Thursday, November 06, 2008

C[r]ash Flow (Or What Went Wrong in October in Book Publishing)

It's the only thing I'm thinking about recently, so I'm going to go ahead and kill the elephant.

Let's talk a little bit about what happened in October.

You've heard about the massive layoffs at Doubleday; you've heard about Harper's terrible state of profit, BNN's worst quarter and projected year ever, and the closing of Impetus, an indie press (which, as I'll explain below, I don't think was Impetus's fault even vaguely).

Yes, there's a crisis.

However. Anyone who wants to talk about "the death of publishing" can leave the room. I'm at the beginning of my career and I plan on being an editor for a long time; a lot of you are yet-to-be-published authors and I'm sure you're equally intent on not seeing book publishing fold (not that it's going to; that's ridiculous). So instead I want to talk about what's actually causing the problem--it might help us come up with solutions for protecting what's important to us.

I don't think anyone's being really straightforward about what exactly happened, and a lot of it is not very complicated.* The crux of the problem is that book publishing is a returnable industry. That means that say Big Chain Store (BCS) agrees to stock a book that my company publishes. They buy 100 copies at, say, $1 a piece (to be easy). They give me $100; I send them the books. Two months later, they didn't sell any, so they send them back. I have to give them $100.

Keep in mind a couple of things about this system that don't work in the publisher's favor:
1) Shipping costs. Books are heavy.
2) Production fees incurred by the publisher (because, unfortunately, we can't return the books to the printer).
3) Inflation. Haha.

Why do publishing companies put up with this? Yeah, it's stupid. But it's an industry standard, and if we don't let BCS have the option to return books, they simply tell us they won't stock them. They can carry CDs and calendars and greeting cards, instead.

All right, but this has been the case for awhile. So what went wrong in October?

As you MIGHT have heard by now, we're having some kind of economic hardship (or something like that). So people spent less cash in September and October. So bookstores sold fewer copies in those two months, and were hit hard like all the other businesses in the country and in a lot of the world.

However, BCS and all its chain compatriots are counting on Christmas sales to save them. They need to stock up! They need to plump their stores with new enticing merchandise so they can convince customers to save them from foreclosure!

Where to get the cash for all the holiday books they needed to stock in October and November? Three. Guesses.

In October, bookstores returned so many books that most publishing companies had more coming into them than going out of them. For some companies, the incoming number was more than several months' outgoing.

Although bookstores are suffering (and how), it was the publishing houses that had to absorb the cost of this cash flow creator. This is why Impetus, a relatively new indie company without the history to survive this shock, folded. Some houses lost so much money in returns in October that profits from the entire rest of 2008 have been negated. Can you imagine? Losing enough in a month to destroy your entire year? (Keep in mind that publishing is a very low profit margin enterprise in the first place; now see how if one month involves more outgoing than incoming money you can easily undo the good of an entire year or more.)

Now you can see the ripples that are happening, the layoffs, the dwindling advances, the precautions about acquiring anything in this climate. If publishing companies are shelling out money to publish books that bookstores only bother to stock for a minute and a half, we are all going to hemorrhage money until there is nothing left standing.

This would be a bad situation for more than the sake of my job or your future novel. It's about a lot of things--education, hampered information dissemination, conglomerations swallowing mass media, censorship. Whatever. I could extenuate, but I'll spare you. The point is, when you have a problem, the best thing to do is try to solve it.

For anyone who cares about the book publishing industry and wants to do their part, there's one simple action step:

Buy a book this weekend.

Just buy one.

Buy your sister a book instead of a sweater for her birthday; buy your friend who can't even make toast or boil water a beginner's cookbook; buy your company's receptionist a novel you liked because most people probably ignore him/her (it's always a her, though, isn't it?) and you'll make his/her day.

Buy your holiday gifts now. Instead of a CD for your brother, buy him a book on his favorite recording artist.

Instead of going to the library this one week buy the book you were going to read--it might only be a difference of a couple of bucks in the end. One day this week, make a peanut butter sandwich, skip going out for lunch, and buy a paperback.

Got an anniversary? Skip chocolates; fiction is sexy.

Got a non-reading friend with a birthday? Buy them a book and tell them it's high time they got over it. Or, more kindly, that you're doing it to sponsor your own future writing career. Or blame me if you must; I can take it.

It doesn't matter what. It doesn't have to be a literary fiction hardcover. If could be a $5.99 mass market nutrition guide, a $4.99 young reader chapter book, a Harlequin romance. Your money will still prevent returns of other books--literary fiction is usually the first to go--and will trickle down to the publishing companies, who will then be more likely to be able to afford to publish unprofitable literary fiction. Even if it's not by your favorite author or your favorite publishing house, your favorites will be indirectly affected.

It doesn't matter where. Sure, buying at the chains will help against the returns, but you can help out the publisher with your purchase no matter how you get it, even on the internet.

I'm not saying this for purely selfish reasons. I work with books because I love them and think they're important, not the other way around.

*insert here the eternal and immortal invitation for anyone who knows better to please correct me


Ann Victor said...

Ooh! Yummy! To a confirmed and unrepentant book-a-holic your words are like nectar. I shall make a point of buying a book (or two or three) this weekend. And I can say that it's all in the name of furthering my future career as an author!

Jennifer Hendren said...

OMG...I'm so pumped to go on a book-buying spree now. (Like I needed this excuse.)

And yanno what, my relatives are getting books this year for Christmas. Excellent idea!! And dude, if I get to run rampant through a bookstore, giggling manically, making hapless bystanders clutch their small children to their breasts in fear....EVEN BETTER.

Erm, I'm kidding -- okay, not really.

Excellent post! Thanks!

