8.10.2005

the return of Returns

A snarkling writes:

An independent bookstore buying from the Ingram Book Group can only return 10% of their overall purchase history. That's not a lot of returns for a small bookstore. And so, while an independent can purchase what they want and display it anywhere they please (unlike a big box) we still have to take care of the quantity we buy and can't take great advantage of "taking a loss" like a big box and buy huge stock only to return huge stock.


Indie bookstores account for about 17% of general consumer book sales. WalMart and the box stores count for 50% or more.

Not too long ago a Barnes and Noble in the town of Miss Snark's alma mater decided to move to a new space across the parking lot. It was a sum total of 478 yards. Miss Snark, laughingly, asked the Community Relations manager if they would be seeking volunteers to wheel the books across the lot.

"oh no," she heard, "we'll just return all these and get new ones sent to the new store.
That way the store never closes and our patrons aren't inconvenienced."

After Miss Snark revived, she realized that any business model that made it cost effective to return every piece of merchandise in the store rather than trundle it 478 yards (and this wasn't in the snow or 100 degree heat either) was seriously out of whack.

If the big box stores ran on the same return requirements that the indies do, it might be a darn sight better.

One third of the cost of a hard cover book is the cost of returns.

I'd love to be paying less for my next copies of Alan Furst, Dan Fesperman, Jennifer Weiner and Harlen Coben...particularly since it would not mean the authors got less.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Publishing may well go the way of itunes. I'm as much of an old fart as the next fellow, but if they could produce, and I don't see why they couldn't, an electronic device to which you could download books that would be as convenient to hold and as legible as a paper book, I'd buy it.

What happens to bookstores then?

What's more, for those with failing memories or who are reading Russian novels, how easy would it be to do a search on a name and refresh your memory where the character first turned up and whose lover and aunt she is. (A side concern, I don't see why novels can't have indexes.) Plus think of the graphics possibilities for nonfiction (or fiction for that matter).

I told my son he needs to get some books for the vacation. He said he could just download some books to his ipod. Audio books, to be sure, but no reason why it couldn't be text.

Anonymous said...

To follow-up, this could be just the thing, electronic ink, which will display on paper. You will have an ebook reader that looks like a book:

http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/e-ink.htm

Molly said...

*boggle*

I'm stunned by the B&N business model. Would it really be cheaper to pack old books, adjust inventory, mail them, then receive new books, enter them into inventory and shelve than to close the old store for one day to pack, move, and reshelve the books/cds etc in 24 hours?

Given the slowness of bookstores during certain weeekdays, hard to imagine.

The Gambino Crime Family said...

Actually, I think bookstores would probably thrive under the e-book model. If nothing else, the instant gratification would draw in readers. Think about it. You want a copy of that book and you want it NOW. No going through Abe Books. No having to wait a whole week for them to Fedex it to you. Just walk up to the counter, hand over your money and presto - instant book.

Christine said...

See, now Miss Snark, I think you've given yourself away with this post. I won't say anymore, but I've done a little digging (very little, it wasn't that hard) and I'm pretty sure I've found who you are.

And I agree about the bookstores. They're nuts. I also hate the thought of e-books on download. I enjoy the paper variety too much. I love nothing better than a room full of books that I enjoy, that wait for me to come and pluck one from the shelves.

But that's me.

And thanks for answering the "when to get an agent" question. I'm still tossing around the idea of querying again. Pretty sure my current publisher is going to make an offer on my next book.

Anonymous said...

The downside of that, gambino, is that all those really bad POD, self published and PA books (not that all of them are bad, but you know most are) also wind up for instant download. That floods the market with bad material. The only thing keeping those horrid things out of the stores is the short discount, non-returnability. You still have to order those things, which is probably a good thing.

And what about children's books - chapter books and younger? Heavily illustrated picture books. I enjoy reading to my little monster, and I don't think small kids would enjoy e-books as much.

I think it's a good idea for college textbooks though - those things are expensive.

Molly said...

Yeah, the reference to the B&N moving in the town of alma mater made me pause too. :)

kitty said...

My mother was a high school librarian. When the school district built a new high school a couple of miles away, she had volunteers help her transfer everything, even the used paper clips & rubber bands. It required one day and a few pizzas, but we did it. She'd cringe at your tale.

DLGarfinkle said...

That is appalling. I wish the publishers would put their collective feet down and start charging for the shipping. Although, then of course there's the worry that books from new authors won't be ordered at all.

My novel was returned to the publisher after 2 months at B&N. I pointed out to the manager of my local B&N that I write a bylined column for the local paper and that my book had been selling steadily at her store-- in fact they'd just gotten in a new order a few days before they were shipped back. The manager then reordered the books they'd just shipped back. It's crazy.

Anonymous said...

re Snark's id: Yes, but you would have to know a town in which a BandN moved across a parking lot and then read lots of agent bios.

Miss Snark said...

Miss Snark attended the Young Ladies School for Deportment and Decorum and graduated Summa Cum Loud. The school is near Boston. Investigate on, dear Snarklings. After all...you're writers. You'll do ANYTHING to avoid putting cursor to screen, right? (that idea is stolen from Erica Jong who said the reason all writers write such lovely letters is they will do anything to avoid working on their novels).

