Pulling Back the Publishing Veil: Return Reserves, Buy-in, and Sell-through

One of my plans for my posts here at Amazing Stories is to focus on some of the aspects about publishing that a new author may not be aware of. I hope to have a full series of “Pulling Back the Veil” posts. Today, I’m going to focus on Return Reserves but to understand that, I’m going to have to talk a bit about print book distribution…so bear with me as everything will make sense in the end.

Bookstores and libraries don’t like cutting hundreds of checks to different publishers so they buy most of their books from distributors like Ingram (for bookstores) and Baker and Taylor (for libraries). The publishers do a print run (in the old days these were large (and still are for big titles) on the order of magnitude of several hundred thousand or even a million), but nowadays advances in printing technology have made shorter runs of 2,000 or 3,000 more common.  Today, turnaround times for these shorter runs can be a week or two (rather than many months) so publishers are reducing costs (warehousing fees are based on numbers stored) and limiting risks (less likely to remainder* or pulp* (more on this at the end of the article)) by doing these smaller runs.

Publishers have “seasons” some might have two a year (Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter) and others four (one for each season). When acquiring a book a decision is made as to what calendar to target the book for, and this could be very far in the future (if the prior calendars are already full or if the editor suspects that there will need to be a lot of editing).  A catalog is produced (usually printed and sent to corporate book buyers although many are adopting online or electronic catalogs) which show all the front list titles (those that are new to this season, as well as  back list (books that were featured in a previous catalog but are still selling well). The publisher employs sales people whose job it is to use the catalog, their contacts in the industry, and what they know about what will be “hot” to obtain pre-orders. This actually helps to determine how many books will be printed for the first run, and as I’ve already said “reprints” can be done fairly quickly if demand proves higher than expected.

Orders that the bookstore places (either during pre-ordering or later once the book is actually available) aren’t really sales. All that has really happened is the books have moved out of the warehouse of the distributor and into another warehouse (for a big organization like Barnes & Nobles) and also onto shelves in stores. Which brings us to a good time to explain two of the terms in the post’s title:

  •  Buy-in – indicates books that have left the distributor’s warehouse and are now in the possession of the retailer.  They aren’t really “sales” because they are part of the stores inventory, and if all works as planned they will eventually become sold.
  • Sell-through – is when someone goes into the bookstore and actually buys the book (assuming they don’t later return it).  It’s this “point of purchase” sale that everyone cares the most about as it means “actual” money has gone from the consumer to the bookstore and that money will eventually make it to the distributor and then to the publisher.

The classic publishing flops are books that had huge buy-ins but poor sell-through and no one in the distribution chain: bookstore, distributor, publisher, author like to see that happen as it generally means a huge loss of income potential in the form of pulping* or remaindering* (again see bottom for definition of these terms)

So bookstores really don’t buy books — they get them on consignment, which means they have 90 days to pay the bill or send them back to the distributor. What usually happens is they pay for books that are actually sold, and “return” the books that didn’t. This liberal return policy has historically meant a great deal of waste. In the case of mass market paperbacks the bookstore merely tears off the covers (known as stripping) and mails just the covers for credit. This is because shipping these types of books can cost more than the printing.  In the case of trade paperbacks and hard covers, they are more expensive to produce so these books are actually shipped back (and the shipping charges are covered by the publisher).

It is even common practice for the bookstore to send back a bunch of books and then immediately place another order for the same titles (but perhaps less copies of each). They do this for titles that they think will eventually sell. In this way they are just extending the 90-day window and giving the books more of a chance to actually sell.


So, that’s the background information I needed to cover first. So let’s go back to Return Reserves. The bottom line is a publisher knows that they won’t sell all the books that they print. In the old days when there were many bookstores and a lot of books stocked, returns were a very big problem. In fact, for mass-market paperbacks publishers would often have to print up three times as many books as they expected to sell and for hardcovers they would see returns of 50% to 80%. What this meant is any book that wasn’t in a readers hand represented a potential liability as it had a good chance of coming back as a return. Making this even more difficult, publishers don’t get accurate data on sell-through they only have number for buy-in.