Ello said...

I don't buy toys as presents anymore. I make it a point to buy books only. I'm disturbed by this post because I see people returning books at the big chains that look pretty dog eared to me. The idea of returning books already read is basically a big problem for me. The only time I ever return a book is if I accidentally bought 2 copies of the same book and I can't think of anyone to give it too. And yes, I've been that clueless and done that because I buy WAY too many books as it is. But I'm happy to do my share to support publishing because I am an unrepentant book lover. Always have been, always will be. I was going to buy a book this weekend anyway, but now I'll make it a point to buy 2.

Thanks for putting it so clearly for us.

Kerry said...


Dennis Cass said...


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Cloud Atlas: A Novel by David Mitchell

Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story by Laurie Lindeen

And thanks very much for the post. I've been hoping that someone would give the inside scoop on how the financial meltdown was affecting publishing. Your reporting is as elegant as your solution.



James Klousia said...

I can see the TV ad campaign now:

Young man and woman at a fancy restaurant, a rose and a candle between them, metaphors of their blossoming love and passion for one another.

The man hands the woman a gift. "Happy anniversary," he says. It's rectangular, a little heavy. She shakes it, but can't hear a thing. She opens it excitedly and finds a paperback copy of Pride & Prejudice. She looks from the book to the man, her brow furrows in confusion (and perhaps a little bit of anger). He leans over and whispers, "I love you more than Mr Darcy loves Elizabeth." (I haven't actually read this book so I hope that's right).

The woman tackles him from across the table and shoves her tongue down his throat. Buttons explode from his shirt as she rips it off.

The camera pans back up to the elegant dinner table, where two plates of duck-du-jour sit untouched.

Subtitle: Skip chocolates; fiction is sexy.

Other Lisa said...

I hadn't even read this post, and I bought three books today.

And 5 over the two weeks before that.

I don't have a problem; why do you ask?

JKB said...


As always, brilliant. I'll buy THREE. :)

And I'm like many others here...I only buy books for others. Then when they read them, I get to borrow them. *evil laugh*

Justus said...

The fusion of a heavenly sphere and a rodent,

People say a writer needs to read, and I haven't been reading nearly as much fiction as I should. I'll make sure to ask everyone for either cash or books for my birthday tomorrow!

That way, I can study dialogue attribution, conflict creation and so on while handing monies to publishing companies. Even if the book is bad, I won't return it. I'll regift! :)

P.S. I've never returned a book. That includes those awful Christmas gifts from relatives I hardly know.

Diana said...

Thanks for the explanation of why the bookstores and publishing houses are hurting!

My husband and I have become known as the aunt and uncle who buy books. You'd think our nieces and nephews would roll their eyes at us, but since all of the other family members buy toys, our books are the novelty item the kids get excited about.

Susan said...

Loved this!

I blogged about it recently myself, and so far I've bought 28 book-presents in October/November, and told everyone already that we were having a literary-style Christmas.

Two of them were from a POD publisher, and I was impressed with the quality of the printing and binding, while they cost no more than the books in stores.

And hey my birthday is coming up mid-month, book-presents welcome! LOL

Ben-M said...

I like to think one thing that might thrive in hard times is escapism. Perhaps there's a little solace in that.

Julie Weathers said...

I planned on blogging on this in the next few days, but I'll mention it here first.

I flew to Savannah to say goodbye to my son, who is deploying to Iraq this weekend. The day before I got there he, his wife and his best friend went to the mall where they bought books. Will and Henderson bought some to take to Iraq with them. Katie got the first books in a series she fell in love with.

Flying home, all of the airports I stopped at were filled with soldiers since several had four day leaves before they deployed. I can't tell you how many I saw sitting around reading books. Two young soldiers were sprawled out in corners on the floor. I thought they were sleeping, but saw they were actually propped against their bags reading. I took a picture of one of them. He was engrossed in a Dean Koontz novel. I asked him what he liked to read and he said he loved anything by Koontz.

There is an organization called Books For Soldiers. They supply books to soldiers that have been requested and are a top notch organization that is having financial problems. If you want to donate a book that will go to a soldier who would love to have it, this is a really good cause.

I was in prison ministry for six years and the books I sent in got read and passed around until they were literally falling apart. Books get loved and read by these soldiers also.

Just a thought.

Carla Buckley said...

Julie Weathers--

Thank you for a touching, eye-opening post. I'm a big fan of giving where it will count, and you've suggested two excellent avenues.

Jo said...

I read your blog all the time but this is my first time posting. I worked in the music industry for over twenty years, the last ten running my own independent label, and let me tell you this is exactly what happened to many small labels and indie retail stores. Yes, pirating was a small factor but mainly it was the 365 day payment terms demanded by the big box stores and 100% return capability- meaning they could return an order a year after placing it. My company couldn't operate under those terms and we eventually folded.
And great advice. I try to alternate buying online with supporting my great local bookstore and less often, the chain store in the mall. Thanks for this!

Jaye Wells said...

Bravo, Moonie! Excellent post. I bought four books yesterday. And I always try to buy as many book gifts as possible. It's really fun trying to find the perfect book each person on my list. Plus it's one-stop shopping, which is always a good thing.

Colorado Writer said...

Thank you, thank you for the inside scoop!

I'm buying books this weekend.

One for a kid's birthday party gift.
One for myself.
One for oldest son.

Linda said...

Wow. Eye-opening post. Thanks for describing the white elephant so well.

I just bought a slew of books anyway (a friend has one (Terminal Neglect)recently pubbed with an Indie) and a stack of others for presents (including myself - Pharmakon, Anita Shreve's latest, others). Off to buy more - save a whale, save a spotted owl, save a book...

