What are Remainders?

Richard wrote:
Could you explain “remaindering” in a future post? I wish I could recall the poem I’ve heard Jim Bell quote that begins, “The book of mine enemy has been remaindered, and I am glad.”

“Remainder” means that the publisher has too much stock of a book, so they sell it off at a very low price. There are companies who buy and distribute remainders. Those books in the front of Barnes & Noble on those “sale” tables? Those are actually remainder tables, and the books haven’t been moved from another part of the store. They were sold in as remainders.

Keep in mind that books are very expensive to warehouse. If there are large quantities of a book on hand, and it’s not selling at an acceptable pace, at some point the cost of storing a book is more than the book is worth to the publisher. Thus, remaindering.

Many books returned from the bookstores go directly to remaindering. The publisher has to sort through returns and separate the damaged from the pristine ones, sending the damaged ones to remainder; or they simply send all returns to remaindering to avoid the high cost of the sorting process.

If a book is remaindered it’s usually a sign that the hardcover edition is going “out of print.” But the paperback version may still be going strong, and now with books staying “in print” in e-book format, this won’t necessarily mean the rights are going to revert to the author – it may just mean it’s the end of the hardcover or print version. (Whether or not your rights revert will depend on whether electronic copies are still selling, in what quantities, and what your publishing contract requires.)

Speaking of the contract, it usually requires the publisher to offer the author the chance to buy their own book at the remainder price before selling it off to a remainder company. Also, it probably stipulates that you don’t get royalties on copies of your book sold for below manufacturing cost, so you’re not making any money on remainders. (But it’s a loss for your publisher too, so you’re sharing the pain.)

When there is excess stock, are books always remaindered? Nope. Sometimes they’re pulped. Which is… exactly what it sounds like. Not all books offered to a remainder house will be bought. Like any reseller, they’ll only buy it if they think they can profitably sell it.

A remaindered book is not necessarily a sign that it was a failure (although sometimes it does mean the book didn’t live up to publisher expectations). It means the publisher has excess stock, but sometimes that’s expected. Books of bestselling authors are often printed in massive quantities so that the “sell in” (remember yesterday?) can be huge and so they can take up more physical shelf space in bookstores, thereby being more noticeable and enhancing the potential for impulse buys. But hardcover sales drop when the paperback is released, so at that point, even very popular authors often get remaindered.

By the way, remaindering is not always a bad thing. It’s a profitable part of a bookstore (and we like when bookstores are profitable) and it can even benefit an author (the same way free Kindle books are now benefiting authors). Many readers won’t take a chance on a new author for $25 but will at $4.98, and if they love the book, they just might become a fan and buy more of the author’s books (hopefully royalty-bearing copies).

And as for the poem, it is “The Book of My Enemy” by Clive James, from Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958–2008. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. You can see the entire poem at The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor.

Here’s the last stanza of the poem:

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error–
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

~Clive James

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Martinelli Gold

    >Gosh, I LOVE remaindered books then! Sometimes I shop at Barne's and Noble only in the discount section, haha! So many full-color reference books for $9.00…

  • Arlee Bird

    >This was some very interesting business information that relates to writers.

    Lee
    http://tossingitout.blogspot.com/p/sign-up-for-to-z-challenge.html

  • Sarah Allen

    >Very interesting. Frankly, I get a bit scared when I think of how many books end up overstocked, and how few manage to match their advance. But I guess you miss all of the shots you don't take, right? And even if you do end up on the remainder table, you've still reached some people. The important thing is to keep writing.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  • Timothy Fish

    >That poem is a little too close to home. It is so easy to relish the misfortune of our fellow authors—perhaps we think it gives us reason to think we have a better chance of success. But on the other hand, I think we all may be asking for it. It seems that every book published has someone saying it is the greatest thing since [insert a book name here]. Well known authors will write a blurb for a book without having read the book. It’s no wonder that we delight in the downfall of such overrated books.

