Friday, January 13, 2012

Why I Don't Market My Books to Bookstores

Return Policy

I was so surprised. An email came into my inbox stating that one of my books was being returned and I should expect it in the mail. The email was from Lightning Source, my printer. I knew this could happen but I did not expect it to really happen. Who would ever want to return A Garden of Love?

I presume that the return came from a bookstore that had special ordered the book, but apparently this was not what the customer wanted. OK, I can accept that.

At the end of the month, my financial statement came as a second surprise, or more like a shock. For this transaction, my account was debited the cost that the bookstore paid for the book (not my wholesale price), and I was charged a fee for redistributing the book back to me. The effect was I paid $1 less than full retail price on this transaction.

In this case, the book was returned in excellent condition, but that is not always true. Yesterday I met with a small publisher that told how a bookstore was regularly returning books that had obviously been read. In a short period of time, this bookstore had returned fifteen books. In order to avoid customer dissatisfaction, this store's policy was to accept returns from their customer regardless of the book's condition. The result was the publisher had fifteen new, slightly used, and obviously used books on his hand.

When a book is returned from the bookstore, three choices are possible: return it to the publisher which is what happened to me, shred it (I believe there is a shredding fee), or sell it to a company that remarkets used books. If it is sold to a remarketer, which means that your book ends up competing against your other new books on Amazon at a dramatically reduced price, or it gets sold to a bookstore to be displayed in the bargain book section. You would earn a little bit on remarketed books, but is it worth it?

Another option is to mark the book as non-returnable which means that once sold, the retailer is stuck with it. Sounds attractive, but that is not the way that the bookstore industry normally works. Most bookstores are struggling in today's economy as witnessed by the closing of Border's bookstores last year. They have a huge overhead in their payroll, building costs, and inventory. As a consequence, many bookstores are looking for 55% of the retail cost of each book to offset their expense stream.

I think it was in 2011, or maybe it was in 2010, where a major Christian bookstore chain decided to return all the books that were not moving quickly from their shelves. That meant that after their inventory was conducted across several hundred bookstores, boxes and boxes of books were returned to the publisher, shredded, or sold as used books by a remarketer. Bookstores typically look at a two-year window for most books, after which they are removed from the shelf and replaced with new titles that might stir the consumer's heart. In this case, that process was greatly accelerated.

As an independent self-publisher, I have to really ask myself, "Do I want to play that game?" Can I really afford to have boxes of books that I once thought were great sales now returned to me?

My solution, for now anyhow, is to mark all of my books returnable to me, but set the title to have a very low discount rate. My printer allows a 20% discount rate which means bookstores won't touch my books unless they are special orders. The question each Christian publisher must as is, "If God is really in this, what is the best marketing strategy that will exalt His name?"

For other articles about self-publishing in this series, see:
Index of Self-Publishing Articles by Thomas B. Clarke