Returns: A Readers’ Guide to a Book-Industry Practice.


Much of what follows is taken from an interesting article in Publishers Weekly (9 May 2016) entitled “Returns in a Time of Transition” by Judith Rosen & Jim Milliot. Their analysis was intended for the book industry; my version is intended for the reader/consumer.


For the last five years or so, the publishing industry has been distracted by the rapid growth in sales of books in the e-book format. Conversations amongst publishers and booksellers about the future of print formats were anxiety laden. It wasn’t quite clear what would pay the bills as print formats faded. With the recovery of print books, however, the book industry is now back to thinking about returns “in a time of transition.”


The book world delivers an impressive number of important, new titles each season. Some sell well, some not at all. Stocking only new titles by authors with track records or from major houses would, however, be hard on new and unknown authors and narrow consumer choice. And neither publishers nor booksellers want those outcomes. So retailers are allowed to return books that aren’t selling to their publishers for credit against future purchases.


There are no industry-wide standards for acceptable return levels from retailers. In 2015 the industry-wide ratio, returns as a percentage of purchases, for the three print formats were trade paperbacks 20%, hardcover 26%, and mass paperbacks (pocket books) 48%. These are averages across the industry, of course; some bookstores had higher return rates, some lower.


Both book stores and publishers are interested in making sure that book inventories match demand in local markets. Gainesville, Florida is a very different market than our sister city in the next county south, Ocala. Local buyers in each town are best able to pick from amongst the many titles. However, more commonly these days distant buyers order for stores in many different markets with only fragmentary knowledge of those markets. That arrangement causes higher return ratios.


“Non-traditional booksellers” now sell more books than do the “indies.” They include mass merchandisers (Walmart), warehouse clubs, drug and grocery stores, airport newsstands. They believe that the titles they buy must be stocked in sufficient numbers to have visibility, and publishers like that visibility as well. This is particularly true with mass paperbacks. Their buyers are encouraged to buy “dumps” of a title containing 24 to 36 copies for each of their stores. This ordering in large quantities is one cause of the higher return rate on mass paperbacks.


Goerings Book Store (closed Spring 2010) made heavy use of a distributor, Ingram Book Company, especially for reorders of books that had sold and that we needed to have back in the store pronto. It took Ingram only three days to get books to us, and we e-mailed in an Ingram order nearly every weekday. This source was much faster than waiting weeks for sufficient titles to warrant sending an order to the publisher. The existence of this short fulfillment time meant that we could keep fewer copies of a title in stock. We had return privileges from Ingram and other distributors that we used, but since we were reordering books that had sold once in our store, there were fewer returns.


So better front-list ordering on the part of knowledgeable local buyers and the use of Ingram and other distributors for a quick reorder definitely reduced our level of returns .


What happens to books when they are returned? Hardbacks and trade paperbacks are generally “remaindered.” They are packaged onto skids and sold by weight or volume to ‘remainder’ bookstores. One of the two Books-a-Million stores has turned into a ‘remainder’ house, 2nd & Charles. Mass paperbacks are treated differently. “Whole-copy” returns are not required, only stripped front covers. That avoids transport costs, but probably encourages returns.


Congratulation to Book Gallery West. They are the one remaining independent book store in our market. Most of their inventory is used books which are not returnable. Used book stores give the book another opportunity without generating more returns.


Most of those interviewed for the Publishers Weekly article quoted new technologies as providing “solutions” to excessive returns .  Certainly new technologies are making a difference to bookselling and specifically to returns. The most remarkable new technology, however, was introduced years ago: point-of-sale inventory control systems for retail stores which track inventory levels, sales, reorders, and a sales history for each title. Better inventory control has resulted in fewer returns.


The textbook business generates a lot of returns. It is difficult to anticipate what the pickup will be for a textbook or when it will be purchased. There have been two retailers in Gainesville in recent years that dominated the textbook business, but this past May the Florida Book Store closed. Its parent company, Barnes & Noble College Stores, had merged with Follett Educational Services, which leases the UF bookstore. The textbook business here in Gainesville and in other university towns will now be dominated by one massive corporation.


Impact on returns ? In theory, a monopoly on the supply of textbooks could better deal with inventory control than can a competitive market. Better inventory control; fewer returns. But on the other hand monopolies are not necessarily good for their student customer. For example, they can determine prices without worrying about their competitors’ pricing strategies.


To remedy that situation the University has encouraged and other on-line competition. Information about how on-line competition has reshaped textbook retailing and specifically returns is not presently available. If the amount of space devoted to textbooks at the UF campus book store is any indication, local textbook sales are hurting.



NEW BOOKS. Spring 2016.


The 250 selections that I have made of books to be published between January 2016 and May 2016 are a reminder of the strength of American publishing. It is doing well its job of publishing noteworthy books.

My selections have been made by browsing through publishers’ spring catalogs. I estimates that I looked through at least 200 seasonal catalogues and considered 8,880 titles. Once sent to buyers in book stores around the country, these catalogs are now electronically available on ‘Edelweiss; Above the Tree Line’, without which I could never have accomplished this huge task.

