Yet, one curious area of the book business are book returns. Returning unsold books for credit or refund is considered an essential part of the bookselling business. In the process, we ship books between retailers and warehouses, try and resell return copies and ultimately end up pulping unwanted titles. The latest report from RISE Bookselling, a project led by the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF), investigates seven case studies of how book returns work in European and international countries. We reached out to Daniel Martin Brennan and Tora Åsling, Policy Advisor and Policy Officer at the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF) for more details.

Q. What exactly is the book returns process and does it differ per market?

In very simple terms, it is when published books, which a bookshop cannot sell, are shipped back to the publisher or wholesaler. During the returns process, unsold books can either be resold or they end up being pulped (i.e., recycled) or, on some occasions, destroyed.

Each country and market may have a different way they might implement and manage this process. This is one of the reasons why we wanted to commission an industry insights report to better understand what exactly is different, or perhaps the same, and could be learnt from better understanding these processes in the interim both from an efficiency and environmental point of view.

Q. Why are book returns so controversial within the publishing sector?

Book returns, in all if its many forms, allows booksellers to minimize financial losses while still investing in a wide diversity of titles for their customers. This incentivizes both booksellers and publishers to publish a diverse range of titles and for consumers who ultimately get a great choice of the best books to buy. However, we must also recognize that book returns also have downsides. There can be a lot of administration, logistics, and transportation involved in book returns. With sustainability firmly on the agenda for booksellers and publishers, it was time to examine the dynamics and see if we can learn from different markets to improve efficiency and minimize the environmental impact.

Q. How did you gather the insights for the report?

Like we said, no two markets are the same, so we decided to base the report on seven case studies using countries where there were different systems, return rates, geographical representation, and linguistic diversity. For this report we selected Latvia, Luxemburg, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden. We then conducted interviews with representatives from across the book chain with the results launched at the Sustainability Hub during London Book Fair.

Q. What type of book return models are there?  

The biggest insight for us was that the report was really a first attempt to try and identify and define the variety of book return models. Over the course of the research, we found three typical types of contracts between booksellers and publishers or wholesalers.

  1. Firm sale: Where the bookshop receives an invoice for the books at the same time they are delivered, with no option to return.
  2. Contracts with right to return: Booksellers have the right to return unsold books within an agreed time period. Books are invoiced on delivery and upon return, the bookshop will receive a credit to spend on new books. Typically, the book is returned to the publisher or distributor, who then decides to try and resell, or pulp them. In some markets a “trusted return” is used to avoid transporting unsold books, where retailers are trusted to keep credited books and dispose them within a reasonable period of time.
  3. Contracts on consignment: Bookshops pay for the books they sell, only after they have sold them. Books are delivered without an invoice and returned without a credit. In this model, a publisher/wholesaler may demand returns, for example in case of low stock, and bookshops may request to return a book, for example if they need more space for new titles.

Q. What did you find out about book returns across different markets?  

Perhaps the three top insights were:

  • Efficient book returns depend on data. Having access to good stock management systems is important, but we found in Sweden and Slovakia for example, bigger chains have the resources to have these systems, while independent stores do not, leaving them at a disadvantage.
  • In some markets there is an overproduction of books. In the case of Netherlands, whilst their return rate was between 5-6%, around 2 million books per year still end up getting pulped. In contrast, we found in Spain that 60% of new books published hardly sell any copies and do not reach sufficient readers.
  • Market dynamics influence returns. In some cases, the same model might make for an efficient return process, such as the consignment model in Latvia and Slovakia which results in low return rates. But when used in a market with an excess of new titles, such as in Spain, we see higher return rates. We also know, that while the location of bookshop bears little impact, in markets for example like New Zealand, they are almost entirely reliant on imported books, which reduces the booksellers’ time to sell the books, in addition to the extra shipping by air or sea.

Q. What were the final recommendations and next steps?  

Cooperation and dialogue! We need both publishers, wholesalers, and booksellers to work together, but also bookshops, both big and small, to learn and develop together. The key is more efficiency, better curation and experimentation to see what can work for the local market and how we can balance the environmental impact of book returns.

This report is the start of the conversation that needs to happen between all the actors in the book chain. The report has gained a lot if interested and there is interest in developing this further. We encourage other markets who wish to be included in this project to let us know!