Mike Stackpole had an interesting post this week about how books are being handled more like magazines than books by publishers and retailers. I thought I'd add my two cents in on that thought. And my two cents is that this is very, very bad for bookstores.
For several years, I was a buyer, then head buyer, for a distribution company that handled, among other things, role-playing game books (RPGs). We sold very few novels, so those tended to be special order only affairs; unlike bookstores, we didn't get full returnability. The RPGs (also mostly not returnable) sold much like books do in traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores. We also handled a few specialty magazine lines, which, for the most part, were also not returnable.
When it came time to order the magazines, I ordered just a handful over what I thought we would sell in the first week, and I almost never reordered. Why? Because those magazines were only relevant for the first week or so that they were available. Unless there was something REALLY cool and fairly timeless in that particular issue, after the first month the stupid things never sold again.
Book sales have always been front-end heavy. There's a rush for the first few weeks, and after that it slows to trickle. The more popular the book, the steadier the trickle, but it's still a trickle. Now, that trickle can over time amount to more sales than the initial rush...but only if the book is available.
If, as I've heard from several sources now (including this great post by Kris Rusch), book buying is really turning to the magazine model of buying, this is going to severely impact backlist sales, and it will also drive people to online buying. I know that anything I had full returnability on got overbought by at least 20%, and a lot of buyers overbuy by more than that, but with the increasingly limited shelf space, the bookstores just don't have room for all of those books even though they aren't out money if the books don't sell right away.
What this means is that backlist sales from brick-and-mortar stores will virtually disappear except for a very few titles from a small percentage of authors. People who want any of the other books will have to either find them at a used bookstore (no money to author), get it from the library (no money to author), or they'll have to buy it online. For some people, online sales are still impulse buys; they may go to the bookstore, find out they can't get the book without ordering it and waiting, and they may go online right then and there and buy it for their e-reader.
I'm willing to bet that the majority of people are not at that point yet.
We live in a culture that thrives on instant gratification. When we want something, we want it now. If we have to wait for it, or work for it (ie running around to more than one store, or make an order online), odds are we'll lose interest. I foresee a lot of this scenario:
Reader goes to bookstore, and wants to buy X book. Reader is told by staff that they don't have a copy, but they can order one. Reader thinks "If I have to order it, I might as well order it online because I can get it cheaper than I can ordering it from the bookstore, plus I won't have to come back to the bookstore." Reader goes on about Reader's business, and by the time Reader gets home, Reader has forgotten about ordering the book. Reader, being a reader, probably already has a stack of books waiting to be read and picks up one of those because Reader wants something to read right now. If this happens often enough, Reader will probably stop going to the bookstore at all, and will just buy all of their books online.
So my guess is there will be a downtick in backlist sales for awhile as readers migrate more permanently to online book buying. Then backlist sales will probably start to climb again, but only online. Meanwhile, traffic in bookstores as a whole will dwindle, because people are used to not finding what they want at bookstores and will buy their new books online too, wrapping backlist sales into new release purchases so they can get free shipping. This will lead to more bookstores closing, less shelf space, fewer readers finding what they want at brick-and-mortar stores (or being able to find brick-and-mortar stores)... You get my drift.
I also think used bookstores will see increased traffic. People will learn that if they want a backlist title right now and they don't want a digital copy, the used bookstores are the place to look. And if they don't find the title they're seeking, well, there are lots of other backlist titles there that might fit the bill and satisfy their immediate gratification need (making it less likely that the reader will remember to order book X later). Plus a lot of used bookstores also carry a limited selection of new titles, and that's one less online order for Reader to make.
Don't get me wrong, I love used bookstores. But this will impact sales. And impacts on sales can have very weird effects on what publishers decide to publish down the road.