Monday, October 31, 2011

The Magic

The last installment of my “What is a Cozy?” series touched off a few memories that I wanted to share: the months I worked at Barnes and Noble.

It was the summer of 2003, after my freshman year of college. I cashiered, shelved, and located books until my brains nearly fell out. And, as much as retail can be, it was a wonderful experience.

I remember the customer complaints. “Why don’t you have an entrance over here?” one asked, as if I were the building’s architect. “When I opened this book, the spine broke. What piece of crap!” another pointed out.

We had customers who would leave sex books in the kids’ section, and a man who tried to return a book six months after he purchased it.

I recall the non sequitur humor of my co-workers, one of whom said that Erica Jong “must suck”—because her books were in the fiction section.

I didn’t much enjoy pushing B&N’s discount card on customers. ($20 a year for 10% off. Very few of our customers spent the $200 on books per year they would need to just break even.) Bizarrely, one customer grew angry when I didn’t pitch it to him. He only grew angrier when I told him the details.

But what I remember most from that summer was Harry Potter night. Yes, I worked the midnight shift and helped release Order of the Phoenix into the book-reading wild.

I wasn’t a Harry Potter fan before that. I’d never even read the books. But seeing my name on the schedule kicked my rear into gear, and I read all of the first four books in about a week or two. What started out as a simple YA tale unfolded into something more magical. The customer service kiosk held a countdown calendar (which I still have), and I enjoyed ripping off the page at the start of each day.

The night came. Children came dressed as their favorite character. They made wands. They sang songs. They had their faces painted. They stood next to a cardboard cut-out of Harry Potter and had their picture taken.

Then they lined up. I stood behind the counter, a box of open books at my feet. All of us counted down until midnight, and when the clock struck, we triumphantly held the books aloft to cheers from the crowd. I felt, in a rare moment, like I was really wrapped up in something bigger than me.

I got so caught up in the excitement that I only sold one copy to the first family in line, when their pre-order had entitled them to two. They were so happy to get their copy, they didn’t notice either. I’ve felt bad about it ever since, and I want to take this time to apologize. Sorry, folks! Hope you didn’t have to wait too long to get your extra book. I can’t imagine how much you fought over who got to read it first.

I haven’t bought a book from Barnes and Noble in years. And I don’t feel bad about it, either. eBooks and online ordering from Amazon have made my book-buying experiences easier than ever. But if there’s one thing I’ll miss about the brick and mortar stores, it’s things like the Harry Potter nights. I love my Kindle. I love the new things happening in publishing. But part of me will miss the magic.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What is a Cozy? Chapter 2

This is a post in a series on Katherine Hansen Clarke's dissertation, What is a Cozy? 

Clake's second chapter details the influence that book retailers have on the mystery genre. What's really interesting to remember is that this research was conducted in 2004, before the e-publishing boom we're seeing now.

According to the author, writers have minimal control over what books get put in which stores, and even libraries that once were depositories now are cutting back on book buying. Readers can only buy or check out books that are available and that they know about.

“In June 2004,” Clarke “spent three weeks surveying the mystery section of Borders Bookstore in Westlake, Ohio.” This section of the dissertation has a number of details on the number of books in the section, as well as how they were displayed.

On a personal note, I found this amusing: “Fronting is another retail term, which means placing a book lengthwise on a shelf so that the cover rather than just the spine can be seen. Fronting is a significant practice because it takes up a great deal of space (which is at a premium), so deciding what gets fronted and what doesn’t can be an important marketing decision.” I worked at a Barnes and Noble in 2003, and often did the work of “facing” novels. This wasn’t a marketing decision at all. We faced books where we had to in order to make them fit on the shelves. Such is the randomness of life, I guess!

In any case, Clarke’s point in this section is that cozies are rarely, if ever, promoted in the same way that thrillers and hardboiled novels are. “Despite not being promoted,” she says, “cozies sell well. If cozies were to receive a push from the booksellers at Borders and other chain stores, I suggest that the sales would increase substantially.”

She then describes part of the history of Borders, a story that is eerie to read in light of the chain store’s bankruptcy. “Until 1995, each store’s managers ordered the books that they thought their customers would want to buy. This was also the era of employee picks and recommendations.” The company eventually switched over to a software-based system of ordering titles.

Even with the computer system, “what keeps being bought, and what keeps being ordered at the Westlake Borders, are cozies… Yet despite the shelf-presence of many cozy writers, Borders did nothing to promote these authors, forcing them to sell themselves.” Clarke also laments the difficulty of finding an author’s backlist, which is especially irksome for readers who want to read a series from the beginning. This hurts sales overall, because “if readers don’t think they can get earlier books, then frequently they won’t purchase later ones.”

Clarke then profiles independent bookstores, emphasizing a need to create a connection and symbiotic relationship with the local community in order to stay solvent. Part of this is accomplished through the independent bookstore owner’s intimate knowledge of authors and genre expectations. Cozy categories are notoriously hard to pin down, and knowledgeable booksellers help to guide readers in the right direction. This often can't be accomplished in the chain stores.

The chapter closes with a warning about the closure of independent bookstores, as well as an assertion that things don't have to be as dire as they seem. "This is unnecessary," she writes, in response to the fact that it is getting harder to break out. "When it comes to mystery readers, the more series and more books the better. Publishers lose when they drop midlist writers and when they perpetuate return policies that do not allow newer authors to catch on with the reading public."

V.K. says:

It's still difficult for an author to break out. But what I love about the new era of publishing is that readers are no longer under the sole whim of chain stores and publishers. I have no problem finding an author's entire backlist on the Kindle, and no shortage of recommendations from places like Goodreads and LibraryThing. Though the road to publishing success is still difficult, authors and readers are in a better position than ever to do the things they love.