Perhaps no aspect of book publishing generates more wailing and gnashing of teeth than the practice of returns from bookstores. In a nutshell, whatever books a store buys from a publisher can be returned to them for full credit if customers don't buy them. And in some cases, it's as much as 40% of the books that the store bought initially. And often they're so beat up that they can't be resold.
Industry experts are always making the point that a grocery store can't send back unsold food to the farmer, or unsold fashions to the factory. So why does publishing have this singular albatross to bear? The mythology goes that it started in the early part of the last century, when Simon & Schuster decided to offer a returns option to booksellers in order to convince them to take a chance on crossword-puzzle books. And the fact that it continues to this day is testament to the relative power of the retailers.
I always try to be upfront with my authors about how returns work. They might be excited that Barnes and Noble, for example, has initially bought 600 copies of their book (commonly referred to as "sell in"). But six months later, if some of those books haven't sold to customers (referred to as "sell-through"), they'll be coming back in droves. This means that the authors won't be getting as much money in royalties as they thought they would. And really, not much makes them angrier.
I encourage my authors to get out there and promote the heck out of their books in the first few months, because the traffic they can drive to the stores largely determines whether bookstores will be ordering more copies--or sending back the ones they bought.
And some industry insiders say that if your returns rate is too low, it means you're not getting enough books out there. True, we sell a lot more books to the trade now, with a returns rate of about 25%, than we did when our returns rate was more like 5 or 10%. But ouch, it hurts.
As a publisher, I am biased on the issue. Returns should be abolished, or at least limited. The ability to return books willy-nilly absolves bookstore buyers of the responsibility of ordering in sensible quantities. It eats into a publisher's profits and an author's royalties. And it leaves a carbon footprint the size of Belgium.