Any keen observer on Twitter will know what life is like for today’s Indie Bookseller:
We host enlightening mulitimedia events, instigate high-profile national campaigns, collaborate with critically-acclaimed authors, and bring cultural nourishment to educational establishments and the general public.
Meanwhile, a celebrated children’s illustrator will be transforming our shop window display, while our staff members project empowering messages to the world across a range of social media platforms.
The question remains however:
What do we do on the other 361 days of the year?
Well, the main answer is: we sell stuff (hopefully), but one thing we also do a lot of, and this is something you probably won’t read about on Twitter, is Returns.
That’s right. We send books back.
It should be pointed out from the outset that bookshops are in a very fortunate and possibly unique position when it comes to being able to return books to Publishers.
Whenever I mention this returns allowance to retailers of other (inferior!) products, they are always rather astounded:
What, you mean you can just send back stuff that you don’t sell. God, how much easier could running a bookshop actually be?
Yes, all those other shops have to hang on to their unsellables or reduce them in price.
We the booksellers are truly blessed.
My introduction to the world of Returns was as follows:
I had started working at a Chain Bookshop, a position I described at the time as being a “stepping stone job.” Ha!
One day I innocently ventured into the storeroom and came across one of my colleagues forcefully stripping the front and back covers from a pile of paperback Penguin Classics.
This it turned out was the returns procedure for sending back books to Penguin: they required both covers to be returned.
From my point of view, this discovery was quite disturbing.
It was rather akin to getting a job in a pet shop and finding an abattoir situated just off the shop floor.
I was tempted to sneak up on my colleague and administer a firm blow to the head. A hardback copy of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal would have done the trick.
I didn’t do this (thankfully) and my colleague’s act of apparent cultural destruction was swiftly explained to me.
I also received twenty free coverless Penguin Classics, possibly as a sweetener: I still had a crazed look in my eye.
As well as the covers, the book spines were stripped bare too, so I had to use felt tip to label them all.
You can still spot these felt-tipped “naked” Penguin Books on the shelves of many a bookseller or ex-bookseller.
It was interesting that Horace’s Odes had managed to spend a good part of 2000 years in print, but couldn’t seem to pass whatever stringent criteria this urban bookshop deemed fit to apply.
Sorry, Horace. Not for us I’m afraid. Rip! Slash!
I couldn’t understand at the time why these books couldn’t be sent back to Penguin as whole items, you know, just on the vague off chance that another shop might want to order Horace’s Odes at some point in the following 2000 years, but as we can see, the returns procedure can be a bit brutal.
Fans of the book as item: please avert your eyes.
Back in those days, the process for receiving returns authorisation from a publisher was somewhat slapdash.
Invariably it involved the following on the bookseller’s part:
a) Fill out returns request form.
b) Wait for sales rep to add signature to form.
c) Find out why sales rep seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.
Reps somehow seemed to know when returns requests were heading their way and would consequently lie very low. Awareness of returns was a seventh sense.
If you were lucky enough to receive authorisation (Sometimes you could ambush the rep in the nearest coffee house) then all that was left was to work out how to split the quadruplicate form up into its various parts:
- One coloured sheet had to go with the books.
- One had to go to the rep.
- One had to go to Accounts.
- One had to stay on file.
- One had to affix to the box and
- One had to cry wee wee wee all the way home.
Well you get the idea. It was complicated. Enough said.
In 1997/1998 the Publishers Association and the Booksellers Association employed auditors KPMG to undertake a detailed analysis of the book trade and the book industry supply chain.
(Half-assed Google research by blogger alert!!)
The subject of Returns was a huge part of this, as it was estimated to be costing the industry 100 million pounds per year.
A conference took place at Eynsham Hall in 1999 with the aim of completely overhauling the system.
It was attended by all the trade bigwigs: Harper Collins, Penguin, Random House, WHSmith, Ottakers.
This conference doesn’t tend to get as much press as, say:
- The Potsdam Conference.
- The G20 Summit.
- That one where all those overweight Mobsters and Mafia guys ended up legging it through muddy fields and over fences (or was that just on The Sopranos? I forget.)
but in its own way, it was very important.
