Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On the Organization of Bookstores

Carleen has a poll over at White Readers Meet Black Authors, asking whether bookstores should have a section for African American fiction. Head over and leave your opinion.

Me, I have a few thoughts, which tend to distill down to "This is complicated."

Because basically, it's all about authors wanting readers to find (and buy, and read) their books, and readers wanting to find books they'd want to buy and read. So there's actually a larger issue here of bookstore organization in general, as opposed to just a question of whether books by Black authors should all be shelved together in their own section. So where will readers most easily find books by Black authors?

Well, if the main criterion readers are searching by is the race of the author, then having a special section for Black authors might be the way to go. Want Black authors? African American section. Want Hispanic authors? Latin@ American section. Want Asian authors? Asian American section. Want gay authors? Gay Studies section. (Which is its own issue, because shelving novels with sociological studies, sex manuals, gay history and gay travel guides does not sell a lot of fiction.) Want white authors? Ummm... well, that's the rest of the store, basically.

Which is where my main problem with this kind of sorting comes from. Giving each group its own little ghetto-shelf in the store doesn't do very much to encourage people to buy books by writers who aren't just like them. And by "people" I mainly mean "white people" here, because a Black reader who wants SF has to go to the SF section, and an Asian reader who wants romance has to go to the romance section; it's not like there are duplicate stores complete with genre sections for each racial group. They might browse through "their" race's special lit section too, but they'll hardly ever find anyone else in that aisle.

Reading other discussions of this subject, I've seen people of color, both readers and writers, commenting with about equal energy and numbers on either side of the issue, and there is another side to it. If it's mainly Black people buying books by Black writers, then putting all the Black writers in one section makes it easier for the target audience to find them. For writers, it's playing to their core audience, and for readers, it lets them hit one spot in the bookstore instead of rambling all over.

To me, this seems like surrendering to the racial barriers, though. It'd never occurred to me, for example, that there were romance novels with Black characters until someone online mentioned them. Once I thought about it, sure, it made perfect sense that Black women would want to read romances too, and would want to have books about people like themselves. But they weren't (and even now, still generally aren't) shelved with the rest of the romances, so readers who just want "romances" without having any particular preference about the race of the main characters won't find anything but white romances unless they think to go looking in the African American Lit section, or wherever that particular store or chain has the Black romances stashed. Impulse buys on the part of the other 80% of the reader market are forfeited when the books aren't shelved in the place where most readers looking for a given genre would go looking for them.

The argument, though, is that virtually all the people who would actually buy the book are going to be looking in the "Whatever-American Lit" section, that putting the book somewhere else will forfeit the purchases of people who shop there and not in the genre section (and there are people who do that -- I've seen them arguing in favor of the special sections on that very basis) while gaining few or no new readers from the genre section. It's a smaller market, but it's theirs and these authors don't want to miss out on a chunk of it by gambling on maybes.

Fair enough.

I think it's a shame, though, that people who might well be interested in a book by a writer of color, whether they're consciously looking to choose books by writers with a variety of backgrounds or whether they just think that some book which caught their eye looks interesting regardless of the author's race, are unlikely to ever run across such books in stores where they're all sorted away into their "special" sections.

I don't think this situation can be solved to everyone's satisfaction, unfortunately. Someone in the comments to Carleen's post suggested shelving books in both places -- the special ethnic section and the relevant genre section. That sounds good in theory, but unless you're already a pretty great seller, getting a bookstore to stock multiples of your book can be tough. Heck, these days getting them to stock one copy can be tough. And I've never worked in a bookstore, but there are probably inventory and tracking issues with cross-shelving too.

Brick-and-mortar stores are just too limited to solve this problem. Luckily it's not the only option.

This is a situation e-commerce handles perfectly. Since there are no issues around the physical location of the books, it's just a matter of building your search database to handle any sort of query a customer might have. Want books by Black authors? Ask for a list. Want SF books by Black authors? You can have that too.

Or you should be able to have it -- there's no technical reason why "romance novel 'Black author'" should be an impossible search. Practical application lags, unfortunately (just try to find those Black SF authors' books at Amazon, for example) but the potential is there; it only requires making use of the available tools.

If online bookstores realize we want to be able to search this way, then there's no reason they couldn't virtually shelve any book in as many "sections" as will help readers find it. Beloved could be in "African American Lit" and "Literature" and "Fantasy" and "Bestsellers" and "Books-into-Movies" and anywhere else anyone can think of to put it. Or rather, it can carry any other tags or keywords anyone can think to hang on it. Any individual book can be found in a dozen different places around the virtual bookstore, giving its author the greatest chance of catching the eye of a new reader or being found by their core audience.

Everyone wins.



writtenwyrdd said...

