On a recent trip to peruse the science fiction and fantasy shelves at my local Barnes & Noble—because, yes, I do still visit physical bookstores—I was reminded of something that Fonda Lee, author of the Godfather-inspired fantasy novels Jade City and Jade War, noticed and posted on Twitter six months ago.
Simply put: The stocking practices of Barnes & Noble, the last of the large chain bookstores here in the United States, make it really hard to match readers with writers because they stuff the shelves with a few big-name authors (J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin) and leave the newer voices whatever space is leftover.
Lee is 100% right. She’s coming at the problem from an author’s perspective, of course, but the same observation also applies in the reverse direction. That is, this practice makes it more difficult for readers to discover new authors. Stocking so many copies of one specific book, or carrying lots of books from one specific author, is a problem for the thousands of other authors waiting in the wings and vying for shelf space. Where are the books from authors like Lee, Sarah Gailey (Magic for Liars), Christina Henry (The Girl in Red), Megan E. O’Keefe (Velocity Weapon), Evan Winter (The Rage of Dragons), and a cavalcade of other fresh voices? It’s impossible to be discovered when you’re not even on the shelf. It also deters readers on their journey of book discovery, the thing B&N should really be encouraging to bring customers in.
For readers, bookstores are places of endless discovery. When we see aisles of books, we wander down them to see what treasures they hold. We feel like Indiana Jones in the long-lost Temple of Books. We’ll scan spines and covers until something pops out at us for whatever reason. It could be the book cover, it could be the title, it might be a recognizable author name. Quite often, our explorations will lead us to previously unknown authors—and those are the best finds of all.
My recent trip to B&N revealed a couple of obstacles to my hunt for new discoveries.
First, B&N is not maximizing the space. I get that outward-facing covers look pretty. Especially science fiction and fantasy ones. That’s what covers are designed to do. But...why so many? Why are there so many outward-facing covers and, even worse, single outward-facing copies? The cost of a single outward-facing cover with no books behind it is a few more books that could be discovered. Like many things in life, outward-facing covers should be used in moderation.
Another problem is the aforementioned issue of devoting too much space to dead guys. Do I really need two and a half shelves of Robert Jordan? Or two complete shelves of J.R.R. Tolkien with most of the book covers facing me? (Spoiler alert: No, I don’t.) Condense your shelves. Make room for more.
I can already hear the “But Tolkien sells!” defense. I’m sure he does. The Hobbitwas assigned reading in school and helped foster my love of reading. It even prompted me to seek out The Lord of The Rings and started me down this lifelong literary journey. Good news for booksellers: That translated into books sales. But in the internet age, modern readers will just order those books through their smartphones if they want specific physical books. So, let’s ease off the dead guys and make room for the next Tolkien.
Speaking of the next Tolkien, I feel like it’s worth discussing George R.R. Martin, another author who warrants a better-than-average amount of shelf space for his back catalog. That same trip to B&N revealed a whopping eight entire shelves devoted to him, only one of which was not related to A Game of Thrones. Unlike Tolkien’s popular fantasy world, Martin’s is still in progress. Does he deserve a pass? I would argue no and offer an alternative. Despite a book’s popularity, you don’t need that many displayed copies of any title that’s not a new release. If they’re still selling like hot cakes, you can either stock them elsewhere (if you have room) or just have a standing order to deliver new ones each week.
In the meantime, you can use the extra shelf space to promote a greater number of new authors and books. Instead of getting in the way of my book discovery, be the bookseller I expect you to be and show me the “next big thing.”
It really comes down to this: Do you want B&N to be known as the store where you go to get a physical copy of The Hobbit or a place where readers can broaden their horizons with books from undiscovered writers?
As a paying reader, I know which one I’d choose.