It’s January, which for many is a month of resolutions (we’ve certainly adopted a few), new beginnings, and celebration. It is that month post-Christmas where we can all play with our new toys, read our new books, launch our new ideas, and lace up our new tennis shoes. Unfortunately for publishers, January, and its less glamorous successor, February, have quite a different connotation: these months herald the benighted season of book returns.
Book returns make the book business unlike any other business. You see, when an author and publisher team up to create a book, there is a whole lot more than just the end consumer in mind. In fact, a book may be “sold” three or more times before it ever reaches the customer’s hands. It is first “sold” to the publisher (in that, for commercial or trade books the publisher buys the rights to distribute and sell), then “sold” to distributors (Ingram for bookstores, Baker & Taylor for libraries), then “sold” to a bookstore buyer, who, finally, sells the book and its premise to the rest of the sales team, so that it can make its way from the bookstore shelf into the patron’s loving hands. This series of sales means that any number of factors can determine the how, when, why, or why not of a book’s journey through bookstore to consumer.
For instance, you write an incredible book. Your publisher loves it, takes it on, buys the rights to distribute and sell it, puts some cash toward marketing and publicity, then meets with buyers from every major independent bookstore in the region. They sell it to their B&N rep, they sell it to their Ingram rep, they get Baker & Taylor in, too. But this isn’t the end of the road. The buyers must determine how many copies they put in their bookstores. Make no mistake: it is a delicate, admirable art to take on this incredible challenge. Buyers have a number of goals in mind: they have to maintain diversity in their bookstore, serve the unique needs and tastes of their local audience, bring in enough that they won’t be short during high-buying times, bring in few enough that they won’t have leftover stock, predict fads and evolving cultural inclinations, and stay within their budget. To balance these many goals when meeting with publishing houses across the country is an admirable feat. And as publishers, we respect and appreciate all that our buyers do to make this process run smoothly.
The one hiccup to this process, for a publisher, is that if a book doesn’t sell (for any number of reasons: the bookstore ordered too many copies, planned publicity was overshadowed by a major news event, etc.), the bookstore can return the book to the publisher (or to/through the involved distributor) for its money back. In no other business-to-business sales model do you see this form of return. I will repeat: when you sell your books to a bookstore, you hope, pray, and drum up good juju so that these books will not be back on your doorstep in three months. And January/February is by far the biggest return season for all publishers, as the Christmas sale season has passed and the overstocked books wind up coming back—not all of the time, of course, but it does happen.
This business model is still important for those who self-publish, particularly for those who custom publish with a custom publishing house like Orange Frazer that helps you with distribution through bookstores and retail outlets. The advantage to publishing your book with a professional publisher is that we do have these connections—the distributors, the buyers, the regional warehouses. Orange Frazer is in a unique position because with each custom book we are able to bring our twenty-five years of experience in trade publishing to the table: we know the system, we’ve filled out the paperwork, we maintain the memberships, and we know what we’re doing. Unfortunately, however, this return system won’t change for a self-published or custom-published book. Until we develop a sixth sense or create a highly accurate magic eight ball, there will always be occasional excess in the system. But with a foot in each stream—trade publishing and custom publishing—Orange Frazer will always be evolving to meet these challenges.