There are many quirks in the book industry but none as ridiculous as the issue of publisher returns. Unlike normal retail where slow selling product is discounted until somebody buys, book stores can return unsold books to the publisher for full credit. This can create serious inventory issues for publishers, to say the least. One minute you’ve shipped 200,000 copies to bookstores, a month later half come back unsold. The publisher, who has spent great sums producing the books, is saddled with them again.
Bookstores are obviously happy with the system (generally) and see little reason to give up a perk that, to my knowledge, no other retailer enjoys. I’m not sure what might happen to a particular store I know if it actually had to pay attention to its inventory rather than over-order **stuff** that will not sell, only to ship it all back a week later. (The bookstore pays for shipping, both ways, so you can imagine the level of frustration among the bookselling staff as they watch their raises wheeled out the door in the form of tens of thousands of returns.)
However, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that a new Harper Collins imprint will end this arrangement. I look forward to seeing if the publishing giant can make inroads with a more sensible system, which, among other things, I think will free publishers to take more chances on authors not named James Patterson or Danielle Steele.