This year for the holidays, folks are getting a bg, fat book ordered my local Indie bookstore along with a gift card from the Indie coffee shop across the street. Peace, Linda

JES said...

Like apparently everyone else who's replied on this thread so far, I don't need any encouragement to buy books.

That said, thank you for the level-headed explanation of why it matters to anyone concerned about the state of publishing. (And like automakers, publishers are not likely to descend on Washington to ask for $25B "loans." Who would take them seriously? Because, after all, we're in no danger of running out of books, right? Right?)

(And once again you leave some of us wondering what you're doing at the far end of the from-writer-to-reader chain.)

Just out of curiosity, Moonie: You mentioned online book purchases. Do the Amazon, B&N, and Borders online stores have the same returns policies as the brick-and-mortar stores?

Karen K. Kennedy said...

This post is why so many people were so eager to celebrate your anniversary! Very thoughtful, full of good information and a brilliant suggestion--to buy books as gifts.

Diana, my husband and I are also the aunt and uncle who buy books. And now that our nephews are older (the oldest one is 14) they share their books with us, too. I love having more people to pass books around to.

It's time to restock the shelves--ours and others!

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

I buy books for myself and as presents at every opportunity and even when there is no opportunity. But then I guess you're preaching to the converted in my case.
A question, to what extent does the rise of the BCS have on all this - ie the BCS and the supermarket retailer vs the small independent bookshops. What I'm looking for is the correlation of cost of book vs sales and profit vs distribution channels. Any ideas? And where how do reach and targets fit into all this.
I think what you're saying makes absolute sense but I can't help wondering if it's not a whole lot more complex? Especially when one factors in the global economic environment and the stuff that's led to our current woes. I'll stop here or I'll witter on forever because now you've gone and got my brain all exercised about the business issues of publishing and selling!

Sherri said...

Yeah, I plan to be around for a long time, with many, many hard-bound novels to come.

The first one is the hardest, and right now harder than ever, but I hope things will settle down in a month or two, and then I'll have a better chance.

I'm linking to this post to spread the word. To my 4 regular readers. :)

ChrisEldin said...

I had no idea this is was the money flow in the pub industry. It makes no sense.

I was thinking about paper books vs the Kindle yesterday (because I don't have a Kindle), and realized I probably won't ever own a Kindle. I love seeing books on the bookshelf. I love passing around books at book clubs. I love gifting books--wrapping them in pretty paper.

I have high hopes that the pub industry will rebound. But for now, I'm headed back over to Amazon and when my husband asks, I'm blaming you...

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Terrific post, and interesting comment by Julie Weathers on the Books for Soldiers. You've given us all a lot to think about.

Marie said...

Fine. I will hit "buy" on the Amazon shopping cart that has been sitting open for the past two weeks.

And, Moonie, it really will pass.

Marie said...

Um, does Amazon count?

moonrat said...

Absolute Vanilla--there are a lot of complicating factors about why a lot of publishers are struggling in the climate etc, but as far as what went drastically wrong on the October sales reports that's really the key item.

For full disclosure, October returns are always pretty high, even normally, because people are prepping for lots of Christmas orders. It's just that with low buy-ins this year in Sept and Oct, returns were *cripplingly* high.

moonrat said...

Jo---interesting to hear this is the case for music, too. I think the returns system is deeply corrupt and an example of bad capitalism (or, capitalism that might have seemed good but has gone awry).

On one hand, it offered unlikely candidates a position in bookstores (or music stores) that they might not have had if buyers were being more cautious. On the other hand, it bleeds the suppliers dry and offers all kinds of openings for the system not to work in the favor of anyone except the vendor.

Tough cookies. I wonder that the solution is?

moonrat said...

JES--re: online retail returns policies: I'm actually not entirely sure about BNN online, which is really a satelite of parent BNN, but my guess would be they function on the same return principles.

Amazon, on the other hand, doesn't. I like Amazon a lot for this--they're much more modest in their commitments, and usually order a small number of copies at a time. So while they don't really help you make an affordable print run by jacking your numbers up, they order and reorder, creating a living online backlist, and (except in special cases) without the worry of shattering returns.

moonrat said...

Julie Weathers--thanks for sharing that; I'd had no idea and am really heartened to hear that at least our soldiers have books. My uncle, who was deployed for over a year, told me about the boredom of deployment, which came as a surprise.

Crimogenic said...

I'm just finishing up Cormac McCarthy, "The Road", and I'm itching to dive into more books. As someone already said in a post, sometimes as a writer I get so caught up in writing that I miss my time reading. Not anymore, this is the perfect motivation to buy (and read) a few books, today!

Richard Nash (Soft Skull) said...

To offer some tough love inspiration: Soft Skull's return rate last month was "only" 55%. 33% for the calendar year even including how much inventory Borders is send back. We've managed this because we're focusing on the reader, the customer. We don't bribe stores to carry our books, instead we devote all our energy to attending to our readers, believing that if customers are buying, bookstores will order. So thanks, moonrat, for adding your shoulder to that wheel..

Juliana Stone said...

Great post Moonie! I just recently discovered your blog and it's a must read for me everyday. I need to believe that things will turn around. I just sold my first book and it is sometimes disheartening to think that I'm just starting out when things are really getting rough out there. On one hand I feel grateful that I sold in early Sept before things, literally went south. I think it's going to be harder for up and comers in the next several months...but we's what we do....and I truly think that as long as people will put words to page, there will be readers out there enjoying!

Natalie said...

Amazing, educational post. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it all down!

I bought books last week, and now I have a great excuse to get more:)

Merry Monteleone said...

First, I want this on a tee shirt:

Got an anniversary? Skip chocolates; fiction is sexy.

