BookMachine | It’s not you, it’s me: is it time to divorce the returns system?

BookMachine_logoBookMachine time of the fortnight again – this time, should we be getting rid of the returns system in publishing? Read more here.

Publishing is an unusual industry in many ways, yet perhaps the most bizarre of its kinks is the returns system. Under this system, provided certain criteria are met, booksellers of all kinds are able to return unsold books back to their original publisher. The publisher then has to refund their value and either house the overstock or pulp it.

But has the system become more damaging than it is profitable? And where, when no other industry conducts this practice, did it originate?

Keeping booksellers afloat

The origins of the returns system are publishing legend. While many claim its originator was Simon & Schuster, there doesn’t seem to be any available hard evidence to back that up. What does seem clear is that returns contracts first became popular during the Great Depression, when books were selling badly. It helped give publishers a competitive edge, by allowing bookstores to take chances on large print runs when it wasn’t clear whether or not the book would sell.

By the end of the Great Depression, it had become common practice, and today it is an embedded part of the industry. Were returns to disappear overnight, it would cause chaos. However, there are arguably more problems associated with returns than benefits, especially for publishers… [READ MORE]

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