Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bookstores and romance

1. A couple years back, I agitated for -- and then organized -- a romance-focused session at Winter Institute. An RWA staffer and a couple booksellers from member stores that offered decent romance sections told booksellers what romance readers expect, and why they should care.

2. I’m a fan of romance without actually being a big reader of it. The truth is, I’m kind of a prude. Also, I’m a bitter single lady. We offer full disclosure here at Archimedes Forgets!

3. There have been versions of this post written every few months, with the same sort of arguments hashed out in the comments. And to be fair, I’m probably not saying anything new here either.

4. Don’t even get me started on the difficulty of trying to apply any sort of absolute to the independent bookstore sector. Which is not to say I haven’t done it before, because it’s human nature to look for the defining characteristics of a group.

5. What I feel reasonably confident in saying about indie booksellers as a class is that they don’t like being told what to do. I think that, even more than platitudes we throw around like “a passion for books,” is why people are willing to make sacrifices to run or work for small retail enterprises.

6. When I talk about independent bookstores, I mean the ones that sell entirely or primarily new books. I know next to nothing about the used book business.

7. Romance readers have, in general, been poorly served by many independent bookstores over the past decade. (Quite probably before that, too.) I’m not arguing with that premise. I’m not saying that romance readers should feel any sense of obligation to stores that don’t meet their needs.

8. We -- readers -- don’t make coldly practical economic decisions when it comes to books. If I’m talking about a clothing store that carries dresses outside my price range or below my size, I can be fairly dispassionate about it, but if a bookstore doesn’t carry the authors and genres I like -- especially if there’s an indication that they actively disdain them -- there’s more of a sense of judgment. Psychology people, have at it.

9. Booksellers are used to hearing complaints about their selection. Last week a customer told my coworker that he hated our store because we don’t carry computer books. A couple months back, a customer told me that she had stopped shopping with us because we carry too many new bestsellers and commercial fiction writers. It’s easy to accept that you can’t please everyone, but there are days when it feels like you can’t please anyone.

10. Shelf space is always a problem. Even stores that want to increase their romance (or whatever) inventory have trouble finding a place to stock it. Part of the problem is that bookcases are large pieces of furniture with fixed dimensions. It doesn’t help your picture book overflow if you’re able to free up half a shelf in memoir and one shelf in sports.

11. I don’t know what fraction of the book-browsing population notices, but cheap paper does not age well. The groundwood used in pretty much all mass-markets (along with an increasing number of trade paperbacks) turns yellow very quickly. If something’s been sitting on the shelves for a while, it shows.

12. There’s often a significant overlap between a store’s customers and its employees -- many booksellers started out as customers. So a store that isn’t drawing romance-reading customers is unlikely to acquire romance-reading employees unless they look elsewhere. (Thanks to Ann Kingman for pointing this out in the comments to a Booksquare post, ages and ages ago.)

13. Romance readers are well-served by e-books. Independent bookstores are not. This gap in interests may prove to be unbridgeable.

14. No store can be right for everybody. If you’re looking for an inexpensive book to read once and get rid of, a used bookstore is probably the best fit. This isn’t the “fault” of the independent bookstore selling new books at their cover price, it’s just another gap in interests.

15. There are, without question, a non-trivial number of book snobs working in independent bookstores. (And probably chain stores as well.) Some of these people have no compunctions about sharing their snobbery with the objects of it. Which sucks, because it’s very easy for a bad experience in a single store to color a customer’s feelings about independent bookstores in general. (Which brings us back to #5.)

16. For the record, I’m far from perfect, but I do try really hard not to display any judgment on people’s reading choices. (I wanted to say “not to pass judgment,” but who am I kidding? I judge based on footwear, hairstyle, and whether you understand the proper use of “literally.” I just try not to show it.) I’m no fan of Fifty Shades of Grey (see prudery reference above), but I’m not going to mock you for asking for it. Even if you’re the one saying derogatory things about it.

17. I don’t see any grand solution to the romance reader-independent bookstore divide. I’m not sure there is one. I think there are stores that could benefit from making themselves more amenable to the wants of romance fans, and I think there are stores for which it would be more trouble than it’s worth. And I know I can’t tell any store what to do with its inventory. But I can add my own whinging to the mix when I hear the same complaints again and again.

(Post format shamelessly cribbed from Chasing Ray. When La Colleen starts numbering her paragraphs, watch out.)

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