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The Indigo bookstore on Bay Street in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and M)
The Indigo bookstore on Bay Street in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and M)

Indigo poised to shake dust out of book bins Add to ...

Heather Reisman is on a collision course with publishers.

In a pursuit to re-invent the book store in a digital age, Ms. Reisman’s Indigo Books & Music Inc will in January start returning unsold books to publishers after just 45 days if the products are gathering dust on store shelves. Currently, the retailer waits 75 days to begin shipping back unsold books to publishers.

Some publishers fear that books hitting stores in September will not survive for the crucial holiday season if their sales wane within 45 days. Their fears are heightened at a time when the traditional book business is rapidly shrinking.

“It could be devastating for publishers and writers,” said Margie Wolfe, publisher of Second Story Press and president of the Association of Canadian Publishers.

Ms. Reisman has no patience with shock talk. “There’s nothing scary about it,” she said in an interview. “This should be good news for publishers because it allows us to be continually refreshing the overall inventory. It doesn’t take the author away whatsoever. The objective here is to not hold inventory that is not moving and give other inventory a chance to be presented.”

The clash in perspectives underlines the challenges facing Indigo as it races to adjust to dramatic changes in book retailing. To make up for sales shortfalls, Ms. Reisman will pump up stock of non-book products to 50 per cent of her business in a couple of years from about 25 per cent today. In her next step to bringing bookselling into modern times, she’s turning to best-practices of other big retailers by scaling back products that don’t sell briskly.

Still, she faces resistance in the book sector, which runs by different return rules than other retail businesses. Book stores can return unsold books, a practice that is uncommon among other merchants. In contrast, other retailers tend to clear out unsold inventory by selling it at a discount, taking a cut in profit and often expecting suppliers to share in the financial pain.

Ms. Reisman is focused on improving Indigo’s book return rates, which stand at about 25 per cent of sales – half the rate of returns of its Chapters division in 2001 when it was acquired by her much smaller Indigo. Now, she’s aiming to reduce her return levels even further, to 20 per cent of sales by the end of 2012 – helping her run more efficiently over all.

Still, Ms. Reisman insists she’s not trying to get rid of all slow-selling books after 45 days. She will keep some of them on her shelves even if they don’t sell quickly, giving publishers and authors a chance for customers to discover them.

“It is not so different from how it used to be,” she said. “We just have better information now. And we’re not de-listing a book ... If a product is not selling at the rate you expect it to sell, then you need less inventory on hand and it gives you room to bring in other books.”

As for the holiday book-selling period, it doesn’t tend to be one for discovering new authors, she said. Rather, shoppers gravitate to already established titles for their gift purchases.

“We probably do less culling at Christmas time than at any other time of the year,” she said. “But it does tend to be a time of bestsellers.”

Many publishers see the faster returns as a potential death knell for new authors, whose books can take longer than 45 days to take off. “If this policy went through, we could get Christmas books back before the end of October,” Ms. Wolfe said.

Other publishers are more sympathetic to Ms. Reisman’s plight. Rodger Touchie, past president of the association and publisher of Heritage House in Victoria, said any bookseller today needs flexibility in running a business. On the other hand, a 45-day period to review returns “is a pretty small window” to spread the word about a book, he added. Publishers often count on word-of-mouth to help pitch their products.

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