You can read all about the conference and its attempt to tackle returns here.
This is definitely recommended reading for lovers of flowcharts and sentences like:
“Harnessing the potential of electronic commerce to facilitate returns and information sharing processes.”
This may sound like a rather dull Keynote address, granted, but as a whole, this conference was actually part of something very revolutionary in the book trade, leading as it did to the setting up of an all-new returns process that the book trade still utilizes today.
Whereas the old system relied on reps and pieces of paper, the new system involved electronic requests via Batch and agreed returns parameters across the whole book trade, namely that books must be returned within 3 – 15 months of being invoiced.
One immediate benefit of this new system is that at no point does today’s bookseller have to confess to any actual human being that they ordered 20 copies of Paris Hilton’s Confessions of an Heiress (ahem).
Now the books can just be quietly returned at the press of a button, anonymously and fuss-free.
Also introduced as a result of this conference were the seven automated returns responses, namely:
- Exceeds quantity supplied.
- Too Early.
- Too Late.
- Supplied Firm Sale.
- Cap Exceeded.
- No Longer Supplied By Us.
These were a bit like the seven deadly sins, but with less lust and more electronic pre-authorisation.
The new responses were a significant improvement on previous returns responses received from Reps:
I’m outta here.
Come on, love. Give it another two months. It’ll sell like hotcakes I promise you, or my name’s not Barry. Would I let you down? Would I?
Another imposed change was one that many Booksellers will be familiar with when sending returns requests via Batch, namely the introduction of:
- Green Box (where the book is returned for re-stocking) and
- Red Box (where the book is destined for destruction).
Yes, sending a returns request to publishers suddenly became half Sorting Hat half Grim Reaper, as the bookseller patiently waits by their computer for a colour to be allocated and the fate of the books to be sealed.
- Green Box returns are sent back to a cheery world of carefree staff, neat shelving, white light and distant bird song, while
- Red Box returns are tipped straight out of the box into a huge subterranean fiery pit populated by hell’s own hounds. Possibly.
It has to be said, if I meet an author whose books have been Red Box-ed, I do find it very hard to look them in the eye.
How is any bookseller expected to conceal such dread knowledge?
So why do booksellers return a book?
Unless you have a personal grudge against a particular author
(She was rude to me at a book launch. Back you go.)
the simple answer is:
The Book Isn’t Selling.
Shelf space is at a premium in small shops and there are always other books coming along that are newer and which might sell more copies from the same space.
There is no room for passengers.
Last year I returned an unsold hardback fiction title by a new author. Let’s call it Book X.
I’d given it three months.
At this point, the author was still launching Book X, attending events and happily tweeting links to a new favourable Guardian review, but I’d moved on.
Sounds very harsh, I know (I’d met the author and she was lovely) but there we go.
We are fortunate as booksellers that we can attach ourselves to any author and then drop them again at will in favour of somebody else. We can always back the winning horse, so to speak.
What about Book X in paperback?
Well, my shop only stocks a small percentage of new paperback fiction titles to start with.
There is still a possibility that we will stock Book X in paperback though, in spite of not selling the hardback.
However if Book X (the paperback) doesn’t sell within the first three months, it is also very likely to be returned to the Publishers.
If it does manage to sell, unfortunately this is still no guarantee that we won’t return it six months after publication date, as sales tend to tail off as customers are drawn towards newer titles.
Only a very few new fiction paperbacks make it as far as our backlist fiction section, six months (or more) after publication.
And even if Book X does make it here, it is still not entirely safe from being returned.
It will still need to sell to earn its place, and this becomes increasingly difficult as time passes.
Many of the titles that we do sell from our backlist Fiction section will be books which we recommend personally.
This is probably the best guarantee for continued fiction sales, if:
- Your book hasn’t been turned into a critically-acclaimed Emmy-nominated TV series, or
- You don’t happen to be Neil Gaiman.
There are a few authors whose backlist fiction titles sell without overt bookseller recommendation but not that many.
