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How the Book Industry Can Save $3 Billion Dollars and 12 Million Trees

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In a desperate industry trying to scramble together 1% growth after being smacked with the Great Recession, the idea of saving the average publisher $40,000 every year should be a popular one. Add to that a 40% reduction of the industry's carbon footprint, amounting to the carbon output equivalent of 2 million mid-sized cars, the saving of 60,000 acres worth of trees every year, and an additional $3 billion in profit industry-wide. What is this mystery magical solution?

The elimination of book returns.

Since sometime during the Great Depression, book returns became the de facto process of the book world. Booksellers have the option to return any book they don't sell for full credit. Ultimately, this has resulted in incredible waste. On average, 40% of all books are returned to the publisher and then recycled or destroyed. That means over 1.5 billion books produced each year never reach the hands of a book buyer.

This process is in place for good reason. According to a recent Bowker report, up to 25% of book buyers only buy books because they found it in a retail location on a rack or display. Studies have shown that inventory creates sales that wouldn't have otherwise occurred. In other words, if the book is not stacked on a pile, the prospective book buyer ignores it - or worst, if the book isn't present at all, it won't be purchased. As Renee Zellweger said in the 2003 film Down With Love in response to seeing a bookstore carrying only one copy of her new book, "If someone buys it, well, then there will be none. It will be as if it never even existed."

It was an important mechanism to have in place when the only way a customer was going to find out about a book was by going to a bookstore. Times have changed. Retail is not the Holy Grail it once was. With brick and mortar losing 15 points in one year and online book sales going through the roof, there are many avenues for book buyers to learn about books.

But, for argument's sake, let's assume that not one of the 25% Bowker talks about buys a book because they are no longer available en masse at a bookstore. That means the industry will have lost $3 billion in sales. However, since they were no longer producing 40% extra in inventory, they would have saved $6 billion. The industry is still $3 billion ahead!

We don't need book returns anymore. Without returns, book publishers can afford to give retailers well-deserved high discounts, book prices could be set low enough to compete with eBooks, excess inventories would no longer be a burden, and retailers would no longer have to carry the risk of a publisher-enthused push. There are technologies in place, particularly in the field of digital printing, that make warehousing books a costly, wasteful and antiquated process.

By flipping one switch, the industry could make billions, and begin to reverse the environmental damage caused by wasteful practices. The whole industry needs to be on board for a true financial and environmental impact. Looking at the numbers, I see no reason why bookstores and publishers alike wouldn't jump at the chance.

For statistical sources refer to the June Editorial "A Case For Eliminating Book Returns In The Publishing Industry" at The Way Things Are Publications.

Jennifer Havenner is a Los Angeles-based independent publisher that focuses on social issues.