The latest trend in POD is returnability. This is aimed at overcoming one of the greatest obstacles faced by POD published books when it comes to distribution through brick and mortar bookstores and a number of publishers have jumped on board. The theory sounds great and in some instances it may be a wonderful opportunity but it is also something that should probably be approached with some caution.
The company currently offering this service is Springboard Logistics and --as far as I can tell from some publishers that have signed up for this service-- the system works roughly as follows: The author pays a fixed fee for the first year ($500.00) and a lower fee ($140.00) for each year after that. This fee serves as insurance to cover potential returns, thus the book becomes more appealing for traditional bookstores and some doors that were closed due to the lack of a returns policy are suddenly open. The fact that the author is paying for this 'insurance' means that this returnability has almost no impact on the author's royalties. It is a nice theory but it's not necessarily a good idea for most POD published titles.
The cost of the service is not excessive within the context of traditional publishing --in fact it is as reasonable as you are likely to get because of the expenses involved-- but it does represent a significant increase in the number of copies an author must sell in order to break even. To play around with some numbers you have the following: If you are making a 10% royalty on external sales (this service does not affect direct sales) and your book has a retail price of $15.00 then you would need to sell an additional 333 copies during the first year and 93 copies each year after that in order to earn the same amount of money you would have made if your book had been non-returnable. This is not an increase that should be taken lightly and --unfortunately-- it is one that the vast majority of POD published titles are unlikely to reflect.
Another thing that is worth mentioning is that the company providing this service is willing to work directly with authors who are published by companies other than the ones with which they have an agreement (though they won't work directly with an author who is promoting a book published by one of their partners without sharing all pertinent information with said publisher). For authors approaching them directly there is not a single available package deal but rather a number of customizable options. In other words, returnability may be an option for your book regardless of whether or not the publisher you are currently working with offers this as an option, though you may encounter some glitches when it comes to the service's implementation when there is no communication between the publisher and Springboard Logistics.
So let's move on to the good news, bad news and worse news section of this thing:
-The good news is the fact that returnability is now an option for POD published titles and the terms are fairly reasonable.
-The bad news include the fact that returnability would impose a rather hefty yearly burden on authors, doing away with a system that allows authors to recoup their expenses over a longer period of time at virtually no extra cost.
-The other piece of bad news is the fact that this package is unlikely to be profitable in about 95% of the cases.
-The worse news is that trying to identify the 5% of titles that are likely to benefit is a guessing game, so it's up to the individual author to decide whether or not this is a risk worth taking.
To stick with a pessimist's outlook let's focus on the worse news (the other three are self-explanatory enough):
-There are some books that can be immediately ruled out as books that are unlikely to profit from this service, these are mostly titles aimed at a very narrow niche market.
-Books that will be marketed mostly in a direct fashion are also unlikely to benefit from this package because returnability is not a major issue when bookstores are being bypassed.
-When it comes to books that have been out for a while, guessing whether or not going for returnability is a good idea becomes somewhat easier. A way of seeing this is: If the increase in sales you would need in order to earn the same amount of money adds up to less than half the copies the book has sold in a year with no returns then making it returnable is probably a good idea (sticking with the previous example, if your book has sold 666 copies in the last year with no returns, then forking out the additional $500.00 may be a good investment, but remember that you would then have to sell 1,000 copies in order to earn the same amount of money). If the book has sold only a few copies without a returns policy, then making it returnable is unlikely to be cost effective. Or to make things easier: If your book is making a reasonable amount of money without returnability, then making it returnable may be a good option (with emphasis on the may), if your book is clearly not making money without returnability then this will probably only cause you to lose more money.
-New books aimed at a large potential audience represent the biggest challenge because there are no reliable guidelines. Seeing how in most instances publishers allow for returnability to be an option that can be added at a later date --though this policy may change in the future-- it may be a good idea to assume a wait and see attitude when it comes to new releases and then use the same guiding principles that were mentioned for existing titles.
-One group that could possibly benefit from this service is the one represented by books that have a 'captive audience' (books that may be required reading in some college courses, for instance)... of course, the authors of these books may prefer to engage in direct marketing, which would lead to higher returns per copy anyway.
-Another kind of book for which this service may be cost effective is the one made up of specialized books that have a higher than average retail price, since the number of copies that would have to be sold in order to recoup the original fee would be drastically reduced (this does not extend to books with a very small market, but rather refers to some technical books and so on aimed at a wider audience).
It is important to keep in mind that while returnability offers some undeniable advantages, there remain a number of other obstacles in the path of POD published titles that won't disappear simply because a title is listed as returnable. The most relevant of these has to do with the fact that bookstores have limited shelves and while the possibility of purchasing risk free display copies does help to a certain extent, each book by an unknown author ordered by a bookstore is one copy less of the latest bestseller that they can have available for their customers. Having a fast moving stock is seen as critical by most bookstores so this works against unknown authors. It is a sad fact but in too many instances the lack of returns has been seen not just as a reason but also as an excuse to reject books that were unwanted to begin with and returnability is unlikely to make a difference in those instances.
Over all I would say that returnability is a welcome option and a nice addition to the POD arsenal as long as it remains as just an option. Making returnability mandatory would probably be a step in the wrong direction, one that would make it much harder for POD published authors to break even.
So, should your book be returnable? There are no absolute answers simply because each book is different. Hopefully the information presented here will help you make an informed decision based on your book's characteristics.
Relevant links:Springboard Logistics (http://www.springboardlogistics.com)