Would You Whisk Returns Away?

January 2006
by A PMA Roundtable

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The
origins of returns in the book business aren’t entirely clear.

 

In the
first decades of the 20th century, the bookseller’s right to return was
“granted sparingly and selectively,” and “it began to be offered more broadly
in the 1930s and 1940s,” according to one authority, who adds that the right
pertained then to “particular titles.” Mass market paperback publishers “had to
adopt” a no-returns policy in connection with “the paperback revolution, which began
after World War II,” another source says, explaining that these publishers
depended on magazine distributors, which were accustomed to returning stock for
full credit. More specifically, a third authority recalls, “Simon &
Schuster, part owner of Pocket Books, introduced the magazine-style returns
concept to books when it offered booksellers a 100 percent returns privilege”
on just one title.

 

Two
things about returns, however, are entirely clear:

 

1. The
returns policy didn’t work the way it was supposed to—or, in the words of
the observers quoted above, it “soon got out of hand”; returns became “a drag
on the economic stability of retailers and publishers and the livelihoods of
authors,” and the returns situation “went out of control.”

 

2. The
book business didn’t always allow returns.

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