I tend to only allow myself to go into a bookstore a few times a year - it's my weakness, I cannot leave the store with on book... I usually leave with an armload so large I can barely make it to the counter.

I took my kids with me to Borders last week... big mistake, they share my weakness and I had to limit them to three books a piece because I wanted a few myself... My total was over two hundred dollars... crimeny, I should be looking for a job in a bookstore... but then, I'd spend my whole paycheck there...

Heidi the Hick said...

Thank you so much for the explanation, because I've been querying and getting a lot of silence as a reply. I was really questioning my worth as a writer but it looks like I'm not the only one holding my breath.

I carefully buy books all year long. It's never a waste, ever. Totally re-usable, not like gasoline or food. Every single penny I spend is a hardship but a book is solid and real and makes me happy for a few minutes of escape. Hopefully someday it'll be my book that separates a reader from his/her cash, and take them away for a few minutes that day.

I do have to add a comparison. My husband, a recording engineer and damn good one I might add, has been in the music biz for over twenty years, straight out of school. Oh- the Canadian music biz which is fiercely patriotic and financially struggling, always. It is like pushing a rock up a mountain, trying to raise a family on this income. All we ever hear is how doomed the industry is. Yet he's still at work 15 hours out of 24 and the bank has not reclaimed our house.

People keep singing, people keep writing, we must vote with our dollars and support our favourite artists!!!!

So I am sorry but I have to, I must, bring up this line!

"Buy your holiday gifts now. Instead of a CD for your brother, buy him a book on his favorite recording artist."

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE BUY BOTH! Make it a package deal! At the big awful big box book stores you can get both anyways! Buy a 6pack instead of a 12 this week, or heck, drink water! Skip something but I am selfishly begging you to support writers AND musicians!

(hangs head in begging shame and steps off soapbox)

Seriously, thanks for splaining this to us, and thanks for raising the awareness. See you at the bookstore!

Anita said...

I like Julie Weathers post. On Harlan Coben's site, he has a "Gallery" photo with an Iraq Coben Book Club. The photo shows a few guys in gear, on a tank, with their Coben books. The caption reads, "World's Greatest Book Club. You Want To Tell Them Different?" Love it.

Anyway, will buy books TODAY!

Charles Gramlich said...

I pretty much buy a book every weekend, and on about half the weekdays. At least on average.

Let's see, three books bought on Saturday last, two books bought on Monday. Five books a week is slightly above my average.

jalexissmith said...

You have inspired me! Instead of the normal "consumables" (you know, bath products, wine, cookies) and "returnables" (you know, things from the big big biggest companies that someone can return at any major mall) that I get for certain family members (you know, the ones that you don't really know well enough to know what they want or who switch their tastes so often that you could not keep up with it anyway) for Christmas, I'll get them a book!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the book publishers/stores are seeing the same slow-down/recessionary pressures an economy in trouble brings. As a financial consultant with more than twenty years in the industry and a writer by avocation, this is a painful time for everyone...not just book publishers/stores/writers. Your suggestion is good, but until the economy improves there is going to be continued hemmoraghing all around. I can only hope this recession is close to the bottom and we see improvement next year.

Susan Adrian said...

Excellent post, Moonie. Sobering and a little scary, but excellent.

I'd been planning to use my Hastings gift card this weekend. I think I might just stock up a little bit more too. :)

Sandy said...

Thanks for the great explanation of what's going in our industry. Every industry is being effected, the airlines, the car manufacturers just to name a couple.

writtenwyrdd said...

I spend thousands a year on books. Generally between 2 and 3K. So I'm probably keeping a major publishing house afloat all by my lonesome.

The trend is troubling one for publishing and getting published, but I have no fear that there won't be a publishing industry in the near future.

Moonie, do you suppose that there will be some sort of reorg to the industry as a result of this?

Chris Webb said...

New reader here, and fellow publishing professional. Thanks for this great post - I discussed it on my blog today as well

I'm looking forward to reading more.


jnantz said...

Bought EPICENTER for my wife and two Audiobooks (both Tony Hillerman mysteries) for myself. GO Moonrat! GO BOOKS!!!

Conduit said...

Interesting, if somewhat depressing, post!

Precie said...

Well, now I feel guilty. I was placed on a book-buying hiatus for the month of October...and actually managed to stick to it (assuming I don't count the children's books I purchased because they weren't "for me").

Who knew I sent the book industry crashing to its knees? ;)

I am duly chastised and will place an Amazon order posthaste.

Other Lisa said...

Here's an idea: let's make October "Buy More Books Month" from here on out.

I will do my part.

Lisa said...

The only purchase that never slows down for me is books. I had three show up just this week. Now -- that is probably also good news for the future therapist who'll have to cure me of my obsession, but there it is.

Jill Corcoran said...

We had a Mrs. Nelson's Book Fair at our school this week and not only did I buy over a dozen books but the school had record sales!

Thanks for the post, Moonie. I feel like I finally understand our book biz's financially downward spiral.

Mary said...

I bought two books today!

The returns system might have worked once-upon-a-time when publishers were supplying individual shops and small chains. But now... Though BCS squeeze many suppliers, publishers are in a really bad position.

Shelli Stevens said...

Suddenly...I have the urge to go buy a book. Or two. Or three. Okay, two. I'm a single mom.

My niece asked for a book for her birthday and I think I shall get it for her now.

ggwritespoetry said...

My birthday is coming up... now I know what to ask for. Thanks Moonie.

Ebony McKenna. said...

I heartily agree

Moonrat, thanks for another excellent post giving us the insight into what's going on.

Through reading blogs like yours, I have come across some amazing and scary examples of what goes on in publishing and book stores.

