Read This, Then Jump Out the Window

Booksellers usually divide the year into three seasons: spring, fall and Holiday. But you may not know about a fourth one, and maybe it’s just as well, because you’re going to get good and depressed when we tell you about Returns Season.

Returns Season “comes near the tail-end of the fiscal year, when we can delay the inevitable no longer and have to send back books which we’d been holding on to as long as possible for sentimental reasons; books which ‘should’ sell,” blogs Charlotte Ashley, who we gather is a bookseller.

The shipping of books back to publishers for credit towards  new purchases represents the triumph of market reality over hope. “After all,” writes Ashley, “our job isn’t to snobbishly insist readers should be reading one thing or another, it’s to provide them with a good choice of things they might be interested in. So why, after years of failing to sell some of these books, do we keep ordering them? Optimism, I suppose.”

So? What kinds of books will be consigned to ignominy?

Young Adult Literature Not Featuring the Occult (“good, insightful plain fiction aimed at young adults? Forget it. Not that that stops us from filling the shelves with Glen Huser, Polly Horvath, Alan Cumyn, Tim Wynn-Jones and Paul Yee. We just have to send them all away again at the end of every year.”)

Chinese Literature (“Oh man, China. Its day in the literary limelight has not yet arrived. Gao Xingjian won the Nobel prize in 2000, the first Chinese writer to do so, but I defy you to name offhand a single book of his.”)

Post-Soviet Russian Novels (“I think I’d be safe in saying that post-soviet Russian novels are being completely ignored by Western media, critics and readers.”)

NYRB [New York Review of Books] Classics (“We do tend to order absolutely everything they publish because their books are so damn good, so when it comes time to return and we’re sending back most of them, it looks particularly bad.”)

If it’s any consolation to retailers, they should remember that those books are going back to publishers, who will now have to refund money they had hoped they would be able to keep. Who can forget publisher Alfred A. Knopf’s rueful comment about returns: “Gone today, here tomorrow.”

Misery loves company. So, to honor the fallen during Returns Season, let your local booksellers know your heart goes out to them.

The Sadness of Books We Can’t Sell

Richard Curtis


5 Responses to Read This, Then Jump Out the Window

  1. When I worked at a bookstore it seemed like we were doing returns constantly. There was not “returns season,” it was returns-two-weeks-of-every-month. Skids full of books going back to the warehouse to be returned to the publishers or, worse, boxes of strippable paperbacks going into the Dumpster after we’d torn off their covers to return as proof they had not sold.

  2. Devaki Khanna says:

    Why not sell these books at a discount to a) book shop assistants or b) students? Or give them to institutions where the inmates might not have access to the latest books published–old peoples’ homes and hospitals?

  3. Devaki: We do discount many unsold books at our shop, but even an independent bookseller generally returns 10-15% of their yearly stock to the publishers – far more than anyone could afford to take a loss on! We need the credits the publishers grant us to finance new, future purchases.

    Other Charlotte: Skids! That’s big-chain business. 😉 I’m glad we don’t deal with that kind of turnover; I’d probably have an aneurysm.

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