Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Shelving Issue: Yet Another Angle

Recently fellow blogger Farrah Rochon posted here on Novel Spaces about shelf placement in bookstores. I started to respond to her post, until my reply grew so long it seemed to warrant a separate entry.

You open a big ol’ squirmy can of worms, Farrah, as others have said, for many reasons. It was an issue I thought about as my first novel was coming to print. Where would my book be placed in stores? Up front where the great cover they gave me could attract attention, or on the bottom of an isolated shelf in the back reserved for African-American or Horror writers? What would the stores consider me?

More importantly, what do I consider myself?

In the 1970s, when I was in my twenties and going to bookstores as often as I could, I’d head straight for the sci-fi or horror shelves. That was what I liked to read. There were few writers of color there, though at the time, that didn't matter to me. I'd grown up in a mixed race world and reading stories about white characters didn't bother me if the stories were good. When I found black characters, it was just that much easier to identify, as long as they were black like me.

As I started writing myself, I wanted to read the work of other black writers before me. I'd read a few in high school, work about lives as distant from mine as “Native Son”, or other books that told about life in the ghetto, a world I'd never seen. My relatives in Harlem had all seemed as middle class as I was, and the worlds depicted in social novels were as alien as the planets and lost worlds of sci-fi to me.

When I was 22, a friend gave me a copy of Ralph Ellison's “Invisible Man”, and his opening paragraph so perfectly described my reality that I was hooked and went looking for more visions from black writers that spoke to me. Having a section of the store that contained only black writers made it easier for me to explore, with a wide range of topics and subjects, but all by black writers. It was the same when I came out and wanted to know more about gay history or culture. I went to the gay bookshelf. There were comedies, drama, fiction, non-fiction -- all gay. I drank my fill.

At the time, these “minority community” sections were usually called “special interests” for people looking for books in specific social areas to locate easily, without having to ask. I don’t know how they began, but it was undoubtedly a marketing ploy. “See? Whoever you are, whatever you want, we have books just for you!” Religion, science, history... Minority interests became just another book category.

As I got to know works by specific black or gay writers, I was able to look for their work by name, regardless of where they were shelved. At the time, the number of black and gay writers being published was not nearly as many as you find scattered in “special interest” sections and throughout stores today, and the range wasn’t as wide. Black books were almost exclusively about “black life” and that almost always meant ghetto life. Gay books, fiction or non-fiction were almost always about gay sexuality, coming out, or how others dealt with your sexuality or coming out.

Fortunately, more and more, what a writer is doesn’t limit what they can say. What a writer is -- regardless of race, gender, religion, sexuality -- informs everything that writer writes. It forms the beginning of how they deal with the world and how it deals with them, defined by their experiences. But it does not, and should not limit their subject matter.

As I’ve said before, any writer’s work is based on research or experience, and either can be had in any area by anyone, with effort. Why should writers of any background be barred from writing anything we truly understand and have opinions about? As more writers of all persuasions take advantage of the freedom to get our work out in an increasing number of new ways, more range is being seen in communities who previously seemed to be of one voice.

That voice had been restricted by very real financial considerations. Publishers publish books to sell, and what was published was driven by what sold. What was published encouraged people who wrote similar stories to submit theirs, and if more books on that theme sold, the cycle continued. Pity the writer who crossed the established lines of subjects fit to be sold. You’re told your work is neither fish nor fowl, or that they’re not sure there’s a market for that “sort of thing...”

As the means of book production and promotion become democratized by easier access to technology and distribution by e-mail and the Web, book stores are closing, as online purchasing increase, or they find new ways to be of value to their buying community. Online, there are no shelves -- you’re offered books based on what you’ve bought, what a program thinks is to your taste as it tracks your purchase and searches. You can find any book on any topic with the click of a mouse.

Black and gay bookshelves had a point in a time when there were fewer books to fill them, and their author’s subjects were more constrained. As the number of books and their topics increase, I think we’ll see a new way of looking at displaying books in surviving stores. It’s not just time to change - it’s past time.

As for my book, so far I am in general interest, a step forward, I suppose for a black gay writer -- except that it is a vampire novel, so there is still one categorization I am still subject to, as you can see from the photo a west coast friend took in the Barnes and Noble in Burbank -- though it’s one that keeps me in the front of the store, at least until after Halloween...what then?

It’s anyone’s guess, but I’ll let you know.


Farrah Rochon said...

Terence, yet another interesting take on the topic. Like you, I have no real knowledge of urban life. I grew up in the Louisiana bayous. When I go into the bookstore, I'm looking for a good story. Period.

It's great to see your book on display--at least until the end of next month. I'll let you know where it ends up in stores in my area. :)

Liane Spicer said...

Interesting perspective, Terence. It's good to be reminded that shelving decisions are driven by one motive only, which is to sell more books. We'll see how the situation continues to evolve.

Charles Gramlich said...

Perhaps it would be good if the books by African American writers were shelved on the regular genre shelves, but periodically stores could pull books of "special interest" off onto "special shelves." They might feature local authors, or black authors, or gay authors, or female authors, or etc etc.

Shauna Roberts said...

Excellent, thoughtful post, Terence.

As I've said before in this discussion at various blogs, I wish bookstores would shelve books in all the categories they belong in. They wouldn't have to buy more books, just distribute them about the store differently. Then this discussion would be unnecessary.

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