Monday, March 16, 2009

The Birth of Returns (and do they need to die?)

Today I was reading Volume 2 of Albert Boime’s A Social History of Modern Art: Art in an Age of Bonapartism 1800-1815, and I came across this description of the birth of the returns practice in the late 1700s:
At that time, publishing and bookselling were not two separate enterprises but usually combined. German booksellers met twice annually at Leipzig to trade their publications. Money seldom passed directly between hands, and if the books did not balance at one fair, the difference was carried over to the next. …Previously, book dealer-publishers could not return works they had taken from other publishers; if a book were unsellable they had to absorb the loss themselves, and this encouraged a great caution in purchases. The publishers realized that their sales suffered due to the early exhaustion of the bookseller’s limited stock, and, by way of experiment, they handed out, in addition to the purchase copies, a certain number on consignment. If unsold these could be returned. This custom caught on, and eventually almost all direct purchases were discontinued. All risk of loss now shifted to the shoulders of the publishers, and bookselling received an extraordinary stimulus.

What was good for the publishing industry in the 1700s doesn't seem to be working anymore. An article published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a few years ago explains why the returns practice is "the dark side of the book world." The practice forces publishers to print and ship large quantities of books they expect to be bestsellers. Those that fail (and even those that don't), often come back in large quantities. In 2003, 34 percent of adult hardcover books were returned to publishers. This system creates huge inefficiencies at every point in the cycle suggesting it's time to rethink this outdated business model.

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