  • Rosemary Gemmell

    >Thanks for explaining everything so clearly, Rachelle – at least remaindering doesn't sound completely negative. I hadn't come across that poem before!

  • lynnrush

    >Great post. I hadn't heard of this before. :)

  • Jody Hedlund

    >Learned a lot today, Rachelle! Thank you!

  • Heather Sunseri

    >Very interesting. Thanks, Rachelle. I'll definitely look at that great big table at the entrance of Joseph Beth differently next time.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Oh, good. I don't have to feel guilty for buying cheap books!

    Thanks for the info Rachelle.

  • Sue Harrison

    >I always feel a little sad when my books are remaindered, but my husband and I buy copies to stock our store on my website. That way there's a definite 'UP' side!

    You always do such a great job giving us clear and concise explanations, Rachelle. Thank you!

  • Chazley Dotson

    >This is weirdly comforting to me after yesterday's post. Especially since I first found a copy of Paper Towns on a $1 rack, then went on to buy every single one of John Green's books at full price. I can definitely see how remaindering can benefit an author.

  • Richard Mabry

    >As the callers on talk radio say, "Thanks for taking my question." Excellent explanation of something most of us, writers included, don't think about much…if at all.

    And kudos on finding the poem. It's sort of bitter-sweet to read it and realize that my book could be on that table next. But, as you point out, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sort of like a free Kindle download of book one of a series.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Angelina Rain

    >Thanks for the info. I never knew the cheap books I buy are remainders. I guess even big name authors get remaindered since I bought a few James Patterson books that way.

  • Ann

    >Knowing what goes in to writing and producing a book saddens me when I see books on discount. I always feel a tinge of guilt about purchasing another author's work at such a low price. But this is where I've "discovered" most of my favorite books and I know I'd never found them otherwise.

  • Ang

    >Great point about getting readers hooked with cheap books. I have been "that" reader who will try a book on sale and then buy new ones from the same author.

  • Jillian Kent

    >Thanks Rachelle,
    Great information. I've got questions. You said: Speaking of the contract, it usually requires the publisher to offer the author the chance to buy their own book at the remainder price before selling it off to a remainder company.

    If an author chooses to do this is the author allowed to sell the book for what they can get? Is there an advantage to just giving them away for marketing purposes?

  • Rachelle

    >Jillian Kent: Yes, you could sell them or give them away, your choice. You'd probably end up doing some of both.

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  • Jill

    >Remaindering has a lovely meter. I'm not surprised somebody wrote a poem about it–it's so bittersweet.

  • Chris Morrow

    >Hence the name The Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band made up of writers including Stephen King, Mitch Album, Amy Tan and many others.

  • Meg

    >I'd always wondered why those books were so cheap…now I know.

    I'd imagined getting remaindered at least feels better than getting pulped.

  • Kristin Laughtin

    >The part about popular authors sometimes getting their hardcovers remaindered, especially if there is a paperback, is so true! There have been a couple instances where I picked up a $5 hardcover because the author was HUGE and I saw it as a great deal, and often I support those authors through later book purchases as well.

  • Anonymous

    >Nothing wrong with remainders unless it's obvious the book was a BIG failure. I often wait to buy a bestseller knowing (hoping) it'll end up in the discount section. To be fair, I've found a lot of new authors that way–one book was even signed!

    Besides, I don't feel too sorry for the authors: I'd rather be remaindered than never published.

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  • Mwliaa

    I just got a remainder notice from my publisher on my first book, and I googled to see what “remainder” meant. Thanks for the concise overview! I’m going to take another visitor’s advice and stock up on my book for my own reserves!

  • http://www.imcomfortablycrazy.com/cc CC

    I was writing an article on publishing ebooks for my English class and my instructor brought up remaindering and I had no idea what it was.

    Your post was very helpful and made the most sense out of all the sites I’ve looked at.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

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