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Cover Illustration for Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine - Duncan Long

As noted in a previous post, the average book printed by a large publisher averages about 40 percent returns from book stores and other sellers in the USA. In other words, for every 100 books printed by a big press, on an average only 60 are sold.

What happens to the other 40 percent?

Oddly enough, the entire book isn’t returned to the publisher. Only the cover (which one saw noted is rather like a car dealership returning the hood of a car to the car manufacturer for a full refund). How did such a system ever get started? Who would ever think it a viable business model?

Back in the 1930s during the Great Depression, nickel and dime stores, drug stores, as well as book stores weren’t buying many books, magazines, or comic books from publishers. The small businesses were afraid they’d be stuck with products that couldn’t be sold. Consequently, they purchased fewer and fewer publications from publishers.

Knowing that more books and magazines could be sold then the stores were buying, publishers came up with a bold plan to increase sales: They offered full refunds on books and magazines that weren’t sold and to minimize the cost of shipping publications back for a refund, they allowed the refund to be made if only the cover of the publication was returned (with buyers on then honor system to trash the rest of the publication).

This new practice worked very well, and basically saved many publishers because sales abruptly increased once the sellers learned they had nothing to lose if they ordered a few more books or magazines than they could sell. They ordered a few extras that might very well sell — and often they did sell.

It was a brilliant idea that put more money into the pockets of seller and publisher alike.

The disaster came later. The plan was never abandoned once the economy got back on its feet and continues for most large presses even today here in the US. Not only do publishers give full refund, the book seller still has to return only the front cover of the book or magazine to get their money back. So unlike an actual return of products which then might be sold as used or at least recycled, the publisher has only a cover to show for its efforts.

(On a side note, while the books with covers torn off are supposed to be trashed, those working in book distribution warehouses or at book stores often have huge private libraries of coverless books. And in the past, one would occasionally see bootlegged coverless comic books sold in little packs at bargain prices; as a child I can remember buying such bonanzas in gas stations. My dad who was a kid during the Great Depression occasionally sneaked behind the local drugstore to raid the dumpster of coverless comics for some extra reading material.)

More recently this system has apparently allowed “gaming” the system. Some believe that on occasion the the word has gone out that such-and-such a book should be made a “Best Seller.” Stores order many more copies of a book than they could possibly sell.

This gives a huge boost to the apparent sales of the book, puts it into the best seller list, and then if everyone is lucky the public turns out to buy the book that seems to be the new discovery of readers everywhere. But if the book gets panned and the buyers don’t arrive to slurp copes up, huge numbers of the title are returned and the publisher takes a bath.

Thus, a “best seller” may actual sell poorly if the system has been so manipulated, and the publisher can lose vast amounts of money even though it was a “best seller.”

All this means that books from large presses are likely priced almost twice as high as they would be without refunds.

On the plus side for small presses and self-publishers who do not adopt the big presses’ return policy, it is possible to compete with the big publishers due to reduced waste through the cover-return-refund policy. Likewise, magazines or book companies that sell through catalogs or via subscriptions can realize nearly 100 percent sales on their products as compared to the 60 percent suffered by the big presses.

Of course the big publishers might quickly turn things around if they ever dictate no more returns unless the whole product is shipped back. With the high cost of shipping books back to the publisher, coupled with the work of boxing them up and taking them to a shipping company, that would likely force book stores to make reasonable orders for books and push the percentage of actual sales without returns way up.

Yet, with the economy teetering some days, some fear a new great depression may be just over the horizon. If so, it may have a silver lining for the big publishers since, with their return policy in place, they might once again to the cat bird’s seat.

One thing for sure, the publishing industry and the marketing of books never gets boring.

When not plotting the overthrow of the publishing industry, Duncan Long works as a writer/illustrator. He’s seen 12 novels published by HarperCollins and has had over 1,000 book and magazine illustrations published by HarperCollins, Asimov Science Fiction Magazine, Delta Press, Pocket Books, ILEX, Paladin Press, etc., etc.) You can enjoy more of Long’s magazine and book illustrations at: Duncan’s Book and Magazine Illustrations