To show just how volatile fiction sales can be, let’s have a look at Booker Prize-winning novels:
Ignoring the current winner (George Saunders – Lincoln in the Bardo) which is being published in paperback in 2018, of the previous twenty Booker winners, there are only six titles which we now keep in my shop, which includes two in the same series by Hilary Mantel.
The other fourteen winning books have either been returned, not re-ordered or not stocked/asked for in the first place. One recent winner managed to sell a grand total of zero copies.
This may of course reflect the type of non-commercial books that win prizes, or a tendency for the public to buy older fiction titles second-hand, but it’s true to say, in my shop certainly, that winning a major book prize is not a guarantee of backlist (and sometimes even frontlist) sales.
So you can only imagine what it is must be like for all those literary novelists that haven’t won the Booker Prize.
Like our lovely author of Book X.
So it’s tough to get your book into an Indie Bookshop, and just as tough to keep it there.
The constant flow of new titles does make bookselling very exciting, but it also renders the returns process pretty necessary.
Consequently, a book which was the product of many years of labour can seem to come and go in the flick of an eye.
January can be quite a key time for returns.
It is generally a quiet month, so it is very tempting to have books leave the shop in boxes, if not in bags.
I always say that January is my chance to get rid of all the crap I ordered in for Christmas, so I can get back to selling my actual bestsellers.
There is some truth in this!
At the moment (and I’m sure I’m not alone here) I am thinking about returning unsold Ladybird Parody books.
After two successful Parody Christmases, this was the year that the public seemed to say “no more” and it was noticeable that these titles, and all the other Parodies they inspired, failed to reach any of the December bestsellers charts.
Ladybird/Penguin probably didn’t help matters in 2017 by:
- putting the prices up from 6.99 to 7.99 and
- not quite having the right titles:
Customer: “Is there a Ladybird Book of The Wedding?”
Bookseller: “Not as such, but if you buy The Husband and The Wife, that should do the trick.”
Customer: “Is there a Ladybird Book of Retirement?”
Bookseller: “Not as such, but if you buy New You, Balls and Zombie Apocalypse, that should do the… OK, it’s going have to be a no.”
Either way, the public had lost interest and I’m sure Penguin Books are bracing themselves for a wave of Parody returns, to add to any unsold copies.
As for booksellers, yep, we’ve all moved on to the next trend:
Books on Inspirational Women.
This is where it’s at right now, after the success of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, a book distributed by .…… Penguin.
Well, I guess a good publisher will have their finger in a lot of pies.
Let’s hope we’re not sat around though, this time in 2020, saying:
“Oh God. Not more books about strong female role models? What were we thinking? Send them all back. That’s SO 2017. Next!”
Most bookshops tend to return unsold hardback copies of a book (or trade paperbacks) when the paperback comes out, usually nine months after the hardback. It is rare to stock both editions.
When the paperback edition of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End was brought forward by a couple of months last year, I’m sure this lead to a sudden flurry of hardback returns heading the publisher’s way.
What’s more, stocking both the hardback and paperback of a book can be a sign that a shop is not quite on top of returns.
(Obviously not the Adult Cover Editions though. That would be ridiculous.)
Most shops have stock control systems these days which can help identify returnable books by showing them in great detail which books aren’t selling over any period of time.
I use mine all the time, and it is useful for stopping the more unlikely unsold books from slipping through the net.
Sometimes however I do just return a book from a gut feeling, or in the case of autobiographies, because:
“I just don’t want to be looking at his/her face anymore.”
Bookshops that do no returns whatsoever may run the risk of their shop turning, over time, into a sort of ramshackle literary museum, featuring a mishmash of yellowing faded stock and out-of-print oddities, or as it’s known in the book trade: Foyles 1945-1999.
Or maybe some shops are just extremely good at ordering in the first place.
This is not something I could ever be accused of. My staff will testify to this.
Sometimes, in Indie Bookshops, you do come across the occasional Returns-Free section, where the spirit of vintage Foyles lives on.
This could well be the owner’s hobby section, on a subject very close to his/her (and no-one else’s) heart.
Any suggestion by staff members that items from this section should be returned are met with an immediate hard stare and prolonged silent treatment.
