Thursday, June 29, 2006

Where is my mind again? Oh right, filed under brain dead.

I feel like I should follow up yesterday’s column with something equally explanatory and revealing about the bookselling world, but I think that might be asking a little much of my brain right now. I spent all day yesterday moving some sections around (a job that I will continue again today), and a large chunk of my night helping with a friend’s apartment move (we’ve been moving her all week, but only late in the evening because of the heat). When I work on a large project (like a section move, or moving someone), I have a tendency to get very focused and it takes a moment for my brain to kick over.

Am a capable of thinking of two once? Sure, I do it all the time, but section moves seem to throw me, especially because this one involves the reclassification and combination of books from other sections. I stopped to help a customer in the middle of it and there was this ten second time delay between what she asked, what I heard, what I processed and what I finally said in answer. I kept apologizing—I’m really not that much of space cadet—and she kept laughing.

I’m going to believe that it was in one of those “laugh with me rather than at me” situations. She really was a nice woman, and she deserved a bookseller who was a bit more on her game.

Alas, she got me instead. I hope she likes the books we settled on, I’ve got suggestions for her next time…if I remember what she looks like.

Sadly I can’t even blame my inability to remember people’s faces on the section reassignments.

Speaking of section reassignments though—and therefore not lingering on the deficiencies that will someday make me a horrible, horrible witness to some sort of traumatic event or another—we can talk about section designation, and why some books get placed in one area as opposed to another (and therefore why not all bookstores have the same books in the same places). For this example we’ll once again use are old favorite Book X (you know, the one capable of rocking your mind, your body and rejuvenating your relationship). What you don’t know about Book X is that it’s fiction, or so it has been classified by the publisher who even went so far as to place the word fiction on the spine beneath the company’s logo.

This makes it fiction, right?

Wrong, this makes it whatever the book buyers and booksellers classify it as within their stores. How may places can this book end up? Oh, so many.

When the publisher pitches Book X to the Barnes & Noble buyer, the buyer agrees with the designation of fiction, but maybe doesn’t see it doing too well there, so they only buy 1000 copies of the title to sit on the shelves between Books W and Y.

The Borders buyer, however, does not see Book X as fiction. According to their shelving system Book X is actually a thriller because of the suspense plot involving the dish and the spoon. Under the thriller category they think it will do fabulous, wonderful, and exciting new take on the cow jumped over the moon tale. They double Barnes & Noble’s order and start talking publisher co-op for front of store face-outs (I actually don’t know if that’s in the book-buyers job description or not, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend). The kicker here? Borders shelves all of its thrillers with its mysteries. Book X will be residing no where near the fiction section.

Next the publisher goes to a coalition of small Independents (or maybe one really large Independent because I don’t know how indies go about buying their books), and the Independents also love the book, only they think that it qualifies as a modern take on the “Hard-boiled” plot because of the rough, world-weary narration by the cow and the femme fatale quality of the moon (don’t even get them started on the whole dish and spoon thing). They order a few copies to be shelved in the Hard-boiled section because the use of the word mystery is too broad.

So we now have Book X shelved in fiction in B&N, Mystery/Thriller in Borders, and Hard-boiled in some Independents. For spice we’ll say that some other Independents thought everyone else was insane because, hello, dish and spoon? Obviously a star-crossed romance.

Four designations, one book. Maybe it does well classified as all four, maybe it only does well at B&N because of the broadness of the fiction definition.

Maybe everyone got it wrong and it only does well in the one store where it was mis-shelved as inspirational because the cow does indeed make it over the moon.

Maybe a bunch of sales are missed because customers go into their stores expecting to see the book in fiction (that’s what the author’s website called it), and when they are unable to find it (except in the B&N, but they didn’t order that many and it wasn’t an automatic reorder) they stop looking.

The kids at B&N and Borders aren’t going to understand what you are looking for if you come in talking about the Hard-boiled book you saw at an Indie while on vacation but didn’t pick up because you figured you could buy it elsewhere. They don’t have a Hard-boiled sub-set category, their employees aren’t trained to think of books in that classification, unless they are big mystery buffs, chances are they won’t have a clue what you are talking about. The Indie kids might description might limit the customers who get interested because the customer base doesn’t understand the definition of Hard-boiled.

And Book X remains untouched in most places because of mis-categorization.

Everyone has there own standards that define what book goes where. There is no universal norm, no set of rules that we all follow. It all comes down to the opinions of the buyer and of the person shelving the books.

And given how brain dead I am today that might scare the hell out of you.


SteveInLA13 said...

Ah, the travails of shelving and section designation. You hit the nail right on its ugly, misshapen head, Bookseller Chick. This is why I should be the arbiter of all things.

Kendall said...

BSC: I've seen bookstores with too many categories/subcategories, like the Hard-Boiled one you mention. It seems to me that it just makes it hard to find anything if you have too many categories.

But I still don't understand why bookstores don't multi-classify, like, say, Amazon does. (I don't generally browse on Amazon, so that doesn't help me; but I'm confident it helps them sell more books.) Sorry, I'm beating that drum again.... ;-)

Anyway, for a brain-dead post, you made a lot of sense. But you paint a frustrating picture of how buyers & shelvers unintentionally work against the consumer's (and thus, the store's) best interests. ;-( Wah.

Tanya said...

I'm not the buyer at the independent bookstore where I work part-time, but I've kept my ears open. Usually each of the main publishers have regional representatives that make the rounds to the bookstores to plug titles and collect orders. As for category assignment, we stick close to the publisher recommendation (or Ingram's if we're special ordering). If the category is too narrow, we'll put it the closest general category.

My store doesn't have the space to justify multiple classification shelving in large quantities. Unless it's new or popular we're only likely to have 1 or 2 copies of a book, which doesn't lend itself to multi-class shelving at all. We'll do it occasionally, but it is difficult manage even when properly annotated in the inventory so we can check both sections.

C.W. Cale said...

"Yes, please show me where you keep that new Deepak Chopra book.
-and I'm in a hurry!"

See, it's funny 'cause Chopra (much like Asimov) basically has a book in every god dang section of the store.
So the guy, or gal would get very angry and flustrated while you take them to each section because whatever book you show them will um, invariably be the wrong one. -and in the end they were, of course ...and you should have known, looking for Andrew Weil!

...i love that story! :)

BuffySquirrel said...

What struck me in one bookshop I was in the other day was that Philip K Dick's mainstream books were shelved with his SF. Poor guy, he spent much of his life trying to break out of SF and into mainstream, and even now he's DEAD he can't manage it!