June 17, 2008

Many unhappy returns

Following the creation of a new imprint by HarperCollins (HarperStudio) that will not accept book returns, the CEO of retailer Barnes & Noble similarly called the practice "insane." This NPR story goes into considerable depth about what happens to those returned books, how the practice got started, and the heavy costs it imposes. More commentary at the Dear Author blog, with some suggested solutions. I'm not surprised that Harlequin is there at the innovative forefront.



# posted by Anonymous MoJo
I've been watching this debate develop over the last few months and it's always the same go-round.

The established authors like the status quo and don't want to rock the royalties e-boat.

The e-pubbed authors are still asking why the print authors put up with a 6% royalty on e-books.

The readers are split half and half on print v digital with print winning because of the fact of its physical existence and re-saleability, and not wanting to pay for bits and bytes that don't have concrete costs like paper, ink, and storage.

The pro-digital is split in half on the issue of "I'll start buying ebooks when they come up with a standard format and a standard reader." (Which is not unreasonable.)

I don't think this would have happened if only the e-books were involved. The fly in the traditional offset mass market returns protocol is POD and its non-returnability.

The whole concept of the waste that is the returns process is anathema to us (esp. to the more OCD of us) and the availability of POD only highlights it unfavorably.

Then there's the discounting (which, in practice, is simply consignment).

I made a comment on the
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog
in answer to why the trade paperbacks are so expensive and I had to admit that to sell profitably on Amazon, I would have to increase the cover price by at least $10 in order to account for the discount. So you can buy it on my site for $X or from Amazon for $X+10, but I have no choice but to sell on Amazon if I want the visibility.

/rambling nonsense
6/17/2008 11:33 AM

# posted by Blogger Joe
Bookstores have always seemed to me to be models of inefficiency. It seems that their model has been to create the illusion of choice when, in fact, the vast majority of their sales are a small minority of titles--odds are the ones you see when you walk into the store.

I suspect that the average consumer doesn't think about this and simply associates a lot of one item up front as that item being popular. The returns model, therefore, is form of advertising and the sunk costs could be perceived as simply that.

(I'm still amazed at how many books get printed. Magazines too. Go to a site like Publisher's Clearing House and you start wondering who actually reads all these obscure magazines.)
6/18/2008 11:46 AM

# posted by Anonymous MoJo
associates a lot of one item up front as that item being popular

Publishers pay a kickback fee for those spots.

But it's not called "kickback." The same way the current system isn't called "consignment."
6/18/2008 12:35 PM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
It's called a "slotting allowance" or "shelf fee" in the supermarket industry. Producers essentially "rent" primo shelf space. Granted, it is in the self-interest of both parties to let the people advertising the product "front" it as well. But it also means marginal players have a hard time breaking into established markets.

I've wondered as well why bookstores don't provide the equivalent of a card catalog. They must figure they're better off forcing customers to browse. Another reason to buy from Amazon.
6/18/2008 2:52 PM

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
A little off subject but I think forcing people to browse must be a really popular theory with salesfolks, and it must work. Netflix used to list "just released" items in a easy-to-view, alphabetical, sorted by genre list. Now, they have this stupid, non-alphabetical, non-sorted by genre, you have to click through twenty images before you know what you've read page. I hate it (and go to imdb instead). I even complained (complaining to featureless corporations isn't really my style). But it must work; it must get people to click onto more movies or whatever. Still--I like to be manipulated a little more subtly.
6/19/2008 7:00 AM