It may become harder to find poetry, works of new novelists and esoteric pieces of fiction at the local bookseller's if a new policy on returns by a major book publisher spreads industrywide.
Buyers at area bookstores say they will keep the standard classics and sure-fire hits on their shelves as before but that they will be far more cautious about picking up untested authors or works published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc.
Harcourt Brace plans to announce Monday that beginning Jan. 1 it no longer will give stores refunds for unsold "trade" books -- such as novels and nonfiction of general interest -- according to a Wall Street Journal interview with company Chairman William Jovanovich and reports in the trade press. Jovanovich said the rising number of returns and declining profits make the move justified. At the same time, he said the company plans to add some new retailer incentive.
If other publishers adopt the same kind of policy, area booksellers claim it could have a substantial impact on the kinds of books that are readily available, the way unpopular books are marketed and -- not right away, but ultimately -- on prices.
Some of the local booksellers welcomed the new policy, saying it will result in more realistic and efficient merchandising. Several, however, opposed the move.
"It will affect us quite a lot. We'll order much closer to the chest," Martha Johnson, owner of the Francis Scott Key Book Shop in Georgetown, said, "We won't be taking some of the poets that might not sell."
Ann Landrum, buyer for the four Globe Book Shops, said a no-return policy would make ordering new authors "out of the question. I wouldn't order any. I just couldn't take the risk." This year she has ordered about 10 or 20 copies of a majority of the Harcourt Brace new titles, and the stores are "doing quite well with [the Harcourt Brace] list this fall," Landrum reported.
But a ban on returns would mean she either would cut the number of titles, order less of each book or eliminate Harcourt Brace titles altogether, Landrum said.
Robert Crane, co-owner of Books Unlimited in Arlington, said a change in returns policy probably would mean he would stick more with standard classics and take fewer chances with new books. He said he probably would get some copies of books by name authors or those that have gotten susbantial review attention but that even getting books on bestseller lists is risky because they may not have appeal in his particular area.
Among those hailing a no-return policy, Bill Kramer of Kramer Book Stores said such a change would "put the responsibility squarely where it belongs" and force booksellers to get to know their markets better. It also would result in better recordkeeping and a speedup in computerization, he predicted.
"It's about time the trade publishers woke up to the need for changes" in their return policies, and other publishers probably will follow the Harcourt Brace move, Kramer said.But he added that a ban on returns should be combined with a change in publishers' discounts so that smaller stores would get the same rates as chains, which now can take advantage of higher discounts for large orders.
Tom Lichtenberg, manager of the Book Annex in Northwest, also favors a no-return approach -- which he also thinks will become a trend -- saying returns are a problem for both publisher and bookseller. At the same time, he agreed that he would be more cautious on buying in the future and that it will hurt new works of fiction.
Lichtenberg said each store would have the option to keep books longer and mark them down more. Publishers' first runs of books would not have to be as large, and book prices might not go up as fast, he added.
Kramer also predicted that stores would develop their own mark-down systems and that a new kind of middleman would be created to buy unsold books directly from individual stores and resell them at discount. Currently, remainder distributors bid on books returned to publishers and resell them at large discounts to individual stores, sometimes the same ones that returned them.