Are we at the tipping point for returns?

Edward Nawotka, writing on Bloomberg.com in an article titled As Books Fill Dumps, Publishers Target Return Policy, points out that US publishers and retailers are becoming increasingly aware of the insanity of selling books to stores on “returnable” terms. He quotes industry statistics that, in 2005, some 465 million books were wasted in the USA.

Can we dare hope that the tide is turning? No longer is the concept of ending returns considered heretical. Now we are seeing many prominent people clearly stating that the practice is financially terrible for publishers, booksellers and consumers. And the environmental problems may push us over the tipping point. Can we, in good conscience, squander so much paper, fresh water and other resources? As fuel prices rise, so does the cost of heating and air conditioning all those warehouses of extra books. And the shipping of books back and forth and back and forth across the continent will be an expense that eats any hopes of profits.

USA-based publishers may not be aware that Canadian publishers have commissioned a study to pin down the actual cost of returns, and to examine alternatives. The study is being conducted by BookNet Canada. Remember: these are Canadians, generally a cautious people, so don’t expect radical pronouncements. However, it is a step in the right direction and one of the many we’ll need to take to get the book publishing industry over that tipping point.

BookNet itself may consider it best to “better manage” returns, since that’s in line with BookNet’s mandate – providing timely sales data. I’m on record for dumping the whole return system entirely, so we save all the human resources as well. With a tightening labour market, bookstores will eventually have to pay more than minimum wage to those clerks who are doing inventory, wrapping and shipping any returns.

Let’s seize the opportunity to re-figure the discounts and divvy up the savings to the advantage of publishers, booksellers, authors and consumers. Imagine allocating a few billion dollars of savings every year.

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