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Book Returns ... A Fact of Life

By Shari Faden Donahue

Due to fierce competition and trade retail outlet consolidation, book returns are a fact of life—significantly reducing publishers’ profit margins. Approximately 5%–60% of all juvenile titles are returned from book retailer to publisher each season—a percentage that can be higher or lower depending on title demand. The average industry book return rate is routinely 30%! A book can be returned to the publisher for a period of six months from the time it goes out of print. Publishers—large and small—are slammed with excessive inventory and damaged book returns. The returns process has become one huge headache for the entire publishing industry.

Significant support staff is required to sift through the continuous stream of incoming returns—a cumbersome and costly burden for all publishers. For publishers to remain in business, sales of books must greatly outweigh returns. Large publishers benefit from their list of multiple titles; the greater number of quality titles, the higher the publisher’s potential for income. Small publishers with limited titles can be forced out of business if losses from returns surpass incoming revenue. All publishers play a giant guessing game regarding those titles that will escalate to bestseller status. If a proven method existed for ensuring 100% publishing success, publishers would make a fortune on every book published. Though publishers are frequently on target, they also dramatically miss the mark.