Since I published my first book in 1993, I've been confused about the return policy our industry seems to accept. Now, several years down the road, I'm still having problems wrapping my brain around it. It is what it is, but I think it can better serve both Authors and Booksellers if we agreed to share the risk of returns.
According to the IngramSpark.com website...
"Historically, publishers grant booksellers the right to return unwanted and/or overstocked copies of books. These books are considered “returnable.” As books are returned, booksellers expect to be reimbursed for the cost (i.e. their purchase price) of any books they return.
"When you set up a new title in IngramSpark, you'll be required to select a returns option and will have 3 to choose from:
Why? Don't booksellers understand that being an author is risky enough? Don't they understand that authors are struggling to be successful? Since booksellers need books to stay open, one would think that they would bend over backward to help authors, not the opposite. Okay, enough whining.
The fact of the matter is, booksellers and authors have a symbiotic relationship. Booksellers will be forced to close their doors without the books we write, and authors need a place for readers to discover our work. Any intelligent person would be confused as to why an animal continually tries to rip off it's own head. It makes no sense.
Sure, I understand that booksellers take a risk in giving up their shelf's real estate to an unknown, unproven author's book. Books are not widgets. They are very specific pieces of subjective art, not only in the creation, but in the admiration. Marketing strategies change with each new title, and there is zero predictability about whether or not a book will do well. I understand the risk. As a veteran Indie Bookshop General Manager, I promise you, I get it. But booksellers aren't the only ones taking a risk.
The author is also taking a huge risk. Often times, I think that risk is either ignored or set aside, and I think it's important to remind... Books are valuable. Really great stories, memoirs, histories, explorations of our planet, advice, and instruction are not simply created out of a few pieces of paper, some cardstock, and ink. It takes months, sometimes years to write a book... longer if there are illustrations, photographs, charts, graphs, or research citations. Books are created out of an individual's heart, imagination, and resourcefulness. Books are art, not things that appear out of a robotic assembly line, or haphazardly produced on sweatshop floors by abused, underpaid workers. Books are exclusive in creation. No two are exactly alike. In fact, they can't be, by law - that would be plagiarism.
Authors risk everything about who they are to write a book. They risk their after "day job" free time, their self-esteem, their sleep, and sometimes, the marginalization of their families, as they write. But not only that... Independent Authors, especially, risk a lot of money in the process of writing a book. Editors, illustrators, cover designers, website designers, marketing experts, distribution fees, inventory, travel expenses (for festivals, speaking engagements, or bookshop appearances)... it really adds up. There is not only a big emotional and intellectual risk, but a huge financial risk when one makes a decision to write a book. If there wasn't, Traditional publishers wouldn't require "recoupment" before distributing royalties to authors.
On top of all that... booksellers expect full recovery for their risk, which means the author's risk is greater, still. You see, if a bookseller can't sell a book, they are permitted to return it to the distributor for a full refund PLUS shipping. I believe the return time is 180 days... that's SIX FULL MONTHS! Who eats that loss? The bookseller only loses a little bit of shelf space and perhaps some new "local author" stickers (if they're really nice). So, who's left to eat the loss? Not the distributor (in this case, IngramSpark). They've already been paid by the author to print the book and send it to the bookseller, so they don't lose anything.
So that leaves, you guessed it... the author. They are required to absorb all the costs of that loss. What's worse is that if the books are returned, the author must take the loss of the cost of the books, and the shipping from the bookseller to the distributor. Add insult to injury, these books are now considered "used", not "new". Oh, the author will get them back (but the distributor will charge the author again for shipping). However, because they are now considered "used" inventory, they are going to be especially difficult to sell, even on consignment.
There is another option... the author can request that the returned books be destroyed, then the author is spared the cost of the shipping... but they've lost those books and the cost to print them. Not paying shipping is little comfort when you consider everything an author has to go through to release a book out into the wild world.