Thank you very much. You're doing a wonderful service for writers and publishers everywhere.

Kelly said...

Wow! When I have a child's birthday party to attend, I ALWAYS include a book with the gift. Will do so for the adults on my list as well for the holidays!

Juliana Stone said...

Moonrat...I appealed to peeps to buy books this weekend on my blog...and I went out to the mall to run some errands and picked up two Nalini Singh books....been wanting to read her forever, so I was the best time!
thanks again for your post...we all need to spread the word....and if anyone is out and about this a book!

Christine said...

Hello Moonrat, my name is Christine and I started reading your blog over the summer. This is my first comment and I wanted to say hello. I really like your take on things and even linked to this particular post from my own blog - I hope my friends will keep your words in mind when it's time to buy Christmas presents! Thank you for having this blog - as a writer, I am learning so much!

Kelsey said...

Like Juliana, I'm an author new to the scene. I agree that the state of the industry is disheartening. My book hits shelves in a few weeks and I wonder what impact this economy could have on my career long term. If my book underperforms, will my publisher - or any other - look at it and think, "Well, those were tough times, let's give him another shot," or will it be one and done?

My publisher has already warned me that competing with the economy for publicity isn't going to be easy.

Don't get me wrong, I'm over the moon about having a book coming out. I just wish people had money to buy it!

And with that, I should get to work on my sample chapter for my next book.

What can I say, I'm a crappy pessimist.

Lisa Schroeder said...

I love your blog. Just wanted to tell you that.

And I will keep buying books. Promise.

Jo said...

I just thought of another positive aspect to buying books. As writers we can claim them as legitimate expenses on our tax returns.

Lindsey Leavitt said...

Thanks for this
I just cleaned out my bookshelf and I'm planning on donating a couple of boxes.
Which means there is space that needs a filling.

Beth Partin said...

Maybe if the book publishers would skip the middleman, use the Internet, and actually sell directly to the customer more often, they might make a better profit. It's a classic case of an industry needing to change and hanging on to tradition to its own detriment.

The chains wouldn't get away with stocking CDs for very long--they're supposed to be bookstores, not just music stores or greeting card stores.

moonrat said...

Beth--You're right that the system seriously needs a top-down reworking. I'm not making excuses for anyone--we need to fix it--but just to give you a rough idea about why direct marketing is more difficult than it sounds: Per my note above, although Amazon et al sell non-returnably, they don't stock a lot of copies at any given time (they don't need to). Bookstores, meanwhile, take a lot of copies from the first printing in what is called a "laydown." Without the large initial laydown, and without significant billing and stocking commitments at the onset, the publisher can't print as many copies, and so the production price per book goes up. Alas, charging, say, $19.95 for a trade paperback or $37.95 for a hardcover novel significantly reduces the number of consumers willing to actually buy the book. Even with a stiff online discount of eg 40%.

I think the solution is probably to raise cover prices, do smaller and more frequent print runs, and (as you suggest) count less on the laydown. This would be better for the overall lifespan of the book, too, since right now our entire system is designed around a 4-week publicity window during which the book either wins or loses.

Froog said...

I know the power of the BCS is massive, and probably leads to complete inflexibility on their part, but..... the intelligent layman (me?) would think it not unreasonable to hem the returns policy around with certain conditions, such as minimum length of time they have to stock a title, or maximum number/percentage of books they can return per month.

Also, is it not possible to purchase insurance against returns (or at least, a proportion of them)? That would spread the risk over the whole industry, over the whole year or more - and mean that no-one ever has to face an unmanageable one-month returns bill.

Of course, the insurance industry is taking a pretty hard pounding in this crisis too. And if insurance of this kind hasn't previously been developed in the publishing industry, it's probably not a good time to be talking about it, immediately after the heaviest-ever one-month pounding. I guess it hasn't been easy to buy reasonably-priced storm insurance in Louisiana these last few years.

Are the major publishing houses getting together with the BCSs to take the Moonie Initiative to the masses? A really big, nationwide "Buy a book for Christmas" campaign seems to be in order.

Word verification: humpic

I think I've got to start using word verification. Some of these random words are such fun.

Beth Partin said...


yeah, it certainly won't be easy. I think it won't really change until technology makes it possible to put those little print-on-demand machines into the stores--that would work for the books that don't sell that many copies.

I think in the end, independent bookstores will win because they're comfy places to be and people like to go there and hang out and browse, while most book sales will take place over the Internet.

Of course, that prediction is about as good as all the other predictions made about paperless office and suchlike. We're in a transition period, and enough pain will force us to change.

Sarah Hina said...

Already done!!

I love having a good excuse...

Excellent post, Moonie! My kids love you. :)

Ruth said...

Hmm, although I love books I'm an extremely poor student who can't actually afford any at the moment... but I'll definitely make the effort to buy one next week when I'm in town. Actually, I just realised I have a voucher for "The Warehouse" here (I don't know if you have it in the USA, but it stocks everything from books to clothes to CDs to electronics to furniture), and I'll go use that to buy a book, too. OK, I realise me buying books in lil ol' NZ isn't going to help publishing companies in the US, but I hope it'll help publishing companies here, who are probably in the same fix!

Sara Winters said...

Heroic (and true words) that will probably help many a writer. The issue with publishing is that books themselves are seen as a luxury item (I know, as opposed to expensive clothing) and people just don't feel the need to frequently invest in something optional. But, hard times affect everyone.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I did my part today, and bought a book for a friend's birthday and another one for his daughter.

Will be linking to your post on my own blog.

