Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How Do You Handle Returns? You Have 3 Choices.

They're all bad: With my favorite on-demand printer, Lightning Source, you can open a "wholesale account," which makes your book available to distributors, bookstores, and other resellers through the Lightning Source system. It's tempting because Lightning Source is owned by Ingram, a major book distributor, which makes you think they know something about book distribution.

None of my customers has yet tried the wholesale account, perhaps because I discourage it. Book distribution is not for the faint of heart. It's expensive, risky, and ineffective, Other than that, it's fine. With this post, I want to talk mainly about risk, which has to do with "returns."

When you open a wholesale account with Lightning Source (or most other distributors), you will be asked how you want to handle returns. You have three options:

  1. No returns: This is the least risky option. Bookstores can't return your books, to you or the distributor. That's good for you. On the other hand, bookstores hate this option. If you choose this, count on them to not order any books from you unless someone walks into the store and asks for your book. In that case, they might order one. One.
  2. Returns okay--deliver. If you approve of returns, you'll get more orders. And returns. If you choose this option, you will pay a significant extra handling charge to have the books returned. And ... you may get them back damaged. Too bad.
  3. Returns okay--destroy. If you approve of returns, you have another option. You can tell your distributor to destroy the returned books. This seems silly, except that experience has taught many publishers that so many of the books come back damaged that it's smarter to destroy the books and save the extra shipping and handling costs. In this case, the distributor may send you the covers to prove that the books have been destroyed. The fact that this option even exists should tell you something about how risky the business is.
If you must play the distribution game, we recommend Option #1.

However, there is some potentially good news in play. The Book Espresso Machine, which can be installed in bookstores and libraries, allows booksellers to print a copy of a book "on demand." This means the bookstore doesn't have to keep your book in inventory but can still sell it through its on-demand channel--and you get bookstore sales without worrying about returns. It's a win-win. That hasn't happened in the bookselling world for a while. The Publishing Pro.

Turn Your Permissions Problem into Opportunity.

It's networking: I love almost everything about book publishing, but I have to acknowledge to my customers that the permissions game--that is, covering yourself by asking permission to use any material you want to quote--is a pain in the p'toot. It's mostly time-consuming paperwork, combined with the dread that you might not get permission to use an important quote--or, worse, be asked to pay for it. The person on the other end--the one who will give you permission--probably isn't having any fun either. (I speak from experience.) The only reason you go through this process is because it's the ethical thing to do (or, if the ethics aren't driving you, because it could keep you out of some big-time legal trouble).

Unfortunately, this sort of honesty isn't particularly motivating to authors. Quite the opposite. I was working through this dilemma with a would-be author when she pointed out that many of the people she was quoting were potential allies that she wanted to meet. In other words, they were "key contacts." It dawned on me that all of us could be looking at the permissions-gathering effort more as an opportunity for networking than as a strategy for staying out of legal trouble.

Think about it. When you quote somebody and give them credit, you're plugging their book and their work. Usually, they are going to be glad you're doing so. Moreover, chances are better than average that they will have a natural interest in what you're writing about. Asking permission to use their material is a great excuse for making contact. Of course, they may turn you over to the publisher to complete the paperwork, but by then you've accomplished two things: 1) talking to an important contact and 2) finding out where to go for written permission. The Publishing Pro.