Wednesday, June 21, 2006

No Room at the (Book) Inn

Over at Romancing the Blog today, Sylvia Day has a column up (that you should read, because it applies to all books, not just romance) about her inability to find certain books and authors at the large chain bookstores. Not due to items being mis-shelved, but because of “shelf confusion” or the books just not being shipped to the stores to begin with. She defines shelf confusion as “too many books, making it difficult for readers to decide what to buy.”

At my store we have another word for this phenomenon: book blindness. Book blindness happens when you have a sea of spined books with absolutely no face-outs to act as a reference point. The sheer number of books in similar colors makes it hard for you to distinguish one from the next, let alone find what you might be looking for. Not only does it make it hard for the customer to find the book they want, but it makes it hard for the bookseller to recognize the title as well. Throw in some funky or hard to read fonts and you’ve got a migraine in the making.

But why so many spined books? Shouldn’t there be face-outs in each wall bay or even face-outs on each shelf? Yes, ideally there would be a face-out on each shelf, and it would be a new title, or an old favorite that someone likes to hand-sell. Often face-outs also act as place-holders, with the books flipped out to keep titles from flopping over into empty space. The face-out would then be reversed when more stock arrives, making shelving fast and painless.

Shelving has not been fast or painless for me in quite some time. Where at the beginning of my book career I had lots of room in my sections I now have none, and each time I shelve I must pull other titles to make space. Where at the beginning of my book career I had no overstock—in fact, it was forbidden, you’re just not trying hard enough to create space—I now have so much that I’m unable to cycle down any of the older books; too many new books have arrived to full the spots of the titles sold.

With mass markets now being released in the new “venti” or premium size I’ve had to re-situate my shelves to make more room, losing valuable space. With the increase of Trade titles I have to resituate again, losing even more shelves. My end-caps are packed to capacity with five titles across (and four books deep) to allow for some relief, and still face-outs are limited to titles of which I have so many copies that I need to create a barge on the shelf (a barge is when you place one book face out then the next book face down—like a plank—and then face out the rest of the books on top of that book, allowing for a larger quantity to be shelved in one place). Not the most professional looking presentation. I never thought that I would be so hard pressed for book space that I would be hoping—no, praying—that a sister store would just go out of business already so that I could get some of their large gondolas to increase the shelving potential in two of my sections. But here I am, so desperate that I hope they close before the end of summer so I can get the square footage my Manga and Romance sections desperately need.

Where did all these books come from? Part of it I’m sure has to do with ordering glitches, where stores receive too many books for their size. For the most part, though, this book overload has to do with book sizing and a greater availability. Where before we carried books from X amount of publisers, we’ve now increased to carry from Y. Where before mass markets reined supreme, now we have ventis and trades in their place. Display bays, while they make a nice sight break and section indicator, take up space that could be spread throughout the section.

The truth is that even if I got a bigger store, I would only get more books. My shelves would be just as crowded and I would still be stuck trying to figure out whose backlist I can sacrifice in order to get newbie author #2,039 a spot on the shelf. And it’s not even like this person will get a face-out (unless they got some major love from the buyer)! Nope, they’ll be limited to being spined just like everyone else.

This is why building the buzz for your book is so important. You want them to want your title so badly that they’ll keep looking, or special order, or even go on Amazon. Hemmingway and Capote and others didn’t have to worry about this problem, they weren’t competing against titles from e-publishers gone print, or editors who churn out 20 to 25 new titles a year. You have to get your name out there, be remembered, so some bookseller like me decides to keep you when it comes done to deciding who gets stripped or returned today. You want your titles to be restocked from overstock, not left up there to yellow.

It shouldn’t have had to come to this. You should have been allowed to just write and not have to market yourself and your work on a non-existent budget. It shouldn’t matter whether or not you’ve made a name for yourself or that some booksellers have decided to hand-sell you to the extreme because once upon a time a browsing reader would have just stumbled across your book, faced out on a shelf to hold up other titles (or spined out, but sitting right next to that face-out).

In a perfect world the term “book blindness” would only exist as the punchline to a joke about bookworms.

But we don’t live in a perfect world and you are vying with thousands of other people to get your name out there and be heard, so be heard, think outside the box, and get the word out, so that people like Sylvia will order you from Amazon if nothing else (and your following can grow from there).


Christine Fletcher said...

For me, this is an eerily timely post.

My boyfriend and I went to a chain store this weekend and perused the YA shelves for my novel. It took both of us scanning the shelves multiple times to find it. 1 copy, spined, and crammed in there so tight it was hard to get out. (My boyfriend wanted to move all the books off an end cap and put mine there, face out. Tempting as it was, I didn't let him, for which I was promptly called a weenie).

The other major chain in town doesn't have it. They're supposed to, according to my publisher, but I haven't seen it yet. Pub date was 6 weeks ago.

The book has gotten positive reviews from Kirkus, SLJ, and Booklist(the Kirkus review had me floating on air!) Doesn't seem like that matters much, though.

Today I'm brainstorming marketing ideas, instead of writing. I'm not complaining, I know this is part of the deal. I just wish I didn't feel so...ill-equipped.

Great post, BSC. It's good to know what the score is (even if right now, it seems like 103-2 against!)

Michelle said...

How much of a trouble is the “venti” or premium size book made for you? I have made a point not to buy any of them. They would not fit well on my book case and I do not want to pay more then $10 for a book.

I went to Barnes and Noble on Sat. to get Jayne Castles new book and some one spent 30 min. looking for it. It was hiding near the info desk.

Eileen said...

Perhaps I'll ask that when my book comes out in Feb it has a magnetic cover that can be attached to the end of mental shelves.

Kendall said...

I'm confused by this "venti" thing. So it's trade paperback sized, but it's really a mass market (which I guess means the cheaper binding, etc.)? Is that what Luna's using? I vaguely remember some large paperbacks that seemed, uh...cheaper than the trades I was used to, and thus made me think they wouldn't hold up like I expect trades to. Can someone quote me a title or two (preferably in the SF/F genres ;-) so I can go look at one and know what I'm seeing? THANKS!

Angela James said...

I don't know that I've seen any in a sf/f genre, though BSC would probably know better. I see them at Wal-mart. The same basic width as a mass market but taller. Seems to be the best seller's. Christine Feehan's latest book was released in this size, Nora Roberts' Blue Smoke if I remember correctly. And I think John Grisham? Dang, I was just at Wal-mart last night and I don't remember. But I don't buy the venti books so I didn't look to hard. I don't understand the concept behind it, I guess.

Vivi Anna said...

Great post! I too work, (or worked as of last Thursday) in a large chain bookstore in Canada. We too have shelving space problems, but we arent allowed to have overstock. so when we get way too many books, we use 'coffins' at the end of the shelves, on the floor, to stack the overstock. I agree it is so hard for authors to get noticed unless they are already's a vicious cycle I think, being an author myself. You're only popular if the publisher pays extra money to do displays for you in the stores, or some extra print advertising, but to get that money you need to sell books. LOL

My question would be to the readers. What makes you take notice of a book? How do you make your buying decisions?