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Things Are Not What They Seem

The Connection Between Returns and the Bestsellers Lists &
Other Publishing Oddities

Nina L. Diamond, Guest Author

Don't lose too much sleep feeling sorry for publishers who worry about the large numbers of returns in the industry.

Things are not what they seem.

Here's what returns are and why publishers large and small, major and independent, have been complaining about them for years.

And here's what you don't hear them talk about, which will be of even more interest to you: the connection between returns and the bestsellers lists.

First, a few basics. When bookstores order books from a publisher, either directly or through a distributor or wholesaler, those bookstores can return any unsold books.

Returns annoy publishers, of course. At least, that's what they tell us.

And they frustrate authors because initial reports about how many of their books have been sold usually turn out to be false. Later on, after returns are factored in, authors learn that they haven't really sold as many books as they thought they had.

Bookstores, no matter what kind of noise they might make from time to time about the returns issue, must be breathing a sigh of relief every time a new round of the heated debate doesn't end with a serious plan to ban all returns. That's because as long as returns are allowed, bookstores don't have to make much of an effort to sell their wares. Whatever they don't sell, they know they can return.

Back to that bit about how returns annoy publishers. If they really annoyed them so much, it would be the simplest thing in the world to end returns. In about 10 seconds. All publishers would have to do is announce: "As of (fill in the date, about 3-6 months from whenever the announcement date is), all publishers will no longer accept returns."

The only exception to the no returns policy would be academic bookstores. If particular classes are cancelled, they'll need to return the textbooks and other books they ordered for the students of those classes.

If every publisher in the country banded together and made this joint, industry-wide announcement, returns would instantly cease to be.

End of returns problem.

So, why don't they just announce an industry-wide no returns policy? Because it would completely change the nature of the bestsellers lists, how publishers market and promote their lead titles, and get rid of one of the biggest illusions in publishing.

You mean, returns have something to do with the bestsellers lists? Yup. They sure do. Here's how it works: When a publisher hypes its lead titles to get bookstores to order tons of copies, those orders, when they're high enough, land a book on The New York Times Bestsellers list and other national and regional bestsellers lists.

To get on a bestsellers list, a book doesn't ever have to have been bought by an actual human being a reader it just has to have been ordered in large enough quantities by bookstores. That's why books often hit the lists before any readers have bought the book at a retail outlet.

With big orders, a book can get on the list. But, what does it take to stay on the list past the first few weeks, past the first month, past the first six weeks, that critical time when authors of lead titles are at the height of their promotion, including books tours? And what does it take to stay on the list beyond that?

Staying on the list requires more orders of your book by bookstores.

A bookstore won't order more books until they see books flying off the shelves. If that does happen, then the store orders more in anticipation of the continuing demand. If the book isn't selling as well as the publisher's hype promised, then it'll take longer for a bookstore to re-order. And if a book is selling poorly, a store may do few, if any, big re-orders, and only keep one or two copies on the shelves and order more as customers come in and ask the store to order them one, which could amount to an order of one book a month, or maybe not even an order for six months on that title.

What happens to a book that landed on the bestseller list because of early big orders, but then people aren't buying it in droves as the publisher had hoped, and the booksellers had anticipated?

That's easy. It falls quickly off the bestseller list.

And what happens to all those books that readers didn't buy, that booksellers still have in stock from their big initial order?

That's easy, too: The bookstores return the books to the publisher.

And, so what do we have? That's right: we have the illusion of a bestseller.

We have publishers who can now promote a book by saying it's been a bestseller, and hoping that this might make people ignore whatever made them not buy the book in the first place and go ahead and buy it now.

We have publishers who can now claim they've got yet another bestselling title. vWe have publishers who can use the bestseller status of a hardcover book, even if it was only on the list for one week, to promote the paperback reprint when it comes out nine months or a year later.

A book that was on the bestsellers list might not have really sold enough to warrant being on there? That's right. The publishers initially sold those books to bookstores in big enough quantities to warrant putting the book on a bestsellers list, but pretty soon, after big returns, that book's actual sales to retailers a return, after all, isn't a final sale can be far lower than what it takes to get on the bestsellers list. So, the book was on the list for a little while on life support. It was an anticipated bestseller, but not an actual bestseller.

