Big 5 Publishers usually have a business relationship with printers, distributors, as well as brick-and-mortar stores. When a publisher signs a contract with a writer, they usually demand rights to all formats, in all territories to ensure they are taking advantage of every possible revenue source. This is because print books have an immense production cost.
First, bookshelf space needs to be negotiated and rented from a bookstore. Then, the books need to be ordered, printed, and shipped to the store. Once they are shelved, there is no guarantee the copies will sell, and the longer they sit there, (1) the more it costs the publisher, (2) the less likely they are to sell, and (3) the more potential revenue the store is losing by not using the space to display more popular book. This is where the term “shelf life” comes from. Literally, the length of a book’s life on store shelves.
If the copies don’t sell, the store will ship them back for a refund. This refund is taken out of the publisher’s, and therefore the author’s income. The publisher’s relationship with the printer then determines what happens to the returned books. Sometimes they are sent to the author, but more often, the cheaper alternative is for the printer to simply destroy the books since they cannot be stored.
Small, independent publishers and self-published authors do not have access to the same resources as Big 5 Publishers. If they offer print publishing at all (most do not because of the cost), it’s usually through a print-on-demand (POD) service such as CreateSpace, LULU, or IngramSpark. In this scenario, books don’t get printed until they are ordered. This keeps setup and production costs to a minimum, and virtually eliminates the need for mass storage.
However, there is a trade-off cost. Without a personal relationship with bookstores, it’s next to impossible to get copies into brick-and-mortar stores. Self-published authors especially are severely disadvantaged in this endeavor. Adding to the challenge is the fact that some POD business like CreateSpace do not allow for mass returns, which stores like Barnes and Noble require in order to stock titles. Nevertheless, books can still be listed on the store’s website for readers to order on their own. Another option is for authors to approach small, independent neighborhood bookstores in person and offer their books on consignment. Often times, this is a great way for authors to get their name out in their communities.
Something authors should not do is sneak copies of their book into stores without the owner’s/manager’s knowledge or permission. This does nothing but cause confusion, since without having the book’s information in their systems, stores cannot actually sell the book to customers. Stores have been known to blacklist authors for doing this.
NOTE ABOUT PRICING:
Unlike eBooks, print books cost money for each copy that is produced. In order for the author to make even the smallest profit off a sale, the price has to be high enough to accommodate the printer’s cut, the bookstore’s cut, the publisher’s cut, and author royalties. On top of that, books need to be priced high enough to accommodate a 50% price reduction in stores. This is why print books are often priced much higher than eBooks (with some exceptions). It’s also why POD books will often be more expensive. Due to the setup needed for each book, bulk printing is usually cheaper per-copy than if a printer needs to create just one or two copies per order.