What I Learned from a Big Bookstore

Last weekend, my husband and I went to Grand Junction on errands. This is a thing we do from time to time, because we live in a small town where certain goods and services aren’t available. When we first moved here, we went “to town” at least once a month. As the years have gone by, however, we’ve become more small-townish ourselves, and the trips are much less frequent. Our tolerance for THE BIG CITY (population 60,000, more or less) has also dwindled, with the result that when we do go, we’re apt to accomplish a few of the things on our to-do list, get overwhelmed, and give up. So some of the things we used to do for recreation have fallen by the wayside.

One of the things we used to do was visit Barnes and Noble. As of last weekend, we hadn’t set foot inside in years. It was always a dicey proposition for me. I love books– considering my chosen profession, I’d better. But when I was first struggling with writing and publishing and all the self-doubt those incurred, seeing the shelves loaded with titles by authors who WEREN’T ME often caused me more anger and anxiety than anything else. Lots of reasons for this that I won’t go into here.

I’ve been in a “not-reading” phase since the beginning of the year. Most years, I read upwards of 100 books. Since January, though, I’ve had a hard time maintaining interest in anything. I read a few pages or a few chapters, and go back to Twitter. Even books I can tell are good don’t hook me. I’m not sure why this is the case; maybe the endless lure of Internet click-bait, available at the merest touch of my phone, is to blame. But it bothers me. I feel like I should be reading more. So, while we were in town, I suggested we go to Barnes and Noble, figuring that being surrounded by books might inspire me. I might stumble upon some gem of the written word that would make me want to read again.

At first, I felt hopeful. When I walked in the doors, it smelled like a bookstore: that mixture of paper, dust, and imagination no other shop can imitate. After a brief cruise through non-fiction and a stop at the restroom, I headed for the Science Fiction and Fantasy section, my natural home. And that’s when I noticed the changes.

I’m kicking myself for not taking pictures to illustrate this post. Initially, I didn’t have any intention of writing about the experience. By the time I did, I was so overwhelmed that I forgot I owned a body, much less a camera.

I couldn’t find SF/F at first, because it had shrunk from seven full rows of shelves to three, one of them dedicated to new releases. This disturbed me A LOT. Following the writers and agents I do on line, I’d seen certain types of Science Fiction and Fantasy described as “tough sells,” but I hadn’t imagined the entire genre had gone into collapse. When I started looking at the shelves, I got even more of a shock. A great many people whom I consider masters of the genre–Charles De Lint, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sherri S. Tepper, Diana Paxson, and others–didn’t appear at all. I didn’t even see any Heinlein or Asimov. Yet I didn’t see an overabundance of new names, either. Rather, the bulk of the shelf space was devoted to a few authors with high name recognition, usually from popular culture tie-ins or cross-media presence (i.e., writers of both comics and “word books”**). I’d already noticed that store offered a LOT more than it had in the way of games, toys, and collectibles, but they were doing a pop culture promotion so I figured that was why. Checking out the shelves changed my mind.

75% of the books on offer in SF/F were by men. I caught a few well-known women’s names–Robin Hobb, Mercedes Lackey, a mouldy volume of Melanie Rawn. All the women represented were writers of Fantasy. I happen to know women both read and write Science Fiction, but Barnes and Noble doesn’t seem to share this knowledge, or recognize its importance. Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison, all authors of multi-volume series, were featured. In fact, they took up three whole shelves. This was the most presence given to women authors, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Paranormal and Paranormal Romance didn’t exist as genres the last time I set foot in the store. Harris and Hamilton used to be shelved in Mystery. They didn’t belong there, not really. But in my opinion, they don’t quite belong in Fantasy, either. Paranormal has a different flavor than either High Fantasy or Urban Fantasy, and I think it needs its own section.

Beyond this, I spotted another bothersome trend: Multiple editions of the same few titles. Particularly for titles with astronomical sales, it was usual to find two or three different trade editions as well as a mass market edition, and sometimes a hardcover. Many of these titles were shelved facing cover-outward, instead of spine-outward, which would have taken less space. George R. R. Martin’s books consumed more than an entire section of shelving in this fashion. I’m a Martin fan, myself, but how many editions of A Song of Ice and Fire does a person need? Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time received similar treatment, as did Tolkien. So did several straight Science Fiction authors, Larry Correa among them.

The multiple edition trend carried over into the Fiction and Literature section, where a large proportion of books offered a movie tie-in cover edition, a “classic” look edition, and something I can only describe as a “pretentious hipster” edition, meaning a book that will look cool when you read it at the coffee shop. I don’t like this trend. Showcasing multiple editions made me wonder how many lesser-known but deserving authors are passed over in the name of assuring space for so many different covers and trim sizes of bestsellers. The thing is, casual readers already KNOW about bestsellers. They’ve heard the buzz or they’ve seen the movie. These are books that people will ask for BY NAME. If they’re browsing, it’s likely they’ll know where to look. The same doesn’t hold true for lesser-known titles and what used to be called mid-list authors. Once you could stumble on them, hidden gems in a bestseller setting. Now bestsellers, instead of supporting new and different voices, hog all the space and there’s no mid list at all.

