“[Daunt] told PW that returns of middle grade hardcovers had been running has high as 80%, something he attributed to B&N’s abandoning its role to thoughtfully curate its stores.”
When a category booms, publishers fill their pipeline with comps, most of which they have no actual dedicated marketing plans for beyond sticking in their catalog and riding the wave. Bookstores tend to ride the wave, too, knowing they can simply return what doesn’t sell when they need to make space for the next trendy wave. Most authors have no idea what their return rates actually are, either, nor how much library and school sales — which aren’t returnable — may be driving their success.
The “superstore” model is dead, though, and indie bookstores’ latest resurgence is grossly exaggerated. B&N, specifically, wants to sell more books, not be publishers’ showrooms for serendipitous discovery, and has made moves to allow its stores to operate more like indies, curating their own shelves for local interests rather than relying on corporate influence. They even killed co-op marketing, removing the pay-to-play cheat code mostly available to big publishers that guaranteed shelf space (and ego boosts), but not sales.
It’s an unexpected blow for the middle grade authors who were surprised to learn their hardcovers wouldn’t be on B&N’s shelves in coming months. Missing from the discourse was the understanding that growth in this category had been happening for several years, driven by schools and libraries
way more than having a couple of copies sitting spine-out on crowded shelves at B&N for a few months.
What changed since September 2019 that may have affected B&N’s sales and higher than normal returns, leading to this latest decision? New ownership at B&N desperately focused on increasing sales and lowering returns in the midst of a global pandemic; print purchases by schools & libraries tanked in 2020, and budgets were hit hard afterwards, thanks to a global pandemic; and a very popular category seeing more and more books published every year than their publishers can effectively market, competing with an ever-growing backlist that requires little to no marketing.
That this might disproportionately impact authors of color suggests a harsh reality: some publishers have been acquiring those books as list filler — in a hot category and/or ticking the “diversity” box — rather than as priority titles they’ll put real marketing muscle behind to ensure it finds its audience in multiple channels.