Recently, I had a few hours to kill and a bookstore nearby — a heavenly match. For awhile, I drifted along the racks, reading titles, looking at covers, enjoying the sensual aroma of so many books packed together. After some time, however, I started to look at it all with a critical eye, not just as a consumer but with the eye of somebody in the business of writing.
It’s a common bit of advice to check out what’s selling at a bookstore within your genre and sub-genre, to know what’s being done so that you will understand where your book fits into the larger picture. Good for general knowledge and for query letters. But there’s an even larger picture which we don’t often talk about — the world beyond your little niche.
Homework time. At your next opportunity, I want you to go to your favorite bookstore — Big Box, indie, mom and pop, doesn’t matter. Here’s the hardest part: don’t bring any money. You are not there to buy books. Let me repeat — You are not there to buy books. However, you are there to think like a consumer.
Huh? Stuart’s lost it.
No, no, hear me out. I’m basically asking you to spend some time a little removed from what you do when you shop for books so that you can observe the consumer in action. Concretely, I mean this:
Walk the aisles until something jumps out at you as a consumer. Now, before you pick up that book — stop. Ask yourself why did this book call to you? Was it the author’s name? The book’s title? The cover art? The placement on the shelf?
Now continue along the aisle with a critical eye towards these types of things. Which books are cover out? These are the books the publishers (not the bookstore) are pushing. Publishers pay extra money called co-op to get certain titles cover out. Why these books? Some answers are obvious. On my recent trip, Terry Goodkind’s Wizards First Rule is cover out because the television show Legend of the Seeker is doing well and is based on this book and others in the series. Kim Harrison had a few cover out books because she is selling well and the publisher wants to sell more both to make money and cover their contractual obligations (such as the advance). But what about those books spine out? What catches your eye about them? What about the titles at eye level versus those higher or lower?
Next, take a look at the genre aisle you’re standing in compared to where it is in the store. At my local B&N, the SF/Fantasy section is quite well represented with four large aisles in the front next to the general fiction. In fact, I was able to locate books by all of my MW co-horts. But not all bookstores treat genre so well. This suggests that genre sells well in my part of North Carolina. Often times, genre is hidden in the back or off to the side.
Lastly, take a look at the co-op stands in front. These are the little kiosks and tables set up right as you walk in. These, too, are bought by publishers to push what they think is important. Note what’s at eye level, what’s on the floor, etc. For the four-sided kiosks, look at what’s facing you as you come in and what’s on the sides and the back.
From all of this observation you can learn what the publishers think is important, what the booksellers think is important, and even what the consumer thinks is important. You can understand some (but hardly all) of the crazy decisions publishers and booksellers make, and even gain a little insight into how a publisher can boost or sink a book.
This is just meant to get you started. There is plenty more to learn from being in a bookstore. Eavesdropping on people discussing books can be a shocking eye-opener, for example (heard this in the paranormal romance section one aisle over from SF — “I don’t understand why the covers have to be so dark. I mean, I like dark stories, but the cover doesn’t have to be that way.”) The longer you spend in the store and the more observations you make, the more practical you can be about the publishing industry. This can be a reality check about the business side of things. It’s not meant to change what you choose to write (see Lucienne’s post about trends), but rather to help you build honest expectations for the mountain climb we all must face.
Oh, and once you’re done with your homework, you can get some money and buy a book by one of your favorite MW authors. If you don’t know which one to get, I hear A. J. Hartley’s Act of Will just came out in paperback.