If you go into an Indie Bookshop and see any of the following:
- A whole shelf of Latvian micropublishers.
- The novels of Kyril Bonfiglioli.
- A Planetary Romance section.
- The Popul Vuh bay.
You could be venturing into a returns-free wilderness.
Though one or two of you are probably thinking:
Hey, that sounds like a bookshop worth visiting!
It is worth pointing out, just in case you thought we had it too easy, that booksellers who use wholesalers (Bertrams and Gardners) can return a percentage of books based on the value of books ordered.
This might say be 12% depending on the arrangement.
So, if you buy 100 pounds worth of books from Bertrams, this would lead to a returns entitlement of 12 pounds i.e. you can send books back up to the value of 12 pounds.
The more trade you send their way, the more you can return.
This encourages a degree of caution in ordering which is probably a good thing.
If I could cavalierly order 500 copies of a book and then send them all back, this really wouldn’t be helping anyone, least of all the publishers.
New shops will often get a one-off returns allowance of 100% on opening stock to help them find their feet, or in case they want to send it all back and open a Nail Bar instead.
When returning books to a wholesaler, the following can usually be relied on to happen:
a) As you pack up your books to be returned, customers will gather round the boxes and start plucking out all your previously-ignored stock in a state of feverish excitement. They won’t necessarily buy any of it but they will certainly get in your way and delay you considerably.
b) Once all six boxes are safely sealed and labelled, somebody will come straight in and ask you for one of the enclosed books. This is a tricky situation. You will probably have to:
- spend 15 minutes rummaging wildly through all your meticulously-packed boxes.
- heave forth the requested book right from the bottom of the last box, damaging many more books in the process.
- unleash a sea of packing material across an immeasurably wide area.
- assume an air of crazed dishevelment.
- receive the following reaction from the customer:
Ah, no. It’s not what I thought it was.
No, far better that the customer should ask for a book after the boxes have left the shop, whereupon you can shake your head forlornly and say:
That ship has sailed, amigo.
c) An author may well visit your shop while you are returning their very book. If this happens, you must immediately pretend that you are actually putting their book out, along with those twenty seven different Adult Colouring Books.
Books that my shop return to a wholesaler may well get sent out subsequently to a different shop.
One shop’s turkey is another’s golden goose.
This arrangement makes me feel better about returning books, especially those by authors I have met.
It is quite common for us to receive books with another retailer’s (usually unremovable) price tag on the front.
In the past, we have received books featuring:
- Waterstones, Foyles and Tesco’s price tags.
- The occasional 3 for 2 sticker plus
- A signed copy sticker and the following dedication from the author: Get Well Soon Christopher.
The latter was quite a tough sell.
Proof if need be that books move in mysterious ways.
We all like the idea of books being redistributed around the book trade but having said that, no shop wants to receive a book that looks like it has spent the best part of a year on another retailer’s shelves.
This is why wholesalers insist on books being returned in mint condition, which is easier said than done.
On the odd occasion we have had a slightly shop-soiled book to send back, the subject of where exactly to place it in the box in order to gain credit has caused many a debate between me and my staff.
(Oh yes. We like to tackle the big subjects here. Literary salons eat your heart out!!).
One-book-up-from-the-bottom works for me, though many of my staff opt for the “hiding in plain sight” right-at-the-top-of-the-box option. Amateurs.
I once toyed with the idea of accompanying some less-than-perfect returns with a re-gifted box of Turkish Delights as a backhander.
This may have been counterproductive however, as suspicious unpackers might have been more meticulous as a consequence, or the books might have arrived, after a particularly rough journey, with a light dusting of icing sugar.
Also, there is always a danger with wholesalers that they might just have sent the Turkish Delight back to me, accompanied by an invoice for “unauthorised return.”
A lot of books arrive at our shop damaged and in an unsellable condition. People new to bookselling maybe don’t anticipate how common this phenomenon is.
Why are they damaged?
- Where many copies of one hardback have been double shrink-wrapped together and packed tightly in a box, one thud to the corner edge of the box can render six copies unsellable in one go.