-Erin Dionne
Coming from Dial Books:
February 5, 2009

Nandini said...

yikes! i knew borders / waldenbooks were in trouble, but this sounds BAD! do the online bookstores work the same way?
note to self - Must. Buy. Books.

Shalanna said...

Good post. Problem is, the model for publishing is stuck in the 19th century. They've never been able to change it. Publishing houses were the last to embrace having a computer on everyone's desks, and the last to change in just about every way. But now most houses are owned by the bean counters, mostly one German company, and that company decided to make bookselling "profitable" in a way that it never had been before. For a while now I have been wondering how they would pull themselves out of this "returns" trap. They've had to accept torn-off covers instead of shipped-back softcovers for a while now (that was the IRS's fault, something about warehousing books, and the fault of high shipping costs), and very often those books were resold through different channels without their covers. There was a shakeout in distribution years ago that put all but one of the three distribution networks out of business. It's high time for publishing to reinvent itself, and whether that means it'll fragment and go the way of the music industry (no longer is there a "top song of the week" the way there was in the old AM radio days, or an album that Everyone Hears as in the old FM album rock days--there are many separate vertical markets and different distribution channels and media) or go to a POD model remains to be guessed.

Ello: Barnes and Noble, as of Sept. 1, no longer takes returns of books without a receipt dated 30or fewer days ago. I was always amazed that you could even return duplicate gift books or anything, as in my childhood you couldn't even stand and read at a newsstand or bookstore--they let you have a BRIEF peek and then zap, you've bought it. *grin* So book returns are comin' to a screechin' halt, IMHO, now that things are tight.

I commend all of you for buying books. Unfortunately, I've already made a pledge about buying in this economy. After being a bookaholic my entire life, I have sworn to buy no more books from a major house until a major house buys one of mine. It seems only fair. 3M/Scotch Brand, on the other hand, WANTS me and is flying me to NYC with a guest to be in a great contest early next month, so I am now their, um, Number One Fan. I plan to buy Post-It[TM] products and lots of tape for everyone on my Christmas list. I think this is a fair trade. I always say--if a boy likes YOU, why not go with him rather than keep pursuing the one who thinks you're ugly? *grin*

cyurkanin said...

Excellent and informative post. I usually buy a few books as gifts for Christmas but I think I'll make ALL my gifts to everyone books this year.

Justus said...

Well, I ordered eight books yesterday. :O

Did I save the industry?

intact said...

Yes! Thank you for this post. Also, I bought two brand new books this weekend.

Philip Davis said...

As you probably know, this whole book return business started back in the depression when publishers were struggling to get bookstores to carry their inventory. It's an antiquated system that will one day be replaced, but I'm not sure when that day is. One thing is for certain: it will take a crisis to fix a system that's been in place for 70 years. Maybe this is that crisis.

I've purchased and read 14 books this year and will be buying a lot of books for Christmas. Keep up the campaign.

Anonymous said...

Don't you worry. I bought TWO books this past weekend!

jessica_mcdowell said...

I would like to be published someday before I die... Blog posts don't count. So I trudge along through the awfully long process in hopes of getting the books I write just... perfect.

In the meantime I cannot read enough. I love to read. I can go through somewhere around 40 to 60 books in a year, most purchased new, so yeah, I think I'm doing my part.
But, I can do better.
Everyone's getting a book or two, or more - for the holidays. It's a great way to open horizons and let them see what they could not before.

So, cool. Thanks for the eye-opener.
(And, yeah, I'm off to buy this weeks load of books to read...)

Liz said...

Going to go buy at least one book today. You gotta give to get.

AC said...

You're totally doing your part, Moonie. I'd been stressing over a friend's last-minute birthday present, read your post, and the next night went out and bought her two new chick lit titles. She was thrilled, I was thrilled and maybe Barnes & Noble was thrilled, too...

Anonymous said...

Um, no. Unprofitable industries need to fold. The bookstores need to fold. Book publishers need to fold. And editors need to fold, too. They need to fold someone else's undies at the laundromat.

There have been millions of books published in centuries past. We don't need any more.

Dy said...

I, too, was inspired. I bought not one, not two, but EIGHT brand news books in the 24-hours after I read this post. Details on my blog--hope you don't mind my sharing this post with others.

Anonymous said...

There's no doubt the industry needs a change. You've made some great points here. I wonder why pubbers don't let bookstores POD excess books above and beyond a small inventory??? No waste that way. They'd need one of those machines in each store, but, hey - that'd probably be cheaper than the GIGANTIC cost of return.

Daun Ann said...

I will vow to buy at least one book this weekend (but knowing myself, it won't end with one). I did get a cd a couple weeks ago.

Jen Bluekissed said...

Wow, I'm glad I put books on my Christmas list before reading this!

Jennifer Banash said...

Thanks so much for your post and insight. Closing Impetus broke our hearts, and negated four years of intense, backbreaking work in the blink of an eye. We hope to be able to come back at a better moment for publishing than the current climate. And your assessment was completely correct--unlike extremely established presses such as Soft Skull, we did not have the financial cushion to withstand the blow of getting so many returns so close together--it effectively buried us alive.

shilohwalker said...

I don't know if I've been to the blog before, but I loved reading this!

Amy Stewart said...

As the owner of a used bookstore, I gotta say: it is entirely possible to run a bookstore without the luxury of unlimited returns. Sure, we have a higher profit margin--we can buy a book for ten or twenty cents and sell it for a dollar--but we also have to choose from among the books that people want to sell to us, so we can't always get the books people want to read, just the ones somebody wants to sell.

When we make a bad buying decision, the book goes on our bargain table or we donate it to the library. That's the same thing that any other kind of store--clothing, gifts, etc--would do.