Now compensation to the author comes from royalties although some think it is from advances (which is true to some extent) so it’s time for some more definitions:

  • Royalty – the amount of money that the author makes for each copy of their work that is sold. This is usually a percentage which can be based on the retail price (common for print books), net income (common for ebooks), or net profit (which should really be avoided as it’s easy to adjust the expenses and guarantee that no “profit” is made and hence no royalty due.
  • Advance – a fixed sum of money (usually paid in 2 – 4 installments) which representatives a firm “minimum” amount an author will earn. It is essentially a loan against income generated by future royalties.  In many cases (70% – 80% of all books acquired) this is the only money the author will ever receive as the royalty from sales never surpasses the advances. In this case the author generally does not have to repay “unearned advances” although you should watch the language in your contracts carefully so you don’t wind up having to write a check back to the publisher for a poor performer.
  • Earning out – is the goal for all writers. This simply means that the royalties have exceeded the advance and now in addition to getting a semi-annual royalty statement they also receive a check for the amount of money earned in that period above and beyond the advance.

So now come the rub.  If the author is paid on “books sold’ and there is a gap between buy-in and sell-through there is a potential problem. If the publisher paid royalties based on buy-in (the only accurate numbers they have), and the returns are very high, it is possible that the author will be “overpaid.”  Unlike advances, which don’t have to be repaid, getting too much royalties are due back to the publisher. It’s really hard for publishers to collect money back from authors so they have developed a system to limit the chance of this happening…enter the Return Reserve.

Generally your contract will allow the publisher “a reasonable return on  reserve,” although few will place a % limit on “what is reasonable” (a big problem in the industry in my opinion).  What this means is you won’t be initially paid for all the books that were “bought-in”.  Basically they will “hold back” what could be some substantial money so the “money at risk” is in still with them and they won’t have to collect it from you if returns are excessive.

What does this mean to the author?  Well it means that managing cash flow (which is already hard because royalties are only paid twice a year) is even more difficult because much of your money isn’t in your bank account it is being held by the publisher “just in case.”   What kind of money are we talking about?  Well it will vary on the publisher, the popularity of the books, the selling history of the author, and all kinds of other factors. But I’m glad to share some of my own experience.  The following data is for my debut series which was published as follows:

  • Theft of Swords (Nov 2011)
  • Rise of Empire (Dec 2011)
  • Heir of Novron (Jan 2012)

To date I’ve received two royalty statements one that cover the sales made on the first two books in November and December 2011. And the other  for all three books during January – June 2012.  I’m going to only report English US sales of PRINT books even though my royalty statement during this period included UK sales, ebook sales, and advance for subsidiary sales such as book clubs and audio contracts.

For the first royalty statement:

Title Gross Returns Free Copies Sold Reserves Paid % Retained
Theft of Swords 10,066 16 218 9,832 5,884 3,951 59.8%
Rise of Empire 6,412 4 238 6,170 3,700 2,470 60%

For the second royalty statement:

Title Gross Returns Free Copies Sold Reserves Paid % Retained
Theft of Swords 7,564 719 26 6,819 573 6,246 8.4%
Rise of Empire 5,996 936 -21 5,081 607 4,474 11.9%
Heir of Novron 11,903 1,018 248 10,637 6,086 4,551 57.2%

The “Free” column indicates copies given away for promotion such as my signing at Book Expo, or provided to reviewers and book bloggers. Notice that the amount of reserves in the first reporting period is MUCH higher than the returns for the second one. Basically as the publisher has more data on returns they should adjust the reserve to be more reflective of actual returns.  Even so the they are likely to retain more than is necessary, and the only consolation is the money will eventually be paid.

For instance if we look at the two books that are into their second reporting period we see that

  • Approximately 40% is still in reserve even though the actual returns are 4.4% – 8.4%
  • I’ve “sold” almost 11,000 books that I’ve still not been paid for.

My guess is the publisher doesn’t bother to adjust their formulas on an author by author basis so I may be being penalized for other authors with higher returns. But I also believe that bookstores have changed their buying behavior and as such the “potential liability” for books being released today is not as high as it once was, but the accounting practices haven’t changed. When my books were first released the book stores only bought them in reasonable quantities of 3 – 5 books initially.  Now that we are more than a year out they are ordering them one at a time, so there aren’t much in the way of returns.