Miss Snark herself is avoiding work this morning. One of the great benefits of this job is being able to esconce one's self on the couch, pick up a pretty good novel, and read it with a clear conscience. There's a reason Miss Snark acquires all her crime fiction in the summer...it's MUCH more fun to read.

Anonymous said...

It's called down time, Miss Snark, before we go back to our "elegant prose" to look for those unnecessary adverbs and dangling participles and make our ms more prose erectus.

Christine said...

Oh, yeah, I'm a huge cat vacuumer. I fill a huge amount of time proofreading stuff for other writers for money. Saves me from having to look at my own work, and at the same time, shows me how bad some people really write.

And my glimpse at Miss Snark's identity had nothing to do with the B&N. I can't be absolutely certain of her identity, but it's possible you may even find the answer on this very page...

Anonymous said...

Well, to get back on the subject of returns, maybe the trick is to just stare at the blinking cursor, and to understand that it's all going to end up as compost via the returns, and . . . and. . . be a blogger.

kevin said...

"Publishing may well go the way of itunes. I'm as much of an old fart as the next fellow, but if they could produce, and I don't see why they couldn't, an electronic device to which you could download books that would be as convenient to hold and as legible as a paper book, I'd buy it."

I dunno. I am a youngish (33) geek. I program for a living, get practically all my news from the internet (the local paper is a joke, and, hey, you try and follow the White Sox from Memphis any other way), obviously read blogs, read a lot of fiction online, am a member of an online crit community, and even contribute to a blog. I love technolgy for technologies sake, in many ways. I switched to CDs as soon as my teneage self could save the three hundred bucks for a cd player. I bought a Tivo almost as soon as they were for sale. I lust after new computers. I could even see the point of getting newspapers and magazines in such a device.

And yet.

Books are easy. They never crash. There are no format issues. The batteries never die, and there is never screen glare. I can take them outside and watch the kids play in the sprinkler without fear of losing a hundred dollar investment. I can share them with friends (and I seriously doubt that any reader commerically sold will allow you to do that). I can fold them, and stuff them in places they don't quite fit without having to worry about damaging them. I never have to worry that the next software upgrade will make my library obsolete.

In short, books are exquisitly designed for thier primary purpose, and while e-readers to make some things simpler and more convinient, I don't think that the benefits are enough to get people to move away from paper books.

"Actually, I think bookstores would probably thrive under the e-book model. If nothing else, the instant gratification would draw in readers. Think about it. You want a copy of that book and you want it NOW. No going through Abe Books. No having to wait a whole week for them to Fedex it to you. Just walk up to the counter, hand over your money and presto - instant book."

But why couldn't I do the same thing at, say Abe Books or Amazon?

kitty said...

I love the feel of books, holding them, curling up with a quilt on a stormy night with them to read.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, that was very nicely said. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

It's like this, Miss Snark, shweetheart, the guy in the rumpled suit and the gravelly voice said we should check out the "bisness", get the dope, the clues,the deals ya know, on what's goin' on down here in the apple before we take a bite out of it, ya know,and try to make our cut, and that includes you, shweeheart.
Just takin' care of bisness.

Anonymous said...

You're all neglecting my reference to electronic ink, which will use paper, look like a book, but be downloadable. And I'll bet there were lots of folks vowing they would never give up handwritten books when Gutenberg came on the scene.

http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/e-ink.htm

"The Holy Grail of electronic ink technology is a digital book that can typeset itself and that readers could leaf through just as if it were made of regular paper. Such a book could be programmed to display the text from Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," and once you've finished that tale, you could automatically replace it by wirelessly downloading the latest "Harry Potter" book from a computer database. In May 2000, E Ink CEO Jim Iuliano predicted that electronic books could be possible by 2003 or 2004. Xerox has introduced plans to insert a memory device into the spine of the book, which would allow users to alternate between up to 10 books stored on the device."

It may not have happened yet, but it will.

The Gambino Crime Family said...

Kevin,

"But why couldn't I do the same thing at, say Abe Books or Amazon?"

I love Abe Books. I buy about ten to fifteen books through them every year. It's a delightful site. But I live here in London and I hate waiting two or three weeks for a book to show up on my door.

I probably wouldn't buy "new" new books through a print-on-demand outlet but if it's a book I've been wanting to read for a while (and the price was around the same as it would be used), I'd definitely go there. And with model, at least the author would get some royalties, as opposed to being their book second-hand...

kevin said...

Anon at 3:35 -- thanks for the kind words

gambino

I misunderstood -- I thought you were refering to ebooks, not paper books.

Anon with the eprint:

That is very cool indeed, but I think it only helps with regard to feel. The thing is still a machine, and it will still have all of the associated problems of persoanl electronics: battery life, fragility, operating system issues, etc. As much as a I love new technology, some designs are just perfect, and I think as long as paper is affordable, traditional books are close to perfect for they way people use them.