It makes sense to allow bookstores to order extra books for an author event and return a portion of unsold books, within reason, but beyond that, I think bookstores should be able to figure out how to survive without returns. The cost savings to the publisher of not having to deal with returns could be reflected in the price of the book or the wholesale discount.

After all, those unsold books go back to the publisher, are then shipped to a remainder house, and then shipped back to bookstores to be sold as bargain books. That's a lot of shipping and handling to get books from the front of the store to the bargain table, IMHO.

Sharron said...

I bought five books last weekend - four of them to be donated to a children's cancer hospital. If you like to do charitable things, BUY BOOKS for hospitals and other places where children and adults alike are literally stuck all day during treatments. We also joined books for soldiers to (selfishly) thin out our own book inventory and we ended up buying specifically requested books to send to our service men and women overseas. So you save an industry AND make someones day a little more bearable!

Anonymous said...

The book industry is in trouble like the rest of the economy, shades of the Great Depression.

My most recent novel was published by Five Star/Gale which mainly sells to libraries because they prefer not to take books back from bookstores. They have a profitable reference book business but don't sell a whole lot of fiction.

I'm an avid reader and writer myself, and so I do buy quite a few books each year at bookstores. But I appreciate libraries too. They will also be feeling the pinch.

Hopefully, things will be changing for the better soon with a new president in the White House. Happy Days Are Here Again??

Jacqueline Seewald
THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star/Gale hardcover, Wheeler large print
THE DROWNING POOL, Feb. 2009 publication Five Star/Gale

Judi Fennell said...

I bought two yesterday and two last week - and I was on deadline too! I've got my eye on another one next time I hit the bookstore.


Andrew said...

As a publishing professional, consultant, and author the past 20+ years, I've been saying for a long time that the publisher-bookstore model has to change. This is an informative post for many people, and the effort can temporarily stop the bleeding, but much more needs to be done.

Publishers need to build better relationships with readers and foster a community, instead of hiding behind the scenes and leaving this work to the bookstores and authors. I'm the president of IBPA-affiliate Publishers & Writers of San Diego, and this topic is exactly my next column for our newsletter.

In short, publishers need to (a) build this direct connection with readers I mentioned, (b) stop or adjust what is basically a consignment model, and (c) start developing sales channels for higher-margin items, like downloads, to supplement printed books.

Like the U.S. auto industry, I'm sorry to say the traditional publishing industry as we know it IS in danger of collapse, but only if it continues to cling to its obsolete ways.

Andrew Chapman

Jacqueline said...

A plea by a publisher for charity this Christmas is not going to fix the problem. The traditional publishers are going to have to grasp the nettle of book returns or stop whinging.

Of course, a no-returns policy would allow small, independent and even POD publishers to compete on a level playing field. Perhaps the old system has survived for so long just because it benefits the big boys.

Kristen Painter said...

I bought three. Do I get a cookie?

Minnette Meador said...

I sharing this with everyone today...and buying books tomorrow. Excellent.

BrennaLyons said...

My family constantly buys books. Grinning...

At the same time, there CAN be a publishing industry without returns. If the book stores and distributors weren't so resistant, it wouldn't even be hard to do.

Now, some people are going to assume I'm talking about an in-store POD system. That's not unthinkable. It would cost a heck of a lot less than shipping and have almost no waste. Someday, a couple of decades from now, I think that's what the system will be.

But, no... I'm also talking about the forward-thinking comic and gaming industry. One of my publishers is a gaming company, and the fiction books get the same distribution the games do, into the comic shops. NO RETURNS. Isn't that sweet? They buy and they commit to sell the stuff. Shrug.

But, try strong-arming the mainstream publishing industry into the same mold. Rolling eyes.


devilish southern belle said...

Rest assured, I'm doing my part. All the folks on my Christmas list are getting books this holiday season!

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

I'm already on the UPS man's list for my B&N orders (Hi, I'm Pat, and I'm a research junky!), and the postman isn't terribly fond of me either. Buying more books might just land me in divorce court, but if I can blame you . . .

Excellent article. I know I'm not alone in hoping things turn around for both the publishing industry and the whole economy. Until then, I'll try to make sure the UPS man has a job.

Houston A.W. Knight said...

Even though I buy books throughout the year here and there, I can't wait for my b-day to arrive. This is when my dear hubby will take me to the nearest BAM or BNN and let me buy to my heart's desire. I usually leave with an arm full.

I'm a writer and I want a future in this business. So after reading this, I think I'll move my birthday up to this weekend...and I've got your site to give credence for this move! ;-)

BTW - I love your blog!


Anonymous said...

I read approximately a book a week and buy frequently. Cannot imagine a world without books

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Great post, thanks so much. Here's another idea: Give as gifts signed books from your published author friends. I like the idea of the neglected receptionist. Gifting her with a signed romance or mystery novel could create a new fan. Ditto for your doctor or dentist...he'll bring it home to his wife.

jean said...

Reading comments, I saw that many people equated the occasional customer returning a book to a bookstore with the returns publishers are locked into. It's not at all the same thing. A bookstore orders 20 copies of a book from a publisher, sells two, TEARS THE COVERS OFF THE OTHER 18, returns the covers from the now-ruined books, and, by law, recycles the books' insides as pulp. Now those books cannot reach anybody--they have been destroyed.

NO OTHER BUSINESS operates this way. Just imagine a clothing company sending twenty dresses to a retail store, and ALLOWING the owner to cut the tags out after they've been on the rack for two weeks, send the tags back, AND RECEIVE EVERY PENNY THEY PAID FOR THOSE DRESSES BACK. Furthermore, the dresses could then not be resold or given to Good Will. No--by law they would have to be sold to a company that turns them into rags for cleaning or quilting or production of high-quality paper; they can not by law be sold or given away AS DRESSES.

