Returns and Their Dangers

Every author’s dream is to have their book on the shelves of bookstores around the world. While we all might be happy with e-book there’s something about the idea of walking into a bookstore and seeing your cover on an endcap makes our stomachs fill with butterflies. It’s exciting. However, it’s extremely dangerous in ways most people don’t realize.

When you are selling books in bulk to bookstores you need to be aware of returns. Bookstores are infamous for returns. If your book doesn’t move the number of copies they would like to within a certain time they are likely to ship you back a box of books and expect a full refund. The problem with that is these boxes of books are often in terrible condition and may even have been returned by readers who purchased them from the store. This situation has sunk many publishers, and it has caused indie authors a great deal of sorrow and pain over time. After all, most of us don’t have much money and if a bookstore gives us a few hundred dollars we might not have that money six months from now when they decide to return the books.

Setting up a return policy with a brick-and-mortar store is important. The first stipulation should be that the books returned to you must be in re-sellable condition. That means they can’t have torn covers, damaged pages, be water damaged, etc. That’s something that has happened many times, so you should be sure that you stipulate that with your distributor. Secondly, you should set up a reasonable time limit. Copies to be returned must be returned to you in “x” timeframe. If it’s beyond that then the store is SOL. Finally, you should ensure that the bookstore is responsible for shipping if they return books to you. I know that sounds a little ridiculous, but bookstores often try and nail the shipping charges onto their return because they want YOU to pay for it.

If all of this sounds like a terrible system – maybe even outright malicious – you are correct. The returns system for bookstores is essentially consignment. It’s not a good system, but it’s what we currently have. You may be able to negotiate with individual bookstores, but it’s overall a difficult circumstance. You need to be careful when negotiating your distribution. Otherwise you are going to be setting yourself up (and your authors, if you are a small publisher) for a world of pain.

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