Too tough to say no

Want to see a publisher gnashing their teeth and looking very sad? Then simply try asking him or her what they think of the consignment system for selling books.

What the consignment system now means to us publishers is that a big, powerful chain—too important to be ignored—will order a quantity of books without paying a penny for them. They then pay for each book they sell, at a colossal discount, maybe as much as 65% off the cover price.

After a short while they return all the unsold books—usually so bashed around and/or stickered that they are fit only for the pulping machine. To add insult to injury the shops frequently ask for "marketing spend" (for which read prezzie) just to order the books in the first place.

So geared is this system in favour of the retailer that it is entirely possible for the publisher to sell several thousand books, yet still make a loss on the deal. To understand this imagine a shop ordering 10,000 books on consignment—the publisher, of course, has to pay to print these. If only 3,000 copies sell then he is way below the break-even threshold.

The conventional system, where shops order the books on a sale-or-return basis, is not without its problems. But at least the shop has an incentive not to order more books than it expects to sell, and will pay up within a fixed period, which makes it possible for the publisher to at least pay the printer and the rest before some of the books are returned.

It all started so well. Gently, the buyers breathed into the ears of reps throughout the land of a whole new way of doing things. Over friendly cups of tea, sweet words like "partnership" and  "sharing" were bandied about. The idea, we were told, was that all mainstream books would still be ordered in the time-honoured, sale-or-return way. However, if the buyer didn't fancy a particular title, but the rep really believed they should stock it, then the shop would take a few copies "on consignment" (ie, free until sold) to test a title out. If it worked, then of course more shipments of the title would be bought in the conventional way.

For a brief, glorious honeymoon period this is exactly what happened. It all seemed a great, new way of doing things. Indeed, it still works well enough with modest orders of specialist titles. It is the crossover to ordering large quantities of big  mainstream titles in this way that is so tough on publishers.

Of course, one might reasonably ask why, if publishers don't like consignment selling, they are prepared to cooperate with it. A fair question, but in today's shrinking book market we are mostly too flipping desperate to even consider saying "no".