Indie Frictions

I’m glad I didn’t have to say it. I’m glad that Charles Boyle took the initiative. Here it is, anyway, an uncomfortable truth about the relationship between independent publishers and bookshops:

In theory, independent bookshops are by definition supportive of small presses. In practice, no independent bookshops (with three or four honourable exceptions) stock CBe titles on a regular basis. (This is an observation, not a gripe.) When a customer asks a bookshop for a particular title that is not on the shelves, often the bookshop will check if it’s in stock at Gardners, the main wholesaler, and if not they will tell the customer the title is not available; they will choose not to order from CBe’s trade distributor. When I take books into bookshops myself, they may agree to take one or two copies on a sale-or-return basis — agreeing to pay for those copies (less trade discount) in three months’ time if they have sold, and requiring me to chase them for that. I know bookshops have to pay rent but those are not supportive practices.

One of the things I’d add, about which I’ve been asked several times, is a note on why small presses like Splice don’t allow returns. In brief, the industry standard is this: publishers make their titles available to bookstores with a discount on RRP (a minimum of 35%, and usually between 50% and 55%) and on a ninety-day sale-or-return basis, as Boyle indicates. In effect, this means that bookshops can order as many copies of a title as they please, and then, after three months, send back the unsold stock to the publisher at minimal expense to themselves. By “minimal,” I mean that they only have to foot the bill for the return postage, while the publisher has to foot the bill for the printing, warehousing, and initial postage of the stock, as well as other aspects of investment such as sales representation.

To put this in the simplest possible terms, the publisher is required to assume the commercial risk at both ends of the transaction, taking a blind risk on the commissioning of the author before publication and a post hoc risk on the sale of stock after publication. But why? If bookshops know their customers well — and indie bookshops pride themselves on knowing their customers much better than the conglomerates — then why can’t they take the post hoc risk and pay for the stock up-front before selling it on? A refusal of returns forces them to do just this, so that, at least when it comes to titles from Splice, it’s a sure thing that the risk is shared between the publisher and any retailers who would profit from the publisher’s risk. To my mind, that’s just a matter of fair and equitable business practices — although, alas, it’s many a bookshop that has refused to stock titles from Splice on the basis that they can’t return them risk-free.

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