I've never worked in retail and only have the vaguest ideas of how bookselling works. Sally Zigmond has been kind enough to offer to enlighten us all, and has written a few pieces which I'm going to run here over the next couple of weeks. Here's her first.
Years ago I was reasonably high up in bookselling: I was assistant manager of a small branch of Claude Gill Books in Orchard Street, London. More recently I worked as a part-time minion in a tiny branch of Waterstone’s, but I’ve now left book-selling entirely. The business has changed drastically since I first started, but many of the basic principles remain.
When I worked at Waterstone's there was a system in place for A-core-stock, B-core-stock (and even C-core-stock for the larger stores), which were all marked up on the database. A-core-stock were the books we absolutely HAD to keep in stock, even if it was only one copy. The amount was determined by the store size. A-core-stock was revised from time to time and was the obvious stuff that every bookshop should have. In fiction, for example, it would be the basic classics and the top-selling books by the best-selling contemporary authors. The Harrogate store I worked in was the smallest Waterstone's in the country, and so didn't hold much B-core-stock: the staff consisted of one manager, one assistant manager, two permanent assistants (one of whom spent most of his time dealing with goods in and out), and a series of part-timers and weekend staff (after the takeover of Ottakars, the Harrogate Ottakars, being a much larger store, became the Waterstone's and 'my' shop was closed down and was replaced by a rather dreary Paperchase).
Store managers could order individually if they felt something would sell well in their shop and central buying hadn't allocated copies (local history, travel etc. being the obvious example). In our store we were asked to keep a note of any book we hadn't got in stock if several customers asked for it. We could order individual copies of course, but if there seemed to be a demand we would tell the manager or assistant manager who would then order more copies in.
As for self-published, POD or vanity-published titles, or any publisher who didn't offer us sale or return: their books would be listed on the computer BUT there would be four asterisks after their names which meant do not order even single copies even if a customer begs you to, because if you do and then they don't want it after all we'll be stuck with it forever and you will be in big trouble with the manager.
Sally Zigmond was for some time associate editor of QWF, a very well-considered literary magazine. Her short stories have been widely published; her novella, Chasing Angels, was published by Biscuit Publishing, and her first novel, Hope Against Hope, will be published in the new year by Myrmidon Books.