Cover Story: Rethinking a World With No Returns
Returns remain a problem for the book publishing industry, although changes to the book-selling landscape brought about by Internet retail, e-books and new distribution models seem destined to make the issue loom less large than it did when mega-bookstores ruled the retail roost.
New options for alleviating the returns burden have proven much easier than attempting to alter the old system. Former HarperStudio President Bob Miller (now at Workman Publishing) recently told an audience at the BookNet Canada Technology Forum that, although the now-shuttered Harper Collins imprint was able to work out deals with a number of book-sellers, many top accounts simply were not willing to accept the inventory risk involved in HarperStudio's offer: discounts on titles in exchange for a no-returns agreement.
"We spent a lot of time trying to come up with terms that were attractive and get accounts on board, and we did get a lot of major accounts on board … [but] by the end of the two years, it became a reason not to buy speculative material," Miller said. "It was too often used as a reason not to take a position, and ultimately, we let go of the nonreturnable approach just in the interest of distributing books we believed in as publishers."
Ultimately, HarperStudio's desire to innovate in distribution ran up against the desire to aggressively court and develop unproven talent—and the latter won. The lesson here might be that, while everyone would like to see returns go away, the gains from changing the system often do not trump the risks involved or the greater benefits seen from prioritizing innovation in other areas.
While Harper Collins has, for now, abandoned its no-returns experiment ("… it was a very complicated program to establish, and we learned a lot," comments company spokesperson Eric Crum), other publishers continue to tinker with various no- or limited-return arrangements.