My selections for this season are arranged under the following categories:

Politics. Economics. ♦ American Studies. ♦ American History. ♦ Twentieth-Century Conflicts. ♦ European History. Asian. ♦ Ireland, A Centenary. ♦ Cities. Places. ♦ Art. Architecture. Photography. ♦ Performing Arts. ♦ Nature. ♦ Science. Medicine. ♦ Religion. ♦ Florida. Regional.

Most of the titles selected are intended for the general reader. They are books that I would like to read (assuming infinite time). In the interest of balance, I have included titles with alternative views. I plead guilty, however, to a left bias. Perhaps to a fault, I read books by authors with whom I would tend to agree.

Many categories are not covered in my selection. My list is all non-fiction. But there are, as well, non-fiction categories that I don’t include: self-help and inspirational titles, parenting, life-style, food preparation, house decorating, others. Most memoirs I skip; I consider them to be ‘fictional’ in character, often of their troubled lives, and not included. Biographies, however, are included and are scattered amongst several categories. I tend not to include books that cost more than $45.00 (hardbacks) and $25.00 (paper). I have included paper editions of some books that were previously published in hardback.

I am dubious of books that have a title like “Something is Wrong and How to Fix It.” Their claim to know how to fix things seems presumptuous. The “something wrong” seems to have been formulated to warrant the author’s particular prescription.

Passions of mine include South Asia (my academic field, once upon a time), European history, American studies, and the World Wars. The centenary of U.S. entry into the Great War is approaching; there are interesting titles dealing with the war and its aftermath. World War II ended seventy years ago. I find both wars fascinating, though not particularly, military history.

I much admire the university presses. This season Yale University Press and Oxford University Press were the two that published the most titles on my New Books list.  Princeton University Press, University of Chicago Press, Harvard University Press, New York University Press, and University of Kansas Press, had interesting lists. And of course, there are good titles from the University of Florida Press. Sadly hardbacks from university presses are expensive, so I have included those titles when published in paper editions, usually within a year or so after the initial hardback edition. 

Random House continues to publish many good titles under various imprints. Hachette had a good list this year. But the “conglomerates” publish proportionally fewer of the kind of titles that I find interesting. Medium & small presses: Bloomsbury Press out of New York, London, Sydney, and New Delhi was the most impressive this season.  W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, two medium-sized houses, should be mentioned. They straddle the trade-textbook line – as did Goerings Book Store. There are titles from many, many small presses but few with more than two or three titles included in my list.

Hats off to the Alachua County Library District. It is amazing how many of my list of New and Recent Books it has. I frequently have to wait my turn, so they are being read by its patrons.


The Task of the Book Reviewer.

The Task of the Book Reviewer.


Reading Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters has made me think more carefully about the book reviewing that I do. She argues that a good translation must adhere to the rhythm and style of the original. A good translation should create the same responses from the reader as did the original work from its readership. This is a tall order.


A book review is, of course, a different literary task; although I shall argue that it is a kind of translation. A book reviewer tries to capture the essence of the book in relatively few words, while ‘translating’ its goodness, and shortcomings. (I never go to the trouble of reading and reviewing a book that I don’t like, so shortcomings are minimal.)


Book reviews vary. Reviews in The New York Review of Books, for example, are long essays; frequently several books may be reviewed together. The reviewer most often is a prominent writer with an expertise in the subject of the book(s) being discussed. Reviews in The New York Times Book Review, Sunday edition are less learned and more succinct, but their greater brevity can be a virtue. Reviewers in the daily NYT as well as the Wall Street Journal are more ambitious.


There are many, many magazines, journals, and now blogs with interesting reviewers and many opinions. And those opinions are distributed over the political and literary spectrum. That is good. Mine show a definite left tendency.


I never review fiction. A reviewer of fiction has to have knowledge of the art of ‘criticism.’ While I admire its intellectuality, I am not equipped to enter that discourse. It could be argued that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is false. Fiction writers do a good amount of research to provide their characters with a plausible setting. Non-fiction writers engage in storytelling with varying degrees of verisimilitude. But the latter is more dutiful to the real world than the former. And more efficient for an information seeker.


The non-fiction titles that I read are mostly published by university presses and the more serious ‘trade’ publishers; they are almost never bestsellers. Someone once said to me that they were happy about my choice of books to read and review. They were obviously worthy books, and it was comforting to know that someone was reading them.


One merit which those who review non-fiction should possess is to be well and broadly read. That is an ambition to which I have always aspired.


Reviewing non-fiction involves a kind of dumbing down. To explain a subject as well as the author, you would need a comparable number of words. My reviews are 750 to 850 words, around two book pages. So I simplify: I leave out details, names, precise dates. I almost never include quotations of more than a few words. I suggest the more important ideas and judgments that the author makes. And how his book fits into the general notions about the subject. Is it revisionist and if so why?


I want a person who has read the book to be able to recognize it from my review and agree that I have captured the book’s essence. I am a translator. I want the author to think that my ‘translation’ of his work is a good reflection of his intentions.