28 August 2003

Finally jumping back to the bookstores-as-consignment-shops issue, we need to think for a bit about the timing of the various payments.

   The initial credit necessary to stock a bookstore is pretty substantial, no matter how one looks at it. However, it is credit; seldom is there much actual cash put into initial stock, as actual cash ends up going for utilities, rent, salaries, and other necessities of trade. There is no "typical" repayment term for this kind of credit. There is, however, a typical repayment term between the bookstore and the publisher: 30 days net. In other words, actual payment is offset by credits that the bookstore has accrued through returns to that publisher (or, in rare cases, distributor). For example, returning 100 copies of East of Eden (publishing by Viking, a unit of Penguin USA, in turn a unit of Pearson) will not help pay for the 100 copies ordered of The Sparrow (published in comparable edition by Ballantine, a unit of Random House, in turn a unit of Bertelsmann). Or vice versa.

   In any event, the publisher eventually gets paid. However, the publisher does not then turn around and write a check for accrued royalties (or credit the author's account for advances against royalties earned). Instead, all of the results for a given "royalty period"—traditionally six months—get consolidated, usually four months or so after the end of the royalty period. The publisher also keeps a "reserve against returns" that is supposed to buffer against returns, but is all too often manipulated to maintain constant cash flow. So, then, let's look at the timeline:

  • Bookstore places order for 100 copies on October 1, 2003, for a book to be published on November 1, 2003.
  • Publisher accepts order and gets compensation (either by reducing a returns account in credit or taking money) on November 2, 2003.
  • Books are shipped on October 28, 2003, and placed on sale on November 1, 2003.
  • The store sells 37 copies by January 10, 2004. It returns 50 copies for credit, leaving 13 copies in stock.
  • The royalty period ends on March 31, 2004. The bookstore hasn't sold any more of its 13 remaining copies.
  • The publisher calculates royalties due on July 31, 2004.
  • The publisher issues any check or makes any credit to the author on August 30, 2004.

Gee, I wonder who has been earning interest or otherwise investing that money for ten months? It is certainly not the author!

   And it gets better. <FORESHADOWING> Remember the reserves against returns? </FORESHADOWING>

   Foreshadowing—the mark of a superior blawg.