I have mentioned previously how books get stocked on bookstore shelves, how difficult it is to get a book stocked in bookstores, and why bookstores may not even be the best option for authors.
I'm not trying to give the impression that authors shouldn't care if their book is available in a bookstore. Bookstores do sell books. However, when it comes to book sales and what the best venue is for a particular book, they are not the only game in town. Authors run into problems when they focus on bookstores at the expense of all other marketing avenues. Bookstores should be a part of every author's marketing plan, but they should not be the ONLY part of an author's marketing plan. Some authors are under the impression that if only their book were available in every bookstore in the country, or in a major bookstore chain, it will sell. Of course, that is not necessarily true. As book marketer Brian Jud has stated, "bookstores display books. They do not (actively) sell them." If a book hits a bookstore shelf and doesn't sell, it's going straight back to the publisher, and the author is going to get socked with returns.
Recently, I have been receiving a lot of questions from authors in regard to distribution. It is usually a panicked email or phone call from the author stating an online bookseller or bookstore is "out of stock" and readers are "unable" to order their book. It's costing the author sales!
Well, not necessarily. The main distributor that my publishing company works with is Ingram/Spring Arbor, but that is really beside the point. No distributor carries an unlimited quantity of any title. They order what they think they can sell to the online booksellers and to the bookstores. Occasionally, the distributor does run out of books. This is a common occurrence and is no cause for alarm. They will reorder more.
In the meantime, bookstores or online booksellers have the option of taking back-orders for a title, and then shipping them when the distributor receives new stock. Readers may also be able to find copies on Amazon.com, or directly from the publisher. Distributors and publishers only make money when they sell books. They are not going to let any title remain out-of-stock for long. This is why you hear of some publishers having a "second printing" of a title...they ran out of the first printing of books they ordered. The company I work for has a digital print facility. We can print books at will and send them where they need to go. Many publishers are going this route.
Another comment I have been hearing is from authors who say they "don't care" if their book sells once it's at a bookstore or not. At least it's in the store. This makes no sense at all. I guarantee you the bookstore cares, because they are not going to let stock just sit in their store if it's not selling. The distributor cares, because those stores are shipping books back to them, and they are losing money. The publisher cares, because now they aren't getting paid for those books, either. Eventually, the author WILL care because when they receive their royalty statement they will see how much those returns have cost them in lost royalties. It has to make good business sense to physically stock a book at a particular retailer.
Simply sending hundreds or thousands of books to the distributor (which a publisher can't do unless the distributor orders them) will not result in book sales. The same goes for trying to put thousands of books on bookstore shelves across the country (which only the stores can do. It's not up to the publisher, unless they are paying for shelf space). If there is no demand for a title, it's not going to sell no matter how many retailers may have it available, or how many books are on hand at the distributor. Only one thing guarantees large stocks of a title at a distributor or in retailers across the country: demand.
Demand is the reason why you see dozens of copies of CDs from the latest winner of American Idol at Walmart, but only one or two polka CDs. There is more demand for the American Idol winner's music than there is for polka.
With no demand, there is no supply. Bookstores use demand to determine which books they will carry. Distributors use demand to determine how many copies of a title they should have on hand for stores and booksellers to order. The greater the demand, the more books they offer. If there is low demand, you will only see a few copies being stocked by the distributor and only a few venues offering if for sale (if any).
Of course, it is up to the publisher and the author to create that demand through marketing and promotion. If that demand doesn't exist, there will be few copies floating around in distribution or in bookstores. This is the reason why authors need to work to do events, interviews, get book reviews and create "buzz" around their title. It's all about creating demand.
Demand creates the supply of books available, not the other way around. Creating that demand is a job that never ends.