The Path to Publishing, Part 9: Many Happy Returns

In previous Path to Publishing posts, we’ve talked about how important it is to make your book “Returnable” if you’re marketing it to bookstores. But what, exactly, does “Returnable” mean? And do you want the “Deliver” or “Destroy” option? When will the returns show up in your numbers? Will you be on the hook for them? Read on — all of your questions and more will be answered!

Most industries don’t allow stores to return goods that were purchased wholesale; the book industry is unusual in this respect. The practice began during the Great Depression when publishers wanted to encourage booksellers to take more chances on new authors, rather than relying on tried and true known winners. These days, traditional publishers consider a 20% return rate a fine number, and make predictions accordingly. For the self-publisher or small press, suddenly getting a large number of returns can be demoralizing and potentially crippling to one’s cash flow. 

That’s how we felt about it, until we figured out the trick to turning lemons into lemonade.

No Returns?

The first choice you need to make regarding returns is if you’ll allow them at all. On the Ingram Spark website when you’re entering the price for your book, you’ll see three options under “Return”: 

  • No
  • Yes – Deliver
  • Yes – Destroy

“No” simply means that you will not allow returns of any kind. Once Ingram sells your book to a bookstore, they cannot get their money back. Sounds good for you, right? 

Not so fast! Making your book “Returnable”, as noted previously, makes you a much more attractive prospect to bookstores. Why would they take a risk on a new, unknown author if they fear they’re going to have to eat the cost of the book if they can’t sell it? It was true in the Great Depression and it’s still true today: giving bookstores an out makes them more inclined to take a chance on you. Indeed, our experience has been that bookstores simply won’t carry anyone who doesn’t offer returns (and full discount on the retail price).

Get Back?

So, what about the other two options?

“Yes – Deliver” means that returns will be shipped to you. You will be charged the wholesale price (the amount that was refunded to the bookseller) plus an additional two dollars per book shipping cost. There’s no way to know how many books will be returned until Ingram ships you a box, at which point you’ll suddenly see a dip in your numbers as you’re charged for a bunch of returns plus shipping. It might even bring your numbers negative, and Ingram might even ask you to pay them to cover the cost! 

Sounds pretty scary, right? If you’re a small press on a shoestring, it definitely can be. But if you’re good at hand selling, these returns are also an opportunity. 

When you order author’s copies from Amazon or Ingram, you pay the print cost plus shipping. The wholesale price is often not much more than this. Essentially, you’ll be receiving a bunch of copies at the same discount a bookstore would purchase them at. And when you subtract the publisher’s compensation that you’ve already received, the result is that you’re only paying the print cost plus two dollars shipping per book. 

Since returned copies don’t cost much more than author’s copies, hand selling them can make you good money – a lot more money than selling through bookstores! (Why not just sell author’s copies all the time, then? Because it’s hard to scale hand selling. You make less per copy selling to bookstores, but your book is out in the world, being discovered and purchased in cities all over the country.) But for a return shipment, hand selling the returned copies is a viable option, especially if you have a local convention coming up that doesn’t charge too much for table space.

Will the returned copies you receive be in saleable condition? Yes! They should be in brand new condition, and if they aren’t, contact Ingram and let them know. You’re buying the books the bookstores don’t want, but you shouldn’t be receiving cast offs or seconds. 

The disadvantage to accepting returns is that you can’t control when you get them. Journey Press was in business for over a year before it received its first return shipment from Ingram! That first shipment will always be a shock when it shows up in your numbers, and it can be an unpleasant one if you need the cash. Since you’re paying for the books, the cost could be high, maybe even more than you’ve made from Ingram so far. 

You also can’t count on the returns coming when you might want them. You can’t say, for example, “I have a convention coming up; Ingram, please send me my returns before I buy some author’s copies!” It doesn’t work like that – Ingram will send the returns when they send them, and you don’t get a say. You’ll want to squirrel away a fair amount of cash to cover any returns you might unexpectedly get – enough to cover 20 to 25% of the books you’ve sold based on the wholesale price (not just the compensation you received). 

Don’t Want The Risk?

Given the downsides of the “Yes – Deliver” option,“Yes – Destroy” may sound like a better way to go. It’s actually not much more cost effective. In fact, it can end up being more expensive! “Yes – Destroy” doesn’t charge the publisher the $2.00 shipping fee for each book, because Ingram doesn’t ship the returned books to the publisher. Instead they — you guessed it — destroy them. Here’s the catch, though: the publisher is still on the hook for the wholesale price of each returned book. So you’ll end up paying the wholesale cost, but not receiving anything for it. You’ll pay less out of pocket, but you won’t have any books you can hand sell to cover the loss, either. It’s simpler and less expensive up front, but in the end, it can cost you more out of pocket. It’s also not great for the environment. 

The one big advantage of the “Yes – Destroy” option is that it registers the return as soon as the book is sent back to Ingram and destroyed. This means that the returns are spread out over time, showing up a few each month instead of a bunch all at once out of the blue. But they can still take a significant bite out of your bottom line — and you miss the opportunity to recoup the loss!

Summing up

Making a decision regarding returns is a tough choice. Do you mark your books as non-returnable and make yourself a less attractive prospect to bookstores? Do you mark them as “Yes – Deliver” and be ready to pay a large chunk of cash for a bunch of returned books at a time you have no control over? Do you mark them as “Yes – Destroy” and be prepared to pay a smaller, but still significant chunk of cash on a monthly basis for the privilege, with no option to make that money back? 

Journey Press made the choice to mark their books as “Yes – Deliver” for a number of reasons. Firstly, because we are a print-on-demand press, bookstores only order the number of copies they think they can sell. Rediscovery had a return rate of just 8.5% (which still meant two giant boxes of returns!) and our other books were under 5%. Given that 2020 was a pandemic year, and we lost several dozen stores we were in, those numbers are even more amazing.

Beyond that, we like hand selling, attend lots of conventions, and believe we can recoup the loss. 

But your situation may be different. You may not have sales opportunities. You may not have space to store lots of books. In that case, the “Yes – Destroy” option may be better for you. The important thing is to understand the risks and costs going in, and choose the best option for your situation. 

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