Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Death to the Publishing Industry: Long Live the Publishing Industry!

Two weeks ago I wrote about the pitfalls of an author receiving a large advance. Despite the feedback I received, I am still convinced that the up-and-coming author would be better off rejecting a $20K advance and asking the publisher to invest that money in book promotion. And yes, I am still waiting for a publisher to test my resolve!

But there is another principle, another cornerstone of the publishing industry that I wish to vilify: The Principle of Returns. In any other industry, the shop can return a product to the manufacturer if it proves defective or damaged. A bookstore can return a book if…it doesn’t sell.

Where is the responsibility? Your average big bookstore will stock around 100,000 books in their store, while taking responsibility to promote only a few. Why should they put any effort into selling any but a select number, when they always have the option of returning the books and receiving a full refund? Barnes & Noble, I understand, are taking a lead in responsible book ordering and trying to find a more sustainable model.

This has two major effects. Firstly, there are way too many trees being cut down unnecessarily and energy being wastefully expended on production (I admit that I have not yet felt a desire to purchase a Kindle or other electronic reader, despite being a fervent environmentalist and Star Trek fan – where do you think the idea came from?).

The second issue is that such a policy is blatantly discriminatory to the smaller and independent publisher, who can often receive a book returned a couple of years later. Such business practices are strangling the smaller publishers and creating a fearful environment of huge corporations that base their decisions exclusively on the bottom line.

Last month, I attended a talk by Charlotte Cook, president of KOMENAR Publishing, a small independent company, at the California Writers Club (Berkeley branch). Ms. Cook spoke about how they often receive returns up to four years after ‘selling’ a book.

But what most annoyed me was Ms. Cook’s account of a recent booksellers’ conference to which several workshops focused on teaching booksellers how to improve a returns instead of payment strategy in. Certainly booksellers who hadn’t previously considered returns as a legitimate and productive business tactic, may well have left the conference thinking why not?

Like Ms. Cook, I am left pondering: why did they not offer workshops on, perhaps, how to promote and sell a book?

I have heard rumors that there are a number of well-placed people in the industry who want to abolish the returns policy, and that they are exploring the idea of creating a publishing house that will not work on this premise.

I have no idea where this stands, and have to admire the courage of anyone in this economic climate who would consider leaving a secure job to set up a new business while challenging one of the sacred cows of the industry, even if it is time to put that cow out to pasture.

Good Writing,

Alon

Btw – I am five days away from holding a copy of Oilspill dotcom in my hands.

Also thank you to those who offered feedback about my website (http://www.alonshalev.com). I really appreciate your input.

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