Book cover Dream of the Cat by book cover artist and book cover illustrator Duncan Long.

At least in the US, the “book return” policy of most large publishers is unlike anything in most other industries. The practice started in the Great Depression here in the US and made it possible for book sellers to sell books without fear of losing their money. It worked well in the 1930s, but has since outlived its usefulness. It’s a “fix” for a problem that ended over half a century ago.

The problem with this practice is that the whole book isn’t returned for a refund. With most titles you’ll find in a book store, grocery store, or anywhere else that stocks many titles, the “return” of the book means that in practice the cover of the book or magazine is ripped off and sent back to the publisher for a full refund. The rest of the book or magazine goes into the dumpster.

That’s almost 100 percent waste for each “returned” publication.

With even popular titles selling only perhaps of 40 percent of what’s printed and sent to book stores, the book you buy has to be priced several dollars more than it otherwise would be to cover the waste (since the price for printing the tossed books has to be passed along to the customer if the publisher is to remain in business).

It’s amazing that the book industry has been able to continue over all these years with this policy putting about half the books and magazines printed in the US going to the dumpster. Imagine what the car industry would be like if dealers can return the windshield for full refund, with the rest of the car sent to the junkyard. (And just imagine what a new car would cost – you’d need a 20-year “car mortgage” to buy a vehicle.)

Of course book stores would be crazy not to take advantage of returnable books. They can buy more than they need on the off chance of selling them all, can create massive displays that make it appear they sell many more books than they actually do, and all the while have little to lose since a huge number of book covers can be mailed back for refund in exchange for the price of a few stamps.

For the consumer as well as smaller publishers, doing away with the out-dated returnable book policy in one way or another could level the playing field of the industry somewhat, making things more prosperous for almost everyone involved. More importantly, it would usher in a much less wasteful system for the publishing industry, and eventually greatly lower the cost for both consumer as well as publisher. (Talk about “going green” — imagine how many trees are sacrificed to feed dumpsters with unsold books.)

I suppose the perfect solution for all parties would be a POD (Print On Demand) system in each bookstores (I know there have been experiments with such systems, but I suspect the technology/price break is not in line to make it a viable option at this point).

With a POD machine at your local bookstore, you could visit the store, scan a few pages previewed on a monitor to see if this or that new title strikes your fancy, and (if one did) pay for it and have a copy (color cover and all) ready for you to take home a few minutes later.

The shopping experience would be comparable to today’s, but with far less waste and a level playing field for publishers big and small. And for authors, there’s the potential to have a book in print for decades or longer rather than just a few months as is too often the case today.

I will cross my fingers and hope this future may be coming to a book store near you.

Duncan Long is a freelance magazine and book cover illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, American Media, Fort Ross, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and many other publishers. See more of Duncan’s book cover illustrations at: