My motivation for writing this, I’ll admit, is to ensure the best possible destiny for my own books, but this applies to every author, not just me.
There’s a very real, palpable, important difference between buying books online from a site like Amazon, and buying them from a physical bookstore, especially a chain like Barnes and Noble. In either case, a sale is a sale (unless you’re using Amazon’s “find used books” feature, which is a separate topic), and since it’s a sale, I get money from it. This is a good thing.
But it’s not the same thing. And here’s why it’s better to buy from a store.
Amazon is going to list my books pretty much regardless. They list vast numbers of books, because they have the advantage of not needing to worry about shelf space. Instead of renting expensive store property and paying booksellers and so on, they have warehouses and computer programs. This means they can afford to offer a lot more things for sale than a physical store can. So even if, heaven forfend, a novel of mine sells poorly, it will be in the Amazon system, and you can order it from there any time, assuming it hasn’t gone out of print. If you do order, the result is that I get money, and maybe my Amazon sales rank rises slightly. (However, since few people know how those ranks are calculated, nor what constitutes a “good” rank, that last aspect isn’t terribly important.)
Now let’s contrast this with Barnes and Noble (or other chain store of your choice). They have a limited amount of shelf space on which to display books to customers. They are therefore very ruthless about determining what to put in that space. So I come along, debut writer, got a book called Doppelganger, and let’s say the store in Bloomington, Indiana decides to order five copies. (I have no idea what the actual numbers tend to be, but we’ll use this as our example.)
If you buy the book there, what happens? Well, for starters, I get money. But let’s say all of my friends in Bloomington decide they want to support my career and buy a copy of Doppelganger from B&N. Pretty soon, B&N runs out, and they’ve still got people coming in and asking for it. So their computer ordering system (which is some admixture of an automated program and human choice; since I don’t know the exact interaction of these, we’ll just call it all the system) orders in five more. Then, since I have lots of friends and they love me very much (right, guys?), those five sell, too. So then they order in more. Rinse and repeat, until I run out of friends. (And maybe along the way, some strangers buy a couple, too.)
Fast-forward to my next novel. Amazon lists it, just like they did the first one, and then things go on as usual. At B&N, though, the system says to itself, “Self,” it says, “we got another one by that Marie Brennan chick. How many of her last book did we sell?” And the system checks, and tells itself, “Why, we sold seventeen of it.” “Hot damn!” the system says in response. “I guess we’d better order in more than five this time, then.” Result: there are more copies on the shelf — a more visible presence for me — maybe an employee remembers I sell well and does things to promote my next one — and all in all, we have a higher chance that my next book will sell to people who don’t already know me.
Alternative scenario, in which all my friends bought copies from Amazon instead of their local bookstore: the system at B&N asks itself, “Self,” it says, “How many of her last book did we sell?” And the system checks, and tells itself, “We only sold three.” “Oof,” the system says in response. “I guess we’ll only order in three this time, then.”
By such paths do authors end up not even being stocked in a given bookstore. And that does bad things to an author’s career.
How do independent bookstores fit into this? Well, as a general rule, there’s more human choice involved in the stocking of an independent store. Rather than a computer automatically deciding how many copies to order in, based on how many of the last book sold, an actual thinking, breathing human being makes that decision. An independent bookseller can decide they want to push an author who maybe hasn’t sold that well, but who could if they got a bit of personalized attention. That doesn’t tend to happen at the chain stores. Still, though, the same basic principle holds: if a given author doesn’t sell many copies, then the store will probably not order many in, and eventually said author may not be there at all.
Any sale is a good thing, of course. But a sale from a physical store can be a better, because it carries ancillary benefits, or at the very least forestalls the ordering system from just deciding to not even carry an author’s books anymore. This is why, even if a book you’re looking for isn’t on the shelf in the store, I recommend asking if they can order it in for you, instead of getting it from Amazon. Sure, go online for the really arcane, hard-to-find stuff that the store can’t order, but if possible, get it from a physical bookstore.
Your friendly local neighborhood author will thank you. (As will your friendly local neighborhood economy.)