Time for a firm commitment

<p><em>This week's Leader column from the magazine</em>:</p>
<p>The right of retailers to send books back seems enshrined in the industry&rsquo;s basic constitution. Yet it is a relatively recent system, introduced in the wake of the Second World War as a temporary measure. In 10 years&rsquo; time, will we look back on returns of backlist stock as a quaint anachronism of the 20th century? <a href="http://www.thebookseller.com/news/42764-publishers-push-for-firm-sale.ht... is certainly under threat</a>.</p>
<p>For all the talk of recycled paper and carbon footprints, it is the trade&rsquo;s dirty secret that so many paperbacks are sent back to distributors to be pulped&mdash;even while more copies of the same title are being printed for other shops (often within the same chain). Faber, for example, received 3,449 returns of <em>Remains of the Day</em> last year, and 1,116 of <em>Lord of the Flies</em>. Both novels sell in tens of thousands a year across the trade.</p>
<p>Many booksellers are careful to keep hold of perennial bestsellers, while using the flexibility of &ldquo;sale or return&rdquo; to trail new authors. But the convention has encouraged some retailers to behave as risk-free showrooms for publishers&rsquo; wares, even using returns as a way of bolstering their cashflow in tight times.</p>
<p>But with the improvement in supply chain systems in recent years, there is no excuse for wayward ordering of backlist. Waterstone&rsquo;s has already mooted a move to firm sale after it has set up its centralised warehouse. Borders, if it can continue to upgrade its own systems under new ownership, will also be open to change.</p>
<p>Supermarkets seem likely to be most resistant to backlist firm sale. Yet here publishers need to be &shy;bolder. As Harry Potter has shown, books are becoming an essential product rather than an additional extra for the likes of Tesco and Asda. So publishers can lay down some new buying rules. The quid pro quo is extra terms, but once the endless supply chain shuffling is reduced, there should be margin leeway for both parties.</p>
<p>Of course there are risks: retailers may become even more cautious on order levels, thereby frustrating customers expecting to find core titles (some chains were too frugal on Harry Potter 7). Yet the change could also prompt booksellers to get behind backlist more boldly.</p>
<p><em>The Bookseller </em>believes the case for a shift to firm sale on backlist is now unassailable. Publishers and retailers need to place it at the top of their agenda&mdash;change will initially be awkward, but it will soon become the norm. It will give a more solid, shared base for publisher-retailer relationships, and a much-needed fillip to the industry&rsquo;s green credentials.</p>