- In the case of a lot of different-sized titles being packed into one box (ie from wholesalers), a particularly rough cross-country journey can lead to a large number of books arriving damaged. One of my staff once opened a wholesaler’s box and declared:
Christ. It looks like some kind of book orgy has taken place.
It is also amazing how many delivery drivers bring boxes of books into bookshops with them tilted on their sides.
If this is what happens when you are watching, imagine the mayhem that occurs on the rest of the journey.
Somebody reading this (hello Mum) might say:
Why not just put the book out anyway? Who cares about a small dent or a folded corner?
Unfortunately, a lot of people do.
Customers buying from a new bookshop generally want a pristine copy. They will often refuse to purchase a book even with the slightest fault.
Yes, there are a few people who don’t give a flying one, but we have to cater for everyone and give ourselves the best chance we can of selling each book.
Also, as we’ve seen, if we want to return a book as unsold somewhere down the line, it needs to go back to Bertrams/Gardners in mint condition in order to receive credit. So there is no point letting a damaged book through our net.
It is not uncommon for the number of damaged books received in the course of a week to stretch into double figures. All these have to be reported to the publisher or wholesaler.
When reporting to Gardners (by e-mail or phone), they do insist on knowing the exact nature of the damage, whereas Bertrams and most publishers seem to take you at your word.
I do find I have now run out of ways of describing damaged books to Gardners.
So the books just tend to be:
“bashed”,” dented”, “folded over”, “creased”, “torn” or “marked”
which is a bit boring.
To spice things up a bit, the temptation is to either to make up some new words:
“The front cover is beshmozzled.”
“The top edge is slitwhacked.”
or to come over a bit Danny Dyer:
It’s well-f**ked mate. It’s freaking my nut out.”
Once you have reported the damaged books, you await the all-important verdict.
Depending on the publisher and the price of the book, some books need to go back whole but with others, you just send back the title page, which needs to be removed, so basically torn, from the book.
You will inevitably receive some strange looks if you title-page books in front of customers, especially those taking great care handling your stock.
It’s alright. Just ripping some brand new books to pieces. As you were.
Most bookshops will tend to amass an ever-growing pile of title-page-less damaged books somewhere off the shop floor.
Although it could be seen to be a perk, having what is essentially a huge pile of free books, they are very seldom the books you really want, and on balance (and once the novelty wears off) I am sure I would much prefer to receive no damaged books in the first place, and save all that time spent reporting, title-paging, packing, returning, checking for credit etc…
I let staff have free reign on the damaged pile but that still leaves a lot.
Title-paged books are not really supposed to be released back onto the book market either, even to second-hand bookshops or charity shops.
It penalises authors’ earning potential if we flood the market with title-paged books, as authors haven’t earned a penny on them, unlike regular second-hand books, which were once bought new.
Although title-paged books look and read just like regular books, there is something not quite right about them.
They carry with them a distinct touch of the undead: their heart has been removed yet somehow they live on, like deathless word zombies, mimicking their living counterparts.
Probably best not to let them loose on the public then:
Oh my God. Step out of the bookshop, children. This David Walliams paperback has..….no title page. Go. Run. As fast as you can. And don’t look back.
The subject of Returns is rarely featured, certainly on-line, in the book trade.
Hopefully I’ve shed a little light on my own experiences. I’m sure other bookshops have a very different take.
I can’t quite spill all the beans tabloid-style, however, as the exact books we return is a subject us booksellers tend to keep close to our chest, mainly for reasons of tact.
(I’m sure all those Parody writers can cope: they had a pretty good run).
However tempting it might be for us all to complete a book’s journey through Twitter hashtags:
we must refrain!
It is bad enough that some authors get tagged into negative book reviews: they are definitely not going to want a live progress report on their beloved literary offspring heading back to base unsold.
For the modern bookseller however, the returns procedure is something to be cherished.
How many other professions can boast a built-in 12% error margin?
Surgeon? Train Driver? Knife Thrower?
With 24 new Indie Bookshops opening last year (hurray!!), there has never been a better time to be a bookseller, so come on, let’s all get out there and .……. send some stuff back.