Fiction and Literature did have a fair share of woman authors, though. On the other hand, some genres that once had their own sections, such as Thriller and Horror, were now lumped into Fiction and Literature with nothing to distinguish them, so Stephen King appeared alongside Barbara Kingsolver and both shared the section with Jane Austen and T. H. White. This makes for a confusing browsing experience, and it also emphasizes how arbitrary a lot of genre distinctions have come to be, with authors mashing up elements like Time Travel and Romance or Procedural and History. Personally I think these mash-ups are great, by the way. And I understand the complications of figuring out where to put them without resorting to an infinite number of genre sections. However, I think it would be more helpful to the casual shopper at least to differentiate between Contemporary Fiction and Classic.

Some other things I noticed: Mystery has shrunk and Folklore and Fairy Tales has disappeared. Romance still has a substantial section, and contained the largest number of woman authors. (On the other hand, I have to wonder why Nicholas Sparks novels were shelved in Fiction and Literature when I found Jodi Picoult in Romance. Do you suppose it’s indicative of anything?) Graphic novels gained a section, as did books devote to Gaming, and there was a huge selection of Manga that didn’t exist before, almost as big as Mystery and SF/F combined. Joining the ranks of things non-existent at my last visit was a YA section very nearly as big as Fiction and Literature. Once upon a time, the few YA books available were located in the Children’s section. In this case, I was glad of the change.

I noticed topical and thematic trends as well as genre. Witches are big, both in Fantasy and YA. As a religious Witch, I have a hard time with this one. While some Witchy fiction gives a nod to difference in world view, most of it focuses on the light show (Paranormal does somewhat better here). Faeries and Fae-like beings are also big, and I also have difficulty with it. I admit to my attitude being the result of arrogance; I’m an amateur folklorist and I’ve studied Faerie lore most of my life. I also believe in the Fae. So seeing them portrayed as the latest incarnation of Elves, with little, if any, attention paid to the stories both disgusts me and strikes me as rather dangerous. In fact, I picked up a novel I’d seen people on Twitter raving about and put it down immediately when I read the back cover’s description of the Faeries involved. While I’m at it, I love “fairy tale” retellings. But really, how many interpretations of “Beauty and the Beast” does one need? (No offense to friends who have published retellings of “Beauty and the Beast.”)

Except in already popular series, vampires and shifters have fallen off, as has dystopia–though the YA section still had plenty of the latter.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I noticed while I wandered the stacks was the absence of authors of color. I did see a few, like Laura Esquivel, in Fiction and Literature, where Like Water for Chocolate made a bizarre appearance on the New Titles shelf. But in YA, in SF/F, in Mystery and Romance, ALL the authors were white. No N. K Jemisin, who has been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy awards. No Octavia Butler, who is widely recognized as one of the Grande Dames of Science Fiction. No Samuel R. Delaney. From the books available, one would suppose that no People of Color ever become detectives, or have love affairs, or dream of space travel or becoming wizards. It’s unconscionable.

This is the point where I lost it and had to retreat to Starbucks for a restorative latte and croissant. The small section of the store roped off for coffee addicts was surrounded with racks displaying still more mass market copies of A Game of Thrones and a table covered with various editions of Go Tell a Watchman. Looking at Harper Lee’s novel, I thought about how unlikely it would be, in today’s publishing climate, for To Kill a Mockingbird ever to have been written. As you may have read, the classic grew out of a few pages of flashback in Watchman. A kindly editor to whom Lee had submitted the earlier work told her the real story was in that flashback and she should “rewrite” the book and resubmit. Would this happen today? I think not. People do still get R & R (rewrite and resubmit) recommendations, mainly from agents. But I have to wonder if something requiring so substantial a rewrite would ever get farther than a form rejection.

Incidentally, if I’m wrong, I’d like to hear about it (please keep it civil). From where I sit, it looks like publishing today mainly exploits trends until they no longer sell and then moves on in search of the next big thing. Wish lists for manuscripts ask for things that are different, but not TOO different, paying lip service to the desire for diverse voices while not challenging the status quo in any remarkable way. Editors in the big houses often come and go; few have the leisure to nurture potential. Books are a market, a commodity, and authors lie thick on the ground. I hear all the time, “we WANT to like your work!” But mostly this seems to me like a polite way of saying “we want to find out that your work fits into a particular, salable niche.”

As disturbing as I found my Barnes and Noble visit, I learned something important from it: I’m glad I chose to self-publish and I’m grateful for the technology that has allowed me to do so. Sometimes, when I see contacts and acquaintances posting about signing with agents or being picked up by a traditional publisher, I am envious and regretful. I wonder all the things self-published authors wonder (many of them, anyway): Was I just too impatient? Too resistant to learning the ropes? Too cantankerous? Is my work itself flawed? Do I write less well than I like to believe? And if I answer these questions in the negative, am I lying to myself?

I believe not. I believe that really, I’m too idiosyncratic a writer, with too different a world view–not to mention life experience–for the traditional publishing world to make sense for me. I might have been able to hook an agent; once I figured out how to write queries and synopses and all the rest, I got requests on a regular basis. I might even have been picked up. But if my bookstore experience is any indication, even IF those things had happened, I would have been unlikely to find my work on the shelves at a major retailer.

I absolutely don’t dismiss out of hand the value of traditional publishing. Truth is, once I get through the current Caitlin Ross book, I’m going to excuse myself from that world for a while and work on some things that I think will do better in a traditional market, because that interests me. There are a lot of advantages to it, and it works for many writers. Even so, it seems clear to me that, despite its problems, self-publishing is home to most of the innovation in the field and gives a greater welcome to diversity. That’s important to me, so I’m glad that’s where I ended up.

**”word books” coined by Greta Ladson

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