And wouldn't that be confusingif every bestsellers list was divided into two sections: anticipated bestsellers and actual bestsellers. Yes, but don't lose any sleep over that, either, because it won't happen. Remember that famous scene in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy's dog, Toto, pulls back the curtain to reveal an old man moving levers and talking into a microphone to create an illusion of the wizard on a screen on the other side of the room? And, remember what the old guy said? He said, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" Publishers aren't going to pull back their own curtain and reveal the bestseller list illusion by having an "anticipated" list and an "actual" list.

So, let me get this straight: because publishers will accept returns from bookstores, publishers can get books on the bestsellers lists that would never have warranted orders large enough to get on the lists had returns not been an option for bookstores? That's right. You've got it. So, despite all their moaning about how much they hate returns, publishers really have quite an incentive to let them continue. And, perhaps that's why an industry-wide ban on returns hasn't happened, and isn't in the works, despite how simple it would be to have one. Publishers' complaints about returns are really just a smokescreen so that nobody notices the benefit to publishers of allowing returns. As Shakespeare wrote, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Why don't bestsellers lists change to only reflect the number of books sold to actual bookstore/retailer human customers? I'd like to know that, too, and so would a lot of other people. The new Book Standard bestsellers list is based on Nielsen BookScan sales figures, but the rest of the lists, including the granddaddy of 'em all, The New York Times bestsellers lists, and the grandma, Publishers Weekly's bestsellers lists, are still based on sales to bookstores and other retail outlets. I think that publishers wouldn't be very happy with any list that changed from being based on sales to retailers to being based on sales to human/reader/customers. And the companies that create those lists probably have plenty of financial incentive not to tick off the publishing houses. After all, The New York Times and Publishers Weekly rely on a ton of advertising from publishers.

Now, on to other publishing oddities: job titles in the publishing industry aren't what they seem, either. Most editors, for example, rarely, if ever, edit in the traditional sense. They don't work closely with authors on manuscripts, and have little, if any, time to devote to that. They pretty much prefer not to even hear from an author until the manuscript is turned in. Editors are, more accurately, Project Managers. They acquire books, negotiate contracts, and manage the book as it goes from editorial through production, printing, distribution, marketing, and promotion.

Publishing house imprint names can cause confusion in book reviews, in media and internet coverage, and in bibliographies. It's time for a uniform way of identifying exactly who publishes a book. Sometimes you'll see a book noted as published by the house, sometimes by a "group" within a house, and sometimes by a house or group's imprint, but with no mention of the imprint's "parent" house or group.

Here's a simple way to remedy that: Publishers can list their books as published by Imprint/Group or Other Similar Entity, if applicable/House. And then everybody follows suit book reviewers, the press, the internet, people compiling bibliographies or book lists, anyone with any reason to cite the publisher of a book.

Imprints come and go, groups come and go when houses merge or are bought by other houses, and houses get glommed together with all this merging and buying.

As publishing oddities and illusions go, this one seems like a pretty simple one to clear up quickly.

As for Editors more accurately being renamed Project Managers, or returns ever being banned, well, holding your breath is not recommended.


Copyright © - Nina L. Diamond - Reprinted with permission. Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, and the author of Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and The Miami Herald.

Ms. Diamond was a writer and performer on Pandemonium, the National Public Radio (NPR) satirical humor program, for its entire run in Miami and select markets nationwide from 1984-1998. As an editor, she works frequently with other authors and journalists on both fiction and non-fiction. This article was originally published at Independent Publisher Online. offers articles, reviews, and an array of marketing tools and educational opportunities for independent authors and publishers. IP sponsors the annual Independent Publisher Book Awards, conducted each year to "recognize excellence in independent publishing" and "to reward those who exhibit the courage, innovation and creativity to bring about change in the world publishing."


  If you would like to talk one-on-one with Larry James about issues related to this article, you are invited to arrange for a private coaching session by telephone. Go to Author & Speaker Coaching for specific details and fees.

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