What is 'Sale or Return'? - Captain Honey
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What is ‘Sale or Return’?

Sale or Return in Publishing

27 Jan What is ‘Sale or Return’?


It usually surprises people when they hear that book publishing operates on a ‘sale or return’ model. This means that bookshops don’t buy books outright. Instead, they order new or backlist (previously published but still selling) titles for their shop, and if they don’t sell, they return them to the publisher and a refund is given. In general, unsold books are returned after a period of around 90 days.

A common cycle is that in around July each year books are sold in for the Christmas period, and they appear in bookstores between October to December. These books are given the opportunity to perform – albeit in a crowded marketplace with limited shelf space – over the Christmas period. Non-performing titles will often be returned in January or soon after when booksellers do their post Christmas accounts. High performing titles will continue to be stocked and will be re-ordered by booksellers. Medium-performing titles may continue to be ranged by booksellers, but only as individual copies, making them hard for readers to find. Most are unlikely to be in stock for very long.

Over time, the sale or return model has reinforced the cyclical nature of book publishing and selling: booksellers stock up for peak periods, most importantly Christmas, but Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are important selling seasons too as is Easter and holidays such as ANZAC Day. Christmas provides the best opportunity for selling the widest range of books across genres and topics, whereas the other periods attract a certain type of book.

Inevitably, publishers’ lists become geared to selling seasons, particularly Christmas. At that time of year, competition for a slot in the list is fierce. Competition heats up internally too as individual publisher’s compete for space and resources to be dedicated to ‘their books’ . Every publisher knows that she needs the support of sales, marketing and publicity at that crucial time if her book is to stand up and stand out from the competition.

After the frenzy of the pre-Christmas ‘sell in’ (copies ordered by bookstores) and associated marketing and publicity activities have died down, publisher’s huddle over ‘sell through’ sales data (sales through the till) that arrives weekly from Nielson. This is an exciting time for publishers and their sales colleagues. Sell through is the holy grail of publisher, and you can understand why publishers attach some ritual and celebration to it. Without sell through, we are operate in the dark, spending money, energy and something else that it’s hard to articulate – let’s call it love – on these books with no certainty of success.

In a world, where current business ideologies are dominated by terms such as lean start up and MP (minimum viable products),  it’s almost unfathomable that we would find the sale or return business model acceptable. And probably, for an outsider, it isn’t.

As a self-publisher author there is not much you can do about ‘sale or return’. You need to play by those rules. However, bookstores probably won’t be your primary sales channel, and that can be liberating. Book sales via your website are gold because not only are they firm sale, they are also made at full price.


A word about discounts. These vary from publisher to publisher and account to account. Obviously the bigger accounts such as Dymocks or Big W will be able to negotiate larger discounts from publishers. And, by the same token, the bigger publishers will be able to hold their ground to negotiate better terms, especially with the smaller accounts. As a guide, publishers will assume each book sells at an average discount of between 50-60% off the RRP.


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