The Point of No Returns
Steve Mettee of Fresno, Calif.-based Quill Driver Books looks forward to a “hybrid” model, where risk (and expense) is shared between bookstores and publishers.
“We have to come to a hybrid: … If you are a store and you order two or three books, they [should not be] returnable; if you … order a lot, then 50 percent of those ought to be either returnable or … you ought to be able to give some kind of credit. Because we, as publishers, do not have any retail outlet, and when I get books back, I don’t have any way to sell them except for back through the distribution channel.”
The other significant factor going forward, he says, will be digital printing and/or delivery, with print-on-demand (POD) options reducing the need for large initial print runs and shipments, and book-at-a-time machines holding the potential to make the whole question of managing returns irrelevant.
“The higher book cost [of POD] is actually coming down,” notes Shanley. “Particularly if you look at university presses, where they are likely to sell small runs, it’s really becoming a way of life for them.”
As with everything else, the extent to which POD will alleviate the returns problem is an open question, mainly because its effect on front-list titles, where offset runs still dominate, is unclear.
A Digital Strategy With ‘Welcome Consequences’
If the strategy pursued by Hoboken, N.J.-based Wiley-Blackwell is any guide, the returns issue may be easier to manage in the scientific, technical, medical and scholarly (STMS) publishing world than in the trade sector (which is not to say trade companies could not learn a thing or two from STMS publishers’ recent experiences).
“Our digital strategy is a driver behind lowering returns,” says Wiley spokesperson Susan Spilka, who points to WileyPlus and CourseSmart as examples. WileyPLUS is a course management tool offering interactive online materials, including complete textbooks, while CourseSmart—a cooperative venture with Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, Bedford, Freeman & Worth, and Jones and Bartlett—lets students shop for textbooks in e-book format from a number of publishing companies at discounted prices (compared to printed versions).