Demand for e-books may well rise as paper supply declines
Why are these events related? Because digital supply is becoming the most economical and environmentally friendly way of distributing the majority of published books.
The returns system is one of the most distressingly wasteful by-products of the operations of the book industry. Books are shipped from distributors to thousands of bookshops; the copies that do not sell are shipped back from those thousands of bookshops to the distributors. By this time, most of these copies are unsaleable, and are moved on again to be pulped. A few years ago, a book industry body recommended that the process be centralised, with the unwanted books being sent to HM Prison Altcourse in Liverpool. There, the prisoners would drill holes in them. The work would provide an "ethical and focused employment pattern". The scheme attracted some ridicule, and was not heard of again.
The calls to stop this practice have been getting louder. Hachette is the first big publisher to respond, announcing that from the end of 2008 it will sell titles that are more than a year old "firm", with no returns allowed. Others will follow suit.
However, booksellers are not all on side. Waterstone's would comment only guardedly, while an independent, Sheila O'Reilly of Dulwich Books, pointed out that her current terms with wholesalers allowed her an error rate of just 5%. For a shop with many thousands of titles in stock, that is a low figure. A firm sale policy would force her to become more cautious in her buying of backlist titles, she said.