Pretty much everything that’s broken in the publishing industry can be attributed to the returns system. This is the thing whereby, if a bookstore does not manage to sell a book within a period they deem appropriate, they strip it (tear the back cover off) and return it (actually just the cover) to the publisher for credit against their next stock order.1 No other industry works this way,2 and there’s no reason any industry should work this way.

The system sounds bad, and it’s actually worse. If you’ve ever been into a bookstore, looked at an enormous stack of a single title, and thought, “They couldn’t possibly sell that many copies!” then congratulations, you’re seeing the excesses of the returns system. Bookstores, particularly the big box chain stores, over-order on bulk discount, knowing that the vast majority of the stock ordered will be returned… and also knowing it doesn’t matter thanks to said discounting.

(Incidentally, author royalties are usually paid differently on bulk discounted sales than on regular sales. So not only is the publisher left with a mountain of returned books to pulp, but authors aren’t paid shit for the ten copies that did sell. Fun times.)

The returns system is also why a lot of indie publishers, including self-published authors, have trouble getting stock in bookstores. Because their titles usually aren’t returnable, bookstores won’t carry them. Which is the reason why you can walk into just about any bookstore in the world and see (accounting for some variation due to native publication language) the same handful of titles over and over again; these are the books published by the Big 5, who have the clout to do returns in the way a lot of small presses don’t.

Basically, I’ve never seen a compelling (modern) argument for why the returns system should exist. But killing it now will be… tricky. Probably some combination of a major chain store folding, coupled with a coordinated refusal by some or all of the Big 5 to continue the practice. While the former isn’t out of the question, the latter is potentially illegal (collusion). And so stuck with the system we are, for worse and for worser.

  1. I think in some cases the books are returned whole, but that’s a whole other issue about shipping and storage. But basically, if you want to steal books, befriend someone who works at a bookstore and ask to see the box of stripped titles out the back. []
  2. “Magazines do!” you cry. Yes, I say, I know. Because magazines are released by, drumroll, publishers! []