned that, the business of returns seemed even more ridiculous!

I suspect this article will create quite a stir with the bookstore owners on my list. If you’re a bookstore owner, author, or publisher and want to weigh-in on this subject, send me a note right here. I’ll run responses representing both sides of the debate in next week’s issue.

Angela Hoy is the co-owner of WritersWeekly.com and Booklocker. WritersWeekly.com is the free marketing emag for writers that features new paying markets and freelance job listings every Wednesday. According to attorney Mark Levine, author of The Fine Print, Booklocker.com is one of the top-rated POD publishers in the industry.