Sale or Return – Lazy and Absurd | @Tom_Chalmers

Sale or Return – Lazy and Absurd | @Tom_Chalmers

A publisher moaning about sale or return wouldn’t seem like an article for FutureBook. However, my aim is to look at this from a bookseller perspective and, if you are a bookseller, convince you that you should scrap this ludicrous, self-defeating, damaging way of doing business.

Firstly, having started my first publishing business eight years ago, I can say with complete certainty that if we were able to give books back to the printer that we didn’t sell, we would not still be in business.  Finished. Gone. Dissolved.

For it’s not due to our ebullient personalities and joy of life that we have launched book groups, focus groups, online forums, small press fairs, independent collectives, bookshop partnerships, fire sales, and so on. It wasn’t a love of the outdoors that led me to run a stall through Christmas at Greenwich or for us all to stand in the torrential rain selling books outside Eton College.

It is a drive, a need, at times a wild-eyed desperation, to sell our books. We have selected our books and we are very passionate about them, but we also have to sell them. That is our business or we no longer have a business. 

Accountability is often treated as a negative word – being held accountable – but for me it is also a hugely positive word.  In fact, accountability is one of the key foundations in every successful business. When there is nowhere to go, you deal with what’s in front of you. In this case, our books, our job to sell them.

Secondly, as the looming online threat has grown and sunk its teeth in, we have moved away from rather than towards proper bookselling, which has been disastrous.  We have tried to compete on price rather than on our trump card, the one thing the online retailers won’t and don’t do – hand selection of the best new books.

I have long said that I think bookshops should forget about the bestsellers on which they make little margin anyway, or just pay lip service to them. If a customer wants to buy Dan Brown, they’ll know you have it so why spend so much time and effort promoting it. An hour spent stacking them, and a second for an online retailer to change their price and wipe you out.

Find something new and exciting, be there first and make decent margin on it for the initial period. Go further – become the bookshop, or chain, that discovered Dan Brown, or the next big writer. There are some bookshops that do hand-select their books, The Kibworth Bookshop springs to mind, and do a fantastic job promoting and selling them to a large community following.

Individual selection and accountability. If we widely implement both, we can again have a vibrant high-street – one where bookshops are running every event, club, pop-up stall and so on to sell their stock. Joy and desperation are a heady mix.

And this isn’t utopist.  Accountability is basic, the most basic, business sense. 

One final point – I hate hearing sale or return means new writers can be given a chance. We’re looking for booksellers, not Bob Geldof – if you don’t think it can sell, then why is it in the shop.

I often think if I could have a second work life, i.e. more time, I want to launch a small book chain as I believe there is a big opportunity. I have been involved with BOOKS etc. since its saving from Borders and it has whetted my appetite. Watch this space… 

Therefore take a note of this article, save it somewhere, as  you have my word that if that somehow happens, no bookshop I am involved with will accept sale or return. We will interact with our customer base, we will choose the books and we will sell them. Not simple but just the way it should be.

Are you convinced or not? As always, I will be delighted to hear your views.

Tom Chalmers | @Tom_Chalmers