Why Bookstores Want Books that are Returnable

Getting your book into bookstores can be a huge boost for discoverability and sales, and is a common goal for many authors. One way to increase your chances of getting your book onto bookstore shelves is making sure it is returnable. This means the bookstore is able to return unsold copies of your book and get refunded for the purchase, and is an important option because of the risk involved with bringing in a book that may or may not sell. For example, if a bookstore is considering a book from a new author that doesn’t have any prior sales history, the assurance that they can recoup losses if needed may sway their purchase decision.

Will bookstores buy books that aren’t returnable?

Most brick and mortar bookstores will not buy books that are not returnable. This includes “big box” stores such as Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, and Walmart, and most independent bookstores as well. While having a returnable book does not guarantee placement in bookstores, it makes your book that much more appealing to booksellers.

So, how does the process work, and how can you make sure your book meets this important criterion? Traditional publishers typically offer a book returns program for the books they publish and sell. Many supported self-publishing service providers will offer an optional book returns program that can be purchased for an additional fee. For independently published authors the process can be more challenging, but there are some options to improve your chances for bookstore placement.

How do I make my self-published or independently published book returnable?

Many self-published or independently published books utilize a print-on-demand (POD) service for production and distribution, meaning physical copies of the book are printed only as ordered. Most POD programs will offer a returns option for an additional fee. IngramSpark, for example, let’s the author choose between 3 different return options when a book up is set up on their platform. Signing up for the optional book return program with a supported self-publishing company will ensure your book is designated as “returnable” through the major wholesalers and distributors they’ve partnered with.

What happens to returned books?

Generally, books are returnable either with delivery or with destruction. The bookstore is reimbursed the wholesale value of the books, and you or your publisher are responsible for any shipping and handling fees. Authors will typically retain any royalties earned on the unsold copies, but be sure to carefully read the book return policies and terms with your specific publisher.

Returnable with delivery: if you’re traditionally published, the books will be shipped back to your publisher or their distribution partner, and they will incur any fees associated with shipping and handling. They may resell these books if undamaged. When independently publishing, the books will come to your home or address you have associated with your account. You will personally have to pay any additional shipping and handling fees in this case.

There are multiple options for what to do with these books if returned to you. You can resell to other buyers if the books are undamaged, or, the books can be gifted, donated to libraries or schools, or handed out at author events. Don’t feel discouraged that these copies didn’t get purchased the first time around – there is still an opportunity for you to share your book with the world!

Returnable with destruction: many supported self-publishing companies have agreements with their distribution partners to recycle or destroy the books upon return. Authors typically pay a yearly flat fee for this optional returns program, rather than paying for each book returned. If publishing independently, be sure you read the return policies and terms for your specific service provider or publishing platform to see what fees you are responsible for in this case.

What if my publisher or distributor doesn’t offer a returns program?

If your chosen publishing path does not provide a returns option, you may consider offering your book to stores on consignment instead. This is a low-stakes way to get your book in the public eye: a store will display your book and only pay you once a copy is sold.

This method can work well at local, smaller stores, so think outside of the bookstore! Maybe a coffee shop or restaurant will be willing to display your book. If you can find a business or organization that aligns with the message or subject of your book, that’s even better.

If you’re selling your book on consignment at a local bookstore, they may already have guidelines in place for the process. But, if you need to come up with your own terms and conditions with a business, keep in mind that the standard agreement gives the retailer 40% of each sale. This leaves you with 60% to cover your publishing and shipping costs and make a profit. Be sure to keep written records of everything you and the store manager agree upon.

If you end up with returned books, now may be a good time to reconsider your marketing plan or presence on social media to see what you can do to increase awareness for your book. Your book can still be read and enjoyed by the right readers. And remember, even without a returns option, there is still the potential to get your book into bookstores and other businesses. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

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