Authors live under the constant threat of a double-edged sword. Between the creative energy to write, plus the financial risk to publish and distribute, it's a wonder any of us actually write and publish more than one book.
I think it's time we all embrace a new promise of integrity... some modicum of trust between the bookseller and the author. Why do we have to be in constant competition with one another? Why can't we rejoice in the fact that we are blessed to be working in an industry that feeds our souls and also improves our society? For without the written word in a readily accessible format, the power of choice over our own destiny will be relegated to the few left on Earth who can read and print books. Do we really want to return to a history where only the rich elite can read and write... and the remaining population must simply "go along" because we are deprived of books?
I have an idea for a solution. I envision a compromise between Booksellers, Authors, and Distributors that acknowledges that we're all in this industry to lift each other up, not compete against one another. We're in this industry to enhance the world's library, and strengthen world literacy toward creating a more advanced humanity, with diversity and empathy for everyone involved... Right?
So, here's my thought... Why can't we establish a system of returns that is mutually beneficial? When an author independently publishes, they can choose to allow a limited number of returned books within a more reasonable time frame, say three months (doesn't the rest of the world work on a quarterly basis?). The number of returnable books would be at the author's discretion, or perhaps within a negotiation between booksellers and authors, but never open-ended. If a bookseller wants to order more than the threshold return maximum, they can do that... but those extra copies won't be returnable.
If a bookseller determines that the book isn't selling to their satisfaction, they can then instigate the return, according to the limits negotiated in the distribution contract, with the forward shipping the responsibility of the distributor, the return shipping the responsibility of the bookseller, and the shipping from the distributor to the author of returned copies at the author's responsibility. This keeps the bookseller's risk manageable and doesn't overrun their shelves with unsold inventory while also alerting them to an author who may not be a good fit for their customer base. This "trial run" opportunity offers the bookseller a chance to gauge the buyer's inclination to purchase future books by a particular author, which may impact the bookseller's future marketing plans with far less liability.
In fact, this "limited quantity, early preview period" may give booksellers a greater advantage to arrange reading events with authors who are in higher demand, thus improving the shop's marketing momentum. Once an author is established as "worthy" (which means the bookseller actually sells at least the maximum return threshold), the next logical expectation would be that the author is one a bookseller can rely on to have a reader base, and therefore, future books written by the author would not be eligible for returns because the author would be considered "sale-able."
This arrangement also respectfully manages the author's loss. As long as an author has a clear understanding as to the number of books that may be returned, they can better plan for a failed distribution of a particular title. Authors can either plan to have that "unsold/used" inventory returned to them so that they can sell those copies at fairs and festivals at a discounted rate, or perhaps use those books as part of a giveaway program to augment their marketing goals, donate them to Little Free Libraries, schools or public libraries... or they can choose to take the complete loss on that small number of books, and have the copies destroyed.
Regardless, in this proposal, everyone is given the opportunity to manage their own risk, and their own loss, within a reasonable period of time so that they can plan for future contingencies. I believe this idea is a viable solution that supports the entire industry without the Authors suffering the brunt of a failed title distribution endeavor.
It's thoughts like these that make me wish I had more of a "political fire" in my belly; but I just don't. I'm a passionate Indie Author Advocate, and I would love to see a change in this area of our business... but I don't have the skills, patience, legal understanding, financial war chest, nor influence to realize the change I can imagine. I wish I did. But, that's simply not one of my strengths. So, for the time being, I will have to live with what is, along with all the other Indie Authors.
If anyone would like to build on this idea and implement a program, organize a lobby group, draft a petition, schedule a town hall meeting, develop a Kickstarter campaign, etc... I'm ready to be a participant and strong supporter - send me an email, and I'll do what I can to assist. I'm just not qualified to spearhead and create continuous momentum for such an undertaking. Until someone out there becomes a champion for this cause, I'll be waiting in the wings, figurative sword at the ready, pen in hand.
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