Good thoughts. For brick and mortar stores, I think splitting the difference between your aptly named "ghetto shelves" and the genre section to which the book belongs is the best bet. I seriously doubt that readers care if their science fiction is written by someone who is African American, Chinese or Caucasian unless they have the agenda to seek out, read and thus support authors of a particular flavor. But if books are in both sections, they can be found by both audiences.

Angie said...

WW -- I agree that that's the best option for a realspace store, but too often there's only one copy of a book in the store, so where do you put it? :/


Spy Scribbler said...

I think there's no good solution for brick and mortar stores, but I love your solution for online stores, Angie.

I like the way Borders new online store is set up, with real shelves. I'd like to see them have sections, too. They may have, but I've never browsed a lot.

Angie said...

SS -- I've never shopped at Borders online, but it sounds interesting; I'll have to check it out.


Anonymous said...

Thought provoking post, Angie. I can see both sides of the issue and really can't determine which is the better option for authors and readers, when it comes to brick and mortar stores. I do have one idea: I used to work at Borders and at that time, every clerk had their own section that we stocked and managed. It was not uncommon to have subsections within a section. So why not shelve African American romance novels in the romance section, in a subsection devoted to African American authors, and likewise for lgbt, etc?

Anyhow, you hit the nail on the head saying this is an issue that goes away online. And since brick and mortar stores are on the same track as print newspapers, maybe it's better to focus our efforts there?

Angie said...

Jessica -- I think the idea of a sub-section within a genre section is a good compromise. It'd be interesting to see how many of the readers who are adamant about wanting to shop only in the African-American (or whichever) section would feel about that; it'd be a bit less convenient, but at least they wouldn't have to sort through thousands of other books one by one to find the ones they want.

And I'd definitely prefer to see GLBT romances shelved at least near the het romances. It makes sense not to have them completely intermingled, I can agree with that, but they should be over in the general romance area so that romance fans who aren't afraid of gay cooties can find them, perhaps discovering for the first time that they exist.


laughingwolf said...

i don't care what race or ethnicity a writer is, i go to the genre section i'm interested in.... why 'ghettoize'?

Angie said...

LW -- I'd rather they just not, and a lot of writers of color would rather they not too. But a significant number of other readers of color do prefer to shop in one section where they know there'll be books written by people like them, who understand their world view and issues and have similar experiences.

It's a trade-off. They have an audience and want that audience to be able to find their books. But they're giving up the chance of ever hitting it really big and being a bestseller, unless a miracle occurs and they end up as the next Toni Morrison or Octavia Butler.

Most white people, if asked, will say that they don't care who the writer is or what kind of characters they're writing about. But even if a writer of color has their books shelved in the appropriate genre section (and some, like SF&F are pretty good about that) if the characters in the book are anything but white, the writer has to fight tooth and nail to get the cover art to reflect that, and they often simply can't. The publishers believe pretty firmly that a dark face on the cover of a book will kill sales. For all I know, they're right. And if they are, then yeah, there obviously is some racism going on here, whether overt or unconscious, and it makes sense that there are a lot of brown writers out there who'd just as soon ignore the (much larger) white audience who's going to ignore them anyway -- unless they write about white characters -- and just concentrate on the audience which will buy and read their books.

As I said in the post, it's complicated. :/


Anonymous said...

It's just conjecture, but I'm thinking the split of opinion amongst people of color was based on what type of book they read/wrote. I mean, there are books that are written by Black authors specifically for a Black audience--those authors and readers are only interested in one another and not readers/writers with different experiences.

A Black author who's written a multi-cultural sci-fi story, however, with dreams of hitting the best seller list, would probably be annoyed at finding their book placed in some separate shelving just because they happened to be Black.

Perhaps the solution is to let the authors decide? Books are often imprinted with the library info in the cover with proper subject headings for the book. If the book says "African-American fiction", then the bookstore shelves it there. If the book is labeled "science-fiction", then that's where the book goes.

I agree that the online store does make searching for a particular book much easier. Amazon does have the user-tagging system, so perhaps that could help fill in the gaps where the main Amazon system doesn't?

Just my rambling thoughts. :)

Angie said...

Val -- I think what people write does make a difference in whether they object to the specialty shelves. [nod]

About letting the authors decide where their books should be shelved, it sounds like a neat idea at first but I don't know that it'd work. I've seen Black authors (for example) who all write romances debating on both sides of the issue regarding where their books should be shelved, some saying the Romance section and other saying the African Americal Lit section. Letting each person choose where their books go would just split the subgenre, forcing people who like those books to check two sections to see the whole selection. Assuming they bothered and didn't just stick with one area or the other, which cuts the likely market for those books in two chunks. :/

No matter where one's opinion falls on this issue, I think having consistency within each store is a boon to everyone.