One of our authors recently contacted me to ask about her royalty statement. Her book was published four years ago and her most recent statement showed nearly as many books were returned as were sold during the reporting period. Returns are the bane of publishers and sometimes make me think the American publishing business model is broken — to say nothing of what boxes of books crisscrossing the country from publisher to distributor to bookstore — and back — and forth — uses in energy.
Q: My royalty statement shows book sales in typical numbers, but it also states returns that nearly equal the sales, resulting in very small net sales, and a small royalty check to match. What happened? Were the books really returned?
A: In a word, Dear Author, yes. Like it or not, to play in the sandbox of the huge national bookstore chains, we have to be willing to accept returns. Basically, it is a consignment business. We ship books to our distribution center in Kansas City. Our distributors call on store buyers in NYC who decide which books will go to which stores. Books are shipped either to corporate distribution centers, or occasionally, direct to the stores. Books go on the shelves and if they sell, this information will eventually be reported to distributor who will report to Stephens Press. Ultimately (it is a long, slow process) we’ll be sent payment for those books that shipped and sold months earlier.
It is the books that don’t sell right away that become subject to returns. How do the stores decide which books to send back to the distributor/publisher? We aren’t officially privy to that information, but we know that some buyers will put a return date into their computers at the time the order is placed. If it doesn’t sell in sufficient numbers within X weeks, it is adios for that book. Bookstores want to keep their inventory fresh (and why not, since the books haven’t been paid for?) so returns regularly occur as selling seasons change. Some stores may periodically “clean house” in a particular subject or a new title may push another on the same topic off the shelf. Eventually (six to twelve months, depending on contracts) the stores DO have to pay for the merchandise, sold or still on the shelf. That’s when returns may ramp up — and every publisher has a “returned today, reordered tomorrow” story.
So what happened with our author’s book? We can’t know for sure, but it is probably a bit of all of the above. Unfortunately, the current economic conditions suggest we’re going to see greater returns in coming months.