Sale or return

The prolific US blogging editor who writes anonymously at Editorial Ass makes a valuable point: the biggest chain around the necks of book publishers, is that almost all bookshops operate on sale or return.

This leads to bizarre accounting practices and business difficulties for publishers. It means, for instance, that an author can get a negative royalty statement, because the publisher has had more returns than books sold (and it has to pay the bookshops back for those returned books). Thankfully the author isn't expected to pay back negative royalties, but it's still quite a blow to the ego.

Many publishers now hold back a portion of a book's earnings to cover the initial returns before handing these over as royalties - again, more accounting confusion.

The blog mentioned above reckons sale or return is why some publishers seem to be in financial difficulties despite sales holding up - because booksellers did a much larger than usual return of books to be able to stock up with shiny new stuff for Christmas.

Bookshops argue that sale or return is essential - without it, they say, they wouldn't be able to take a risk on new writers. But to be honest the chains don't take many risks anyway, and it's a system that makes the whole accounting system much more complicated, and can endanger publishers' business survival.

Should it be scrapped? To an extent it's academic. Publishers can't see a way out of it, because anyone who dropped it would be ignored by the booksellers, and they aren't able to act in unison (even though they seem to be able to do this over age banding, an issue I'll come onto another time). It probably won't change any time soon.