A Halfway House for Returnability Addicts

As we recently wrote, today’s publishing model based on the returnability of unsold books is no longer viable. (See A World Without Inventory Part 1 and Part 2). The digital revolution has created a highly successful, efficient new model relying on pre-ordered and prepaid books printed on demand.

You would therefore think that we ardently advocate doing completely away with the old system. In fact there are many compelling reasons why we would hate to see that happen.

Publishing pundit Mike Shatzkin has put his finger on them. In his blog Shatzkin offers several cogent arguments, and we urge you to read them. In essence, 1) overprinting can actually be profitable for publishers and authors even with high returns; and 2) without return privileges, publishers might simply decline to publish many books that they now accept.

Shatzkin gets no argument from us.  But it’s worth reminding readers that in the waning years of the 20th century the returnability privilege was manipulated by chain store operators who discovered that they could overorder without penalty, use returns as a form of currency to order more books, and delay settlements to publishers.  The havoc created by this abuse has been incalculable, driving cash-starved publishers into mergers with or acquisition by bigger publishers. The roll call of wonderful houses that succumbed is sad, and it is arguable that the only thing that put the brakes on this predatory behavior was the advent of a powerful rival – Amazon.com.

So yes, we’d love to see a reasonable, fair and reliable retailing model based on return privileges.  But e-books and print on demand now have an increasing grip on book retailing and, in Thomas Wolfe’s immortal phrase, you can’t go home again.

Richard Curtis


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