Should you purchase remaindered books from your publisher?
“It’s from your publisher,” Charlie Brown tells Snoopy. “They printed one copy of your novel .. It says they haven’t been able to sell it .. They say they’re sorry .. Your book is now out of print ..” – Author Ann Patchett, Washington Post, June 14, 2019
But first: What are remaindered books?
“Remaindered books or remainders are printed books that are no longer selling well and whose remaining unsold copies are liquidated by the publisher at greatly reduced prices. While the publisher may take a net loss on the sales of these books, they are able to recover at least some of their sunken costs on the sale and clear out space in the warehouses. Only hardcovers and trade paperbacks (paperback books, often larger than “pocket” paperbacks, sold “to the trade” or directly to sales outlets) are typically remaindered. A book that might retail for $20 will typically be purchased by someone specializing in remainders for $1 and resold for approximately $5.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remaindered_book
In short, the majority of mainstream books are eventually remaindered – in some cases, much too quickly. For example, I found an outstanding work of fiction in the Dollar Tree Store in 2018 that was only published in 2015. By comparison, books that we produce (as an Indy Publisher) might sell for a decade or more. A book that we published in 2015 really took off in 2018. We avoided the burden of warehoused copies via the print-on-demand alternative.
My experience with remaindered books:
I bought the remaindered copies of my first two mainstream books after several years in circulation. Combined, I purchased over one thousand copies – hard covers and paperbacks – packed in fifty boxes or more. It certainly felt like more.
I then spent over a decade transporting and storing these remaindered books – filling up closets, storage lockers, cars, moving vans, trucks, a temporary (humidity-controlled) locker in a new city, and finally a non-humidity controlled storage locker in my new home. My building does not offer air-conditioned or humidity controlled lockers.
My Option: Pay $40 a month to store these out-of-print books offsite – perhaps for life – or store them for free onsite. Regrettably, I couldn’t bring myself to destroy or throw the books away. (But eventually, definitely, maybe, perhaps, soon…)
Over the years, I donated countless boxes to senior citizen homes, non-profits and libraries. I paid to remove these heavy boxes from storage, transport them to such organizations, and to move them between temporary storage lockers and their current resting place – so to speak. I spent well over $500 in the (yes) vain attempt to preserve my written words.
But, as you know, paper deteriorates over time, amplified by the heat of cars, trucks, vans, lockers and cardboard boxes. Now, my precious copies carry a permanent mildewed fragrance. I can no longer donate or gift them away in this state.
What does this mean for you?
If you purchase remainders, limit yourself to a few hundred copies at most. You could either sell the books online, or offer free copies with modestly inflated postage. You might increase your email/mailing list and outreach by doing so.
However, as the years progress and few readers grab your offer, you could still be stuck with boxes of books – perhaps now lining the walls of a garage or laundry room. I, for one, can’t stand the horrible aroma of cardboard boxes, which also attract pests. At that point, you might turn to a book remainder outlet, hoping to cover the costs you paid for the remainder book – assuming there is any interest.
Here is an alternative solution, which I followed for my third mainstream book (published by HarperCollins).
1) Instead of purchasing remaindered copies, request — or pay a minimal fee, if required — for the publishing rights. With dwindling or zero sales, your publisher might willingly comply. Mine did so, without any hassle at all.
2) Self-publish the book. You then control whether to sell copies, but even if you give them away, the postage might still bring in a small profit. The best part: You can publish new editions of your book every year. Voila, it’s no longer an outdated, out-of-print, mildewed book.
You might argue: “My first edition will never go out-of-print, so long as it’s listed on Amazon and with other sellers.” Right.
But you will not see a dime in royalties, your publisher will liquidate warehoused copies for pennies on the dollar, and third-party sellers will grab the minuscule profits.