But there is no incentive for the publisher to keep less reserve. The contract only says that the reserves should be “reasonable” and they have past historical information to show that returns could be substantial.  Bottom line…they want to hang onto the author’s money as long as possible and the author has little leverage to make them pay quicker.  If possible, consider getting a finite limit (say 20%) cap put in your contract rather than the standard “reasonable” language that is commonly used.

I hope you find this helpful, and check back in the future for more insider insights about book publishing.


  •  Remaindering –  Sometimes a publisher will overestimate the potential popularity of a book and at some point it becomes apparent that they will never sell all the books sitting in the warehouse. Since warehouse fees are expensive, they may decide to put a book “out of print” and in order to recuperate some of their losses, they’ll sell the books cheaply (usually by weight) to organizations for the “used book market.”
  • Pulping – The first option is to remainder a book, but if the publisher gets no “takers” then they will destroy (or pulp them). The term comes from the fact that the books are essentially chopping up in a big machine similar to a wood chipper, and then this can be sold back to paper manufacturers or thrown away.
Avatar of Michael J. Sullivan
Michael J. Sullivan

I’m a fulltime fantasy author whose debut series, The Riyria Revelations was published by Orbit as three volumes: Theft of Swords (Nov 2011), Rise of Empire (Dec 2011), Heir of Novron (Jan 2012). I have a new series, The Riyria Chronicles which will contain: The Crown Tower (Aug 2013) and The Rose and the Thorn (Sep 2013).

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14 Comments

  1. Avatar of Sean Wallace
    February 12, 2013, 11:32 am   / 

    Michael,

    A few points of clarification:

    One, you’re forgetting the distributor’s cut, which is significantly higher than 50% (closer to 65% at least), actually, and a distributor is someone like Consortium, Diamond, IPG, PGW, and more, with actual sales forces that go into sales accounts on a regular basis. Not all publishers have their own sales forces, either, though some do, of course, or they outsource it. And Ingram / B&T are generally referred to as (library) wholesalers, and do not employ sales forces, like a sales distributor. Think of a distributor as an aggressive representative, with a wholesaler being passive. The two serve two different functions.

    Two, and this is for CE Martin, an author does make more on hardcovers, but they usually sell fewer in hardcover, too. The entire point of a mass-market paperback is moving tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, something not always viable in hardcover, and if that’s where your career is, you’re making more from that format than the hardcover. Neither one is necessarily right or wrong for an author.

    Three, and this goes back to distributor cuts, the end discount, to a wholesaler, or to a bookstore, is almost irrelevant to figuring out a publisher’s profit margin. Those are ultimately end-consumers, or even middle-men, and therefore do not play a role in working out distribution fees. The profit margins are actually quite a bit smaller than what you’ve projected. Considerably smaller. Once you’ve allocated ppi, co-op, return fees, advances, overhead, content (advance), cover, design, proofreading, copy-editing, the profit margin is . . . rather tiny.

    Four, the definition for remaindering isn’t quite right. Quite a few chains take remainders, including BAMM, B&N, and Chapters Indigo, as new books, but priced low. Remaindering a book doesn’t always mean putting it out of print, either. It simply means that you decided not to keep warehousing X amount, and that you decided to cut down your monthly fees. And I’ve never heard of a publisher selling by weight. (I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but remainderers have gotten rather picky in recent years.) The remaindering companies I work with sell by a percentage of the retail price, maybe 5% or 10%.

    • Avatar of Michael J. Sullivan
      February 13, 2013, 3:29 pm   / 

      Hey Sean,

      I’m not sure how the distributor’s cut comes into play with this article, which is about returns and reserves on returns – But yes small publishers do have a higher distribution cost that the big-six. For my books MOST are sold at the 55% and under discount and only a few are sold in the 60%-65% discount that you speak of (I know this because I have different royalty rates for different discounts) . I’ll actually be “covering” this in a different post so stay tuned for that.

      I do agree that a well-selling mass-market release can earn more than one that starts out in hardcover, so no disagreements on point #2.

      #3 Yes there are all those kinds of costs a publisher has – again this article is addressing reserves on returns but I will discuss this in another post so feel free to come back and make the points there if I don’t adequately cover them.

      #4 – I was not aware that books can be remaindered to chain stores, so that is a new one for me. Thanks for letting me know about that part of the business. I learn something new everyday. I do know of books that have been sold “by weight” so yes it does happen. The fact that you haven’t run into it is, I suspect, because the volumes that you have remaindered just weren’t large enough for that type of transaction.

