The main distributors in the United States are Baker and Taylor and Ingram. For bookstores to consider stocking your book, they must be able to order through the distributor and return through the distributor.
If the bookstore can't sell your book to the public, they want the option of packaging up the books and sending all the ones that didn't sell back to one location. There are thousands of book publishers and the stores don't have the time or desire to pack a box for each publisher.
Book publishers sometimes claim their books are returnable but they mean that the store can send it back to them and not the distributor. Bookstores don't like that. Bookstores deal with hundreds of different publishers and creating a box for each one to return books wastes employee hours. You will not get many, if any, signings and you will not get books on the shelf if your book is not returnable to the distributor. Get it in writing that your book will be returnable to the distributor by a certain date and that the distributor’s information will be correct.
You must have this in writing as some publishers will drag their feet to follow through on this issue. They can say your book is returnable until they are blue in the face but if Ingram’s iPage says your bookisnon-returnable, that is what the bookstores believe. If you have a guarantee that the distribution will be correct in a timely manner in writing, you have legal ammunition against the company if you incur losses because of their negligence.
For example, you hire an outside publicist to set up book signings and promote those events for you. You pay the publicist thousands of dollars and they make call after call but no one will host you because your book is listed incorrectly. You have lost thousands because the publisher was negligent in getting your profile listed correctly.
I know this happens first hand because I have been the publicist looking at a copy of the author’s receipt for return status (yes, some companies charge you money to be returnable) yet I’m on the telephone with a bookstore and they are telling me the book is not returnable according to the distributor.
Unfortunately, I have never had an author get a deadline in writing and therefore entire publicity campaigns have been ruined by negligent publishers. Again, get it in writing that the publisher is responsible for and accountable for listing your title correctly with the distributor.