THAT is the situation in publishing. Oh, the bookstores are in trouble, but this insane return practice actually makes it EASIER for them to survive financially, while it burdens publishers unconscionably. And it has been going on since the 1930's.

Ebooks and POD are the only way out of the return dilemma. Those of you who refuse to read from a screen, or buy print books online without being able to handle and leaf through them, are going to find fewer and fewer places where you can buy conventional books. And where you do find them, as in airport kiosks, you will find the choice of titles increasingly limited ... until the day when that kiosk turns into a vending machine that will let you choose your book from a screen, print it, bind it, and disgorge it. Choice will then be as great as the choice on Amazon (several million options)--but to get that choice, you will have to give up handling the book before you have purchased it.

And, as Asus, Dell, and other manufacturers bring out more of the lovely little two-pound do-everything long-life-battery notebook computers, and younger people read more and more downloads to their screens, the whole world of publishing will change until fifty years from now no one will carry around hardcovers or paperbacks. Hate the idea as we choose, it's the direction sheer financial exegency will inevitably lead us.

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Angie Maynes said...

Wow. My husband is not gonna like you. ;) I was just saying I needed a new book to take along to the in-laws. Barns and Noble is just as close to me as the library....

You just made my holiday shopping SO much easier!! And, I may just go ahead and get some book for my non-reader brother.

Sahar said...

I am always looking for an excuse to buy more books, and so I shall have to sacrifice myself and buy some! And I like your idea - I am going to buy books for everyone's birthday for the next couple of months!

P. H. M. said...

It's not so much that I think I'll never get into a big publishing house as that I don't care if the big publishing house is there when I get the chance. Seriously, though, this is the future that has been a long time coming. I say underground all the way, unto the point that every publisher is a writer with a day job. Pardon me, I know you the old school indoctrination buried to the core of your soul, and certainly this post gave me some insight into 'how things work,' but it didn't change my very DIY way of thinking. I came into the publishing game very much aware that I'd probably never see a profit, and that every "profit" I did see would be immediately re-invested. Does this mean I think that the age of writers-as-rockstars was a bad era to be alive for? No. I think that the rarity of good writers being famous these days is something to be like, "Damn," at, but I also think that this is going to weed out a large number of the people who write with dreams of getting rich out of the game. Those people generally suck at writing. I watch the trends. I see who's really publishing these days. I have solutions of my own on how to bring fiction back to the reader. I just think that the whole "buy a book from borders/amazon" philosophy has inherent flaws. If your theory is right, then certainly: go to a bookstore. But not a conglom bookstore; go to an indepdent bookstore that is less likely to return books to the publisher in the first place.

Janet Fox said...

Just posted a link to this great article on my blog, and heading out to the bookstore for my holiday shopping. Great article, great information, great nudge!

Beth Kephart said...

I have bought and I've bought and I've bought and I've bought and I'm still buying.

And I won't stop.

Absolutely. Buy books.

(love your blog, too)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

My publisher just sent me this link and I'm horrified, to say the least. A college class ordered 30 copies of my book, Tremolo, but all students didn't come through, so there were a few returns this month. Just a tiny piece of the problem, I'm sure, but your article hit home.

To help get the word out, and hopefully stimulate sales in general, I've written a short piece on Gather with links back to your article.

Thanks so much!

Aaron Paul Lazar

Marta said...

Yes! Oh, I am glad Denis Cass sent me here. This makes me feel slightly better. Granted, it doesn't make me feel that I'm ever going to have luck selling my book, but--self-obsession aside--it makes feel better about buying books.

learningtoread said...

Yo, Moonrat! This is Eliza who started the Combat the Bad - Buy a Book campaign over on LiveJournal. Thanks so much for commenting! I've been reading your blog here for a while, and I joined the FaceBook group last week (and dragged my FB friends with me).

I'll definitely spread the word on my LJ and elsewhere. Chelsea, The Page Flipper review maven, and I are putting our noggins together for an ongoing campaign. She's so cool.

So cool to get a comment from you! Thanks!


Anonymous said...

I ordered three books from this week. Oh, well. I'll have to force myself to buy some more. It shouldn't be hard though...I have about 20 on my wish list.

kathleen duey said...

Excellent analysis. Great solution. The first time someone explained the returns system to me--in the context of explaining why a portion of my royalties were being "reserved against returns" I laughed out loud. What a silly-ass system. And yes, I too, will go buy an extra book or two.

jacob said...

nice post

Kristan said...

WOW what a post! As a young Writer and aspiring Published Author, I must say, I think I'm in love with you. ;)

Mikey said...

love your blog good stuff

Snow said...

I think this is the best post I've read in a very long time. I must way though that you couldn't be more right, we do need to buy more books. Even if its on a genre we don't usually read. every purchase helps all genres.

Thank you so much for sharing this with us.


Sun Singer said...

Very informative post with some very informative comments.

I believe it's Harper Studio that's experimenting with a new model in which books won't be 100% returnable (damaged or not, over-ordered on purpose or not); stores will presumably get a better deal and advances (huge ones, anyway) will be cut back.

Hopefully the idea will spread and then perhaps fewer books will end up in the shreader.

I've always wondered why publishers are hostage to bookstores that want to keep this consignment system. Since 4-5 publishers control (what?) 85% of the sales, can't they just cut the returns? Who cares if BCS don't stock? Once they're gone, we'll have real bookstores again that aren't being put out of business by BCSs.

For now, if only more people would buy NEW books so both the publisher and the author have a shot at some ROI.


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Kerry said...

plus, if you buy a book, you can
save my dissertation!