  2. Avatar of Sean Wallace
    February 12, 2013, 11:26 am   / 

    Margins are also a function of print costs, sell-thru, and price points. You can have a paperback with a three thousand-copy print run, but due to its high unit costs, the margin might be just only a dollar, in contrast to a book that sells ten or twenty thousand copies. It’s the difference between unit costs being $2.00 or $.75. But sell-thru will also impact that, as you won’t have much of a margin if the book doesn’t sell :p Mind you, you can better your margin by increasing said price points, but with the risk that you might sell fewer. But all in all the publisher doesn’t actually make that much from the sale of a paperback. Only with volume sales or with subsidiary right sales or ebooks might they tack on a bit more onto that total profit.

    • Avatar of Michael J. Sullivan
      February 13, 2013, 3:31 pm   / 

      Yes as I mentioned in my other reply – I’ll get into the whole “where the money goes” in a future post.

  3. Avatar of J. Jay Jones
    February 11, 2013, 12:40 pm   / 

    Maybe it’s your intention (and I hope it is) to compile these posts into a book. Fran’s right, Michael … you are helping people. So do yourself (and everyone else) a favor and consider making your ongoing posts into a book. Okay … I knew you were plannning that. For me, they have become a must read …

    • Avatar of Michael J. Sullivan
      February 11, 2013, 5:54 pm   / 

      No, I’ have no intention of making a book. I’m happy to help out authors “for free” through the Interwebs but I don’t want to be one of those people who are taking money from author’s pockets (they need all the money they can get. I could write a book and make it free. But that would take too much time from my fiction writing, so for now – stay tuned here and on my blog if you find the posts useful.

  4. Avatar of C E Martin
    February 10, 2013, 12:27 pm   / 

    Great arricle but what really stuck out fornme was that it costs more to ship a book than print it. Meaning the book industry has been gouging us on printed book prices far more than I realized and that they REALLY gouge us on ebook prices set the same as printed ones.

    • Avatar of Michael J. Sullivan
      February 11, 2013, 5:58 pm   / 

      It depends on the “type” mass market paperbacks are the ones that are stripped, and yeah those are done in HUGE print runs and are may run about $0.50 a book – but then again they are only be sold for $7.99 and the bookstore gets 50% of that and the author gets 8% of that so the publisher only is making $3.36 a book then they have to take off printing, and the fact that sometimes they have 1/3 to 1/2 stripped so they have to print 2x or 3x to sell 1x of books. So the publisher is probably only making $2 a book or so.

      The more expensive copies – hard cover and trade paperbacks are indeed boxed up and shipped back.

      • Avatar of C E Martin
        February 12, 2013, 9:24 am   / 

        I’m confused… are you syaing an author makes more than the publisher on a paperback, but not on a hardback? Is that why publishers love hardbacks so much?

        • Avatar of Michael J. Sullivan
          February 14, 2013, 8:48 am   / 

          No, Let’s look at a mass market paperback sold through the big six and retailing for $6.99.

          * Author gets $0.42 – $0.55
          * Publisher gets $3.08 – $2.95

          But those are “net receipt pricing” – in other words the money that walks into the door. I’ve already backed out what the publisher pays the author from their cut but then they have to pay for printing $0.50 – $0.60 (for 1 – but they may only sell 1 book in 2 or 1 book in 3 so their printing costs could be $1.50 – $1.80. Also they have to pay the production costs: editor, cover design, layout etc. Then distribution fees such as warehousing and shipping. As Sean pointed out those fees could be substantial.

        • Avatar of Michael J. Sullivan
          February 14, 2013, 8:51 am   / 

          The various breakdown for hardcover is going to be similar. A hardcover retailing for $25.00 would break down:

          * Author $2.50 – $3.75
          * Publisher: $8.75 – $10

          Again the “author’s portion of that has been taken out but he publisher has to pay the printing, production, and distribution costs.

  5. February 10, 2013, 9:27 am   / 

    [...] Pulling Back the Publishing Veil: Return Reserves, Buy-in, and Sell-through [...]

  6. Avatar of Fran Friel
    February 10, 2013, 1:04 am   / 

    Another excellent article, Michael! Thank you for your generous sharing. You’re helping a lot of folks.

    Best,
    Fran Friel

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