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).