January 20th, 2006

ozarque figure

Where books are shelved, and why it matters...

Where a book is shelved can determine whether that book survives the usual three-week-maximum Trial By Customer and stays in print, or is doomed to be promptly remaindered and/or pulped. Right now, fantasy rules the market stream in the "science fiction and fantasy" category, and science fiction is going under; a book has a far better chance of survival if it gets shelved in the fantasy section.

All the big chains were happy to shelve The Grandmother Principles, but they didn't put it in the "family" section with the other parenting and grandparenting books, where readers interested in grandmothering could have seen it and bought it. Because my verbal self-defense books are categorized as self-help, they put The Grandmother Principles in the self-help section. I argued about it, I pleaded with them, I wrote endless letters pointing out what a book-killing thing that was to do. Their position, especially at Barnes & Noble, was that my reputation was in self-help and people who bought my verbal self-defense books would also buy my grandmothering book, just because it was by me. That turned out, as I had predicted, to be wrong.

Similarly, there was no problem getting the chains to shelve The Language Imperative when Perseus published that one. But they shelved it in linguistics -- which in most chain bookstores is a section maybe seven or eight books wide. Everywhere I went, I found it with .... oh, call it Bilabial Fricatives and Plosives in Hyperarticulating Populations on one side of it, and Sociolinguistic Parameters in Suburban New Zealand on the other side. In one huge Barnes & Noble store I found it set up in a sort of shrine, with an incomprehensible tome by Chomsky on one side and an incomprehensible book by Jackendoff on the other, the whole thing set off by an electric candle and a vase of artificial roses. The likelihood of more than two people a year going to the sections in question was vanishingly small. I spent many hours trying to convince the chains to shelve the book in the general interest section. No way. My doctorate is in linguistics, Perseus is a scholarly publisher, therefore the book had to be in the linguistics section.

And where did they put The Ozark Trilogy when the University of Arkansas Press brought that one out again in 2000? Not in science fiction. Not in fantasy. Not even in fiction. They put it in the section called "Regional," where it quietly died. It's absolutely insane, and the only writers who have enough clout to do anything about this kind of thing are writers who are such superstars that it wouldn't make any difference if their books were shelved in a sub-basement, people would still clamor for them.

The best thing that can happen to a book caught in this kind of bind is for it to be adopted and championed by independent bookstores, where the staffs will put the book wherever they want to put it, will put it in three or four different places if they like, and will vigorously handsell it -- reading it themselves, and recommending it to customers. That can save a book no matter how the chains behave, and is the reason many writers try to spend a lot of time calling at independent bookstores -- as well as the reason all writers mourn the endangered status of the independents.