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RPG WTF 10: The Great Return of 1996

9 Jun, 2020


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One of the more horrifying aspects of modern publishing, at least if one is a publisher (or loves books as artifacts), is returns. For reasons going back to the magazine trade, items distributed to the conventional book trade are often returnable for credit against future orders. Generally speaking, for every book that goes home with a reader via conventional book stores1, two or three are returned2.

TSR – I know I said each company only gets one of these but this isn’t really about TSR – had a highly successful fantasy novel line. While TSR had a number of distributors selling directly to game stores, their connection to the conventional book store chains was Random House. The conventional book trade had a seemingly insatiable appetite for TSR’s extruded fantasy product, regardless of author or content. Books flowed out and didn’t come back, which for a company under increasing pressure from a number of directions was a godsend.

What was actually happening (at least in the book trade side of things) was that books and other products were flowing out, a significant fraction was not selling, but rather than being sent back to TSR, they were accumulating in Random House’s warehouses. Why this was happening is an interesting question. In any case, the situation was temporary. Ultimately, what happened was that towards the end of 1996, all of those unsold products were returned. Instead of being returned gradually over time, the books came back in a single, unexpected, fiscally-indigestible six-figure return. 

And that (aside from desperate flailing) was that for TSR as an independent company. Within the year, TSR would be a WOTC subsidiary.

1: Game distributors (like Lion Rampant) and comic distributors (Like Diamond) aren’t locked into this relic of magazine sales and don’t do returns. 

2: The marginal cost of printing another mass market paperback is so small it’s not worth sending the actual book back. Instead, the covers get ripped off, bundled and returned. The coverless book is destroyed and discarded.