by Raelene Gorlinsky
(See part 1 for the definition of returns.)
Reminder that I am discussing mainly genre fiction here (mass market paper or tradepaperback). Literary fiction and nonfiction have very different sales and return trends, as does anything in hardcover.
We all know that Harlequin/Silhouette category romance books have a fixed one-month shelf life in bookstores (although available longer through the eHarlequin website). The August Harlequin Blazes are put on the shelf on a set date. Thirty days later, any of those left are removed and the September Blazes are put out. The unsold copies are returned.
But all books, not just category romances, have a shelf life. The typical time period in chain bookstores is one to three months, although this does vary. Stores record when they put out a new book. Several months later, unsold copies are pulled from the shelves (they might keep one copy) and returned to the publisher. Unless the store sold out of the original stock and reordered more copies—that “resets” the shelf date.
Shelf life cutoffs are only sensible—stores have to make space to put out the new releases. Typically, most of the sales occur in the first month or two after release. There are some exceptions. Seasonal or holiday books have a different shelf life. A store may continue to carry the books of a local author. Backlists of mega-authors will always find space on the shelves—you’ll be able to find reprints of older Nora Roberts books anytime. And when a very popular series author comes out with a new release, a store will order lots of the new book and may also make sure they have one copy of each of the previous books in the series. A store may notice how well a certain author’s books do overall, and plan to keep at least some titles around perhaps longer than they normally would. (Independent bookstores are especially good for this.)
But face reality—sales of a specific title will taper off sharply within a very short period after release. After a while, the unsold copies will be returned by the store.