A frequent comment from customers in my store, one that that always gives me a bit of glow is, “Your store is so neat and well-organized.” It takes a lot of work to keep it that way, and there are times that the boxes of books to be shelved and boxes of books to be donated are overwhelming. In general, though, we keep on top of things. Lynne Patrick’s October 10 post “When is a crime novel not a crime novel?” reminded me why the shelving seems to be so time consuming. Where does a particular book belong?
Shortly after I bought my store in 1999, the library aide I worked with at my son’s elementary school when I volunteered there came in and said, “Still shelving books, are you?” The difference is that then the books were all nicely cataloged and labeled; my work was all physical, no decisions. Lynne says that labeling a book as “cross-genre” is “a self-destruct button waiting to be pressed, since wholesalers, bookshops, libraries, Amazon, etc. seem to have a pressing need to stick labels on things, and if your sales outlets don’t know where to file your books, there is a good chance they simply won’t stock them.”
The “pressing need” is called “customers.” To the marketing gurus at publishing houses, sticking the label “mystery” or “crime fiction” on anything that has some suspense in the plot (and what good novel doesn’t?) may be a tactic to grab readers’ attention, as Lynne suspects. But there are many readers, like Lynne’s mother, who are set for or against a certain type of book and want to browse only in the areas they enjoy. They may be limiting their possibilities, but there it is.
For the bookseller, “cross-genre” is one of the easier problems; the designation is up front. I, at least, would not refuse to carry a book just because I’m not sure where to shelve it; the options are to choose the section where most readers would expect it, put it in both categories, or, most commonly, put it on display somewhere, at least when it is a new arrival. The woman from whom I bought Twice Told Tales told me, “As long as you know where it is, no problem.” Actually, it is a problem: some customers are reluctant to ask, and many are browsing without a specific author or title in mind. There are innumerable books with features of more than one genre but labeled by the publisher (or the marketing department) so that they appeal to the desired demographic. The bookseller is tasked with finding the appropriate placement in order to maintain some credibility with the customer.
I make an effort to keep all of an author’s titles in one place. This strategy is becoming more difficult, as authors branch out or try new subjects. I can’t put Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day next his Angie and Patrick books in the Mystery section; and who knows what to do with Live By Night once it’s not in the “New Arrivals” or “Bestsellers”? I’ll wait for some reader feedback. Ken Follett? Not recently in the “Spy” section. Many writers who wrote pure contemporary romance have added more than a touch of mystery; I may need a new section for “romantic suspense,” now that I have readers disappointed that I have no books by Sandra Brown or Fern Michaels when they look in my mystery book store. When does “dark fantasy” move from the “Science Fiction and Fantasy” section to “Horror”? If I want to keep all of Stephen King’s books together (now, not totally appropriately, in “Horror”), where do I put them? I have suggested Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood to several of my fantasy fans, and they loved the books. But they are shelved in “Literature.”
A young woman commented recently that she doesn’t like to go to the biggest chain store left standing, which is blessedly 10 miles away, because most everything is in “Fiction,” with very small genre specific sections. Believe me, I’m tempted: Just one big “Fiction” section! Of course, there is still “Philosophy and Religion” vs. “New Age” or “(Auto)biography” vs. “Memoir” or “Military History” vs. straight “History.” Not to mention “creative non-fiction.” And when does a book become a “Classic”? The truth is that customers like to find sections devoted to the types of books they like, and it’s up to the bookseller to meet that expectation.
Popular interests sometimes necessitate the creation of more sections or categories within the store. In recent years, I started a “Chick-Lit” section and a “Paranormal Romance” section. Now that “Chick-Lit” is fading, those books are being integrated into “Fiction,” but “Paranormal” is going strong. With more categories come more decisions, and often complaints from those who would categorize differently. My explanation that choosing a spot is often a matter of opinion or personal choice and is never easy usually suffices and often generates a conversation that adds to my own knowledge; I can’t read all these books, so I have to go by reviews and reader comments (rarely the jacket copy!) And I confess that sometimes the decision is made based on space within one section or another, another problem common to bookshops.
We booksellers try to help our customers find books they will enjoy, and part of that effort is placement within the shop. Unfortunately, we cannot erase the jacket copy or advertising that may scare away a person who dislikes crime fiction or fantasy or some other genre. But if placement of a book in an unexpected area causes the reader to investigate more carefully, or ask questions of the bookseller, some of the prejudice may be overcome. Deciding where to display books is time-consuming; it would be easier to follow the labels or group everything as “fiction.” The “big guys,” on-line or bricks-and-mortar, derive a great deal of efficiency from these practices. The time spent both on placement and conversation in an independent bookshop may be inefficient, but it can be gratifying both to the reader and the bookseller.