I decided to write a few words on this subject after Eric Wittenberg wrote a related post found here. I intend to eventually go much deeper into this subject (Sarah will too on her blog, I am sure).
The logic behind the placement of specific titles in specific stores can be a real head scratcher. When our distributor sells to these chains, they buy a bulk number of copies and then decide where the books go based upon their own internal data. Traffic patterns, buying habits, location, space, and other factors come into play.
If Borders buys a book on Gettysburg, for example, some stores might get six copies, some four, some one, and many none at all. But Eric is right--often local authors do not get support from local stores. It is mind-numbingly shortsighted, but it happens often. Sometimes authors call to complain, "I just stopped at a Barnes and Noble and Borders in XYZ city, and neither store had a copy of my book!" Individual placement is, sadly, out of our hands. My advice is to meet the management and explain why carrying the book will help them make money (i.e., explain why and how you will help them sell it.)
How or whether a store reorders when copies sell out is also something of a mystery. Sometimes, reorders appear automatically; in other cases, select titles sell very strongly but the reorders are not automatic and never come through. Different buyers/managers in the different chains have provided me with different answers as to how this works. Sometimes they contradict one another.
There is no doubt the Civil War sections are shrinking in a few of the stores I check routinely. The two or three Borders stores in our region (in my biased opinion) have a much better military history section than the two Barnes and Noble stores I hit now and again as time permits.
However, something that I feel compelled to discuss is the matter of internal management. I base my comments upon personal experience, and not hearsay or rumor. In my studied opinion, Barnes and Noble appears to be much better managed--at least when it comes to book signings, promotion, and the tracking of stock.
Here is a running example: Author Gary Moore began touring the country to promote his book Playing with the Enemy in September of 2006. He has participated in literally dozens of signings in the chains and independents since that time. Every time he arrived at a Barnes and Noble, the management greeted him in friendly fashion, a table or section with chairs was ready for him, free drinks or even food were offered, signs promoting the event were up and visible, and everyone was excited and ready for a successful event.
Borders was often an entirely different story. More than a dozen times, and often after long drives or even flights, Gary would arrive in a Borders and the manager would ask him, "Is your signing tonight?" (As an author, digest that fine greeting for a few seconds.)
Staff would then scramble to find a table as disaster slowly unfolded before Gary's eyes. In most cases, little or no promotion had been done, no signs were visible, and more often than not, Borders could not even FIND the books. "We show we have 30 in stock, I guess for your signing, but we can't find them," was a common refrain.
So after our marketing director spent time and money to set up the event, and after Gary had taken the time and expense to drive or fly to a specific store, he would arrive to hear something along the lines of "You are not on the calendar."
As every diligent authors does (and every author should), Gary often calls stores to see if his books are in stock, and then he drives 1-3 hours out of his way to hit those stores, meet the manager and staff, and sign his books. Copies in Barnes and Noble were always where they were supposed to be and easily found. In Borders, time after time after time, it was exactly the opposite: The computer would show X number of copies in stock--but no one could ever find them!
Now let me be clear about something. We have enjoyed a number of highly successful events at different Borders stores across the country. We like Borders and support the chain in many ways. The staffers have always been friendly. The Folsom, California, Borders store event comes readily to mind. There, tables were set in advance, signs were everywhere, the line of people was out the door, and nearly 200 copies were sold in three hours. But every time an event flopped or books could not even be found, it was at a Borders store. Something, somewhere, is seriously wrong within the bowels of that chain.
I rambled a bit more than I intended, but when someone mentions differences in the chains, this is one that always jumps into my mind and sticks in my craw. If anyone else has experienced anything similar, I would love to hear about it.