The subject of eliminating returns seems to come up more and more frequently these days. Last week we were interviewing a major independent bookseller for our BISG “Shifting Sales Channels” project and they brought it up. In this case, they were complaining about the new “no returns” policy from HarperStudio. As I understand what the store said, the high discount (61%) only applied to the initial order but the no-returns option, if elected, would apply to the reorders too.
“So you’ll do all your reordering from Ingram, right” I asked.
Of course they will. But they’re happy with 61%. They’d much rather buy everything non-returnable at 61%.
Returns were invented, some say by Viking and others say not, in the 1930s as a proactive response to the stores’ reluctance to take risks during the Depression. It became a widespread practice pretty quickly. Since I came into the business in the mid-1970s, there have been two big changes in returns:
They didn’t have returns as a routine matter in the UK when I began my career; they do now.
Publishers have chipped away at returns credits, so that it is not uncommon that returns result in a small margin for the publisher. The most common device is that all returns credits are calculated at maximum discount, even though some books may have been purchased at lower discounts.
The commercial logic for returns is that offering them helps the publisher persuade the retailer to buy more aggressively: both more titles and bigger quantities of some titles. The ethical justification is that the publisher knows all about the book and the store only knows what the publisher tells them until it comes out. Such things as a marketing plan, and follow-through on a projected marketing plan, are entirely in the hands of the publisher.
In my experience, the flawed, misleading, or downright erroneous analysis of returns is common. A longtime publishing sales director at three of the biggest houses (now long retired) had the practice of computing returns percentages for his biggest accounts every month. It was amazing how high the returns percentage was every February, when few big new books had initial shipments and the returns from Christmas hit the warehouse.
In fact, the returns in any time period are not from the sales in that time period but result from sales made at some earlier time. So when you think the returns percentage for any period is too high, you might just be saying that the sales in that period were too low. Any time you have a year when sales are low relative to the year before, odds are the returns that year will also be computed to be high. Let’s hope nobody makes a strategic choice on that basis.
Shrinking shelf space at retail would result in higher returns percentages. Two ways. The books on those shelves come back. And no new books head out to replace them. Bigger numerator, smaller denominator, higher returns percentage.
Here’s another instance where more refined thinking about returns is needed. When a title has sold for a very long time (at any level of sales), its overall returns percentage will be very low. After a while, the overall returns percentage for a title is a meaningless number. What a publisher should be measuring is their success in bringing a title’s inventory down in the supply chain without excessive returns. But you’d measure your success against that objective by measuring returns against what was in the supply chain when you start retiring the title, not against all the copies that have sold in 12, 18, or 24 months when the book was being constantly reordered with almost no returns.
These examples make a central point: returns percentages are the inverse of reorder activity. If you have a lot of reorder activity, you will ultimately have low returns. If you don’t, you will almost certainly have high returns.
Returns are also not uniform across any publisher’s list. Frontlist has a higher returns percentage than backlist. Heavily promoted titles risk huge returns, both as a percentage and in absolute numbers. When booksellers ask publishers to sell the backlist at a higher discount non-returnable, they’re asking publishers to give away margin for little gain because solving returns on the backlist doesn’t solve the returns problem for most publishers.
The biggest experiment with no-returns selling by a large commercial house was by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich around 1980-81. They offered discounts up to 58% (if memory serves) when the standard most indies bought at was in the low 40s. There were a lot more independents back then and they rejected the experiment emphatically. It lasted only one season.
Today, independents are not enough of the market to make the call, but many of them would actually support no-returns buying at high discounts. I think the chains might too, but most big publishers would probably be nervous about selling the chains that way. They’d be afraid they wouldn’t be able to get the big promotional advances that drive the top end of their business. They’re right, or at least the non-returnability — or some shared markdown concessions — would get negotiated away on a title-by-title basis. And that creates the complication of having to offer the same deal to everybody.
Some publishers who offer a non-returnable option feel it is successful, but they don’t really know how important it is that returnability is still available for their customers: through the wholesalers (and those non-returnable publishers still take returns from the wholesalers themselves!)
Managing returns rather than eliminating them also has the payoff to publishers of making it easier to keep backlist titles alive at full price. If retailers started marking titles down when they got impatient about their sale (and if higher no-return discounts gave them the margins to do it relatively painlessly), then the stores successfully selling those titles at full price would be hurt. Or at least they’d look bad.
The most effective way to cut way back on returns is to increase the frequency of replenishment. If you restock every day, then very few titles need to be carried in a quantity larger than one to avoid losing sales to out of stocks. That focuses the problem on building and then selling down platform quantities, which is where the “problem” really is.
The returns from books you put out and just don’t sell are an inevitable cost of doing business for publishers and for booksellers. There will be a failure rate. The trick is to make failure cheap, and you do when you put books out in small quantities to find they don’t sell.
That strategy works when you get reorders, keep a book going (and growing).
But the big returns come from putting out the numbers you need to give a book retail “presence”. If you isolate those and calculate them, maybe it would be more accurate accounting to treat them as a marketing cost?
Ingram has offered the fast-turnover daily-replenishment stocking model to retailers for years and even at the expense of the middleplayer’s cut of the sale, it has been a good practice for many retailers. Almost all independents order from Ingram and/or Baker & Taylor every day and most have relatively low returns rates.
Another thing that has changed about returns in my time — and which argues for eliminating them — is the percentage that are actually ultimately recycled and resold. Many things mitigate against putting a return back in stock, including that it probably takes a human review to certify that the book is in condition to be sold as new. And these practices all began when the ratio of hardcover sales to trade paperback was much greater than it is now. If the book is not going to be recycled, it makes a lot more sense to accept either a shared markdown or affadavit that the book was destroyed than to require the return for credit.
It is hard to debate the green logic that shipping the same book around several times in 2009 is idiotic. (Green logic also should tout used books, but we’ll leave that inconvenient truth aside.) Returns restrictions and no-returns offers will likely become more widespread. As they do, there will be a complicated commercial problem to work out with Ingram and other wholesalers (who ultimately can’t take returns from stores if publishers don’t and who can’t be the back-up on a conservatively ordered “big” book if they can’t return to publishers). And it will put increased pressure on publishers to routinely process all orders within 24 hours.