Why Books Go Back: Reasons for Returns

When it comes to books and bookstores, it’s a bit like a revolving door. Books come in, they sit on the shelf, books go out. Oftentimes they get purchased, but sometimes they go out the back door. The shipping door. The door that customers never see. So why do they go out the way they came in? What reason is there for a book to be returned?


For some booksellers this may seem like a catchall phrase when it comes to returns, but it’s one of the most common reasons books are returned to the vendor. And when I say vendor, I mean either the warehouse it came out of (several smaller presses use larger distributors to move books), or the publishers themselves.

In one case, overstock can represent a single title. Perhaps a location was sent 100 copies of a title in anticipation of great sales. But maybe only 30 of the books actually sold. Copies of this title may stay on hand for future sales, let’s say 10. The remaining 60 books are returned. After all — where are those 60 books going to stay while they sell down? If only 10 fit out on the floor, a bookstore has to take into account backroom space.

Overstock can also represent a list of titles that are to be returned. The request can come from the publisher or from the folks running the bookstore. Over time a section can become quite crowded, making it difficult to add new books to a section. Thus a selection of various books are slated for return. Once these books are gone, plenty more are set to fill their places. 


This is another very strong reason a book will be sent back. It can definitely be an assisting factor in the overstock return. If a book has been on the shelf for several years and not sold a single copy, then it’s taking up valuable real estate. Now imagine hundreds of books throughout the store doing the same. All that space could be used for newer and better selling titles.

It doesn’t have to be years, either. Every publisher and bookstore expects certain books to hit certain thresholds. They have plans for the books they put out — this is, after all, a business. A book might be on a shelf for only 4 months before it’s decided it needs to be pulled. It may be that it’s doing better in another market, so the book is pulled from one store, returned, and shipped out to another. If you’re an author and you want to be present in every store across the country, you’d better hope you show some sales all over, which is a tricky thing to do. 


When a book shows some sort of issue — whether it’s a torn cover or it happens to be missing 50 pages in the middle of the story — then it’s returned. Because the bookstore is buying these books from publishers, just like a customer (with a receipt, mind you), it can also return them. Every book returned receives credit, including damaged or defective ones. It doesn’t matter how problematic the book’s issue is; as long as we have access to the ISBN and we’re able to return it, we will.

Format Change-up 

Occasionally customers come in and they’re still looking for the hardcover of a particular title. It can be rather surprising since hardcovers are more expensive and 99% of the time people are more than willing to wait anywhere from 6 months to a year or longer to get the book in paperback. But once the paperback is out, you can usually count on the hardcover to be sent back. On some occasions the hardcover will be returned before the paperback is even available.

Popular books, children’s books, and teen books are the most likely places to see hardcovers and paperbacks coexisting. Still, if you really want the hardcover for your collection, you can always ask if the store can order one for you.


This is the rarest reason for a return to occur, but it does still happen. Even then, the numbers are often very small. Opening a box to discover you’ve been sent 2 instead of 1 copy of a title means that unless you’re fairly certain you’re going to sell both, you might just decide to send that second one back to where it came from. Remember — sales and real estate space are precious, and an unnecessary book is, well, unnecessary.

The next time you’re in a bookstore and they don’t have the book you’re looking for, it’s possible that it may have been returned. If that’s the case, unless there’s a format change about to happen, it isn’t likely they’re going to get it back in stock anytime soon. If you really want the book? Just order it. Heck, you’re already in the bookstore, aren’t you? Might as well give yourself the perfect reason to come back!

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