Why Did The Reader Cross The Aisle?

August 6th, 2007 · 9 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

For the past week, the notion of genre and images has consumed me. Okay, also wondering what’s for lunch, but the genre question has been more than a little all-encompassing. In addition to the fantastic article written by Pam Jenoff for BS last week, back channel discussion about Nicola Griffith’s Always has been happening (Gwenda Bond, the one and only, has posted the first installment of said discussion here).

The craziness might lead to another problem: readers who make their own books

The question roiling in the scary place that is my mind is whether or not strict genre categorization serves a book well. As we all are familiar with how bookstores and libraries work, I started approaching the question from a couple of different vantages: grocery stores (see above re: lunch) and websites. This remains a thought in progress.

First with the latter. I have no idea how you, the person reading this post, found it. By looking at my stats logs, I can see that a good number of people visit the home page daily — whether I have a new rant posted or not — and I know that if the email newsletters goes out, a good number of people will hit the site rapidly. As a general rule, those people will click through to the articles that interest them the most. I also know that the average person who visits this site cruises around the archives here and there.

I also know that far more readers arrive via search engine. BS content matches their search criteria, the description seems to meet their needs, and voila!, new friends. Then there are strict constructionists: they hit the category tree and work their way through. While their may be some mixing and matching between these groups, I like to think of them as distinct readers with distinct needs.

When I think of book shopping as I think of website shopping, sure, it’s a lousy analogy. You can argue that readers are free to wander the aisles of bookstores with wild abandon. The serendipity factor is alive and well when it comes to human behavior. Of course, it only works if the customer wanders to the specific aisle, specific shelf that houses a book of interest (it also only works if the book is in stock and whatnot).

For many reasons, books are shelved in one place per bookstore. Sure, there are exceptions: promotions scattered around a bookstore (often paid for by publishers rather than the heartfelt selections of book-loving staff). But, if you’re looking for mystery, you head for the mystery section. Years of experience have taught you, the feckless reader, that you will find stuff you like when you cruise down this aisle. Likewise, the romance reader, the literary reader, and the child reader.

There comes a time when many readers simply do not venture too far beyond their bookstore neighborhoods. So dangerous over there by the cookbooks. You know what they’re like in the self-help section. And the delinquents hanging out in the YA oughtta be in school.

Some books, naturally, fit neatly into their genres. They pass the duck test without even getting to the quack phase. Others, however, fit okay in their genres. They contain a little too much romance to be straight mystery. The speculation is too different to sit comfortably with the other science fiction/fantasy books. That reader over there in literary ‘hood might be happier with said book than the usual inhabits of SF/F land.

But it’s hard to get that reader to cross the tracks. It would make more sense to bring the book to the reader, right? This leads to the grocery store part of the lengthy thought process. Particularly, pasta.

Once upon a time, pasta — or as it was known specifically and generally in the U.S., spaghetti — was housed in one section of a single aisle in every grocery in the world. You could choose from long and skinny or short and curly, both in a rather unappetizing off-yellow. Eventually, new shapes and colors were introduced. Also, a wide range of sauces. It was natural to assume that people who purchased pasta would be interested in something to coat them with. Eating plain, raw pasta never did catch on, you know.

At some point, prepared pasta found its way to other aisles. Chef-Boy-Ardee was found nestling against the soups. Adult food made fun for kids. Or, if you will, a specific adult food that would appeal to the younger palate (think Harry Potter in reverse). Then came the craziest thing of all: pasta returned to its roots. Fresh pasta was over there with the cheeses and milks and lunch meats. Same stuff as the other pasta, but appealing to a different shopper.

Suddenly, the person who said about dry pasta, “I never touch that stuff!” was tossing fresh tortellini into the shopping cart. By appealing to a different emotional response, grocery stores (and their suppliers) found ways to get pasta products to different types of customers. And not just pasta, sauces. If you like your tomato sauce with garlic, you might just go for pesto. And if you try the traditional pesto, you’ll love the artichoke pesto.

And so on.

The publishing business would do well by itself if it spent more time trying to get readers to cross genres, to cross aisles, to try things that they wouldn’t suspect are tasty. Because if that first bite is all the reader could ask — familiar yet intriguingly different — then there might be additional experimentation.

Granted, this whole crazy mess could lead to another pasta-esque problem: readers who decide they’re going to make their own books. That’s another problem for another day.

Pam Jenoff’s The Kommandants GirlAlways>: noir, gay fiction, women’s fiction, straight ahead fiction, none of the above, parts of the above and more? As books blend and blur the lines, how can readers be blended and blurred as well.
[tags]publishing, nicola griffith, pam jenoff, always, the kommandant’s girl, marketing books[/tags]

File Under: The Future of Publishing

9 responses so far ↓

  • Elora Fink // Aug 6, 2007 at 11:34 am

    You said: “The question roiling in the scary place that is my mind is whether or not strict genre categorization serves a book well.”

    My writers’ group has six members, three of whom are multi-published genre fiction writers, and they fret constantly over the niche-ifying of their books. Two of them have branched into other genres, but had some difficulty getting those manuscripts accepted. The most frequent reason given by editors for rejection: “We love the book, but we can’t figure out how to market it.” (Another reason, hinted at but not expressed by some rejecting editors, was doubted that the authors could really “write” properly in the new genres.)

    Eventually my friends found publishers willing to take a chance on them in the different genres, fortunately for my friends’ careers and for the reading public (who otherwise would have missed some great books).

    Nevertheless, circumventing the limitations of genre-niching remains a frequent topic of discussion at our weekly meetings. One author who started out writing historical romance took a male-sounding pseudonym for her historical mysteries, and yet another masculine name for her espionage thrillers. That’s because statistics showed that many men simply will not buy books written by female authors (although women authors have no issues with buying books written by male authors).

    (FYI, I’ve been reading the Booksquare blog for around three years. I don’t recall how I came across it–probably a link on a webpage or another blog–but Booksquare is the first blog that caught my interest enough for me to read it regularly, which led eventually to my deciding to create a blog of my own. I have an RSS feed to Booksquare on my Yahoo home page now, so I won’t miss any posts.)

  • Donald Linn // Aug 6, 2007 at 11:40 am

    And (apropos lunch) don’t forget Marie’s salad dressing.he first one in a jar rather than an hour-glass bottle, and more importantly, the first to be sold in the fresh vegetable section where the salad fixin’s belong.

    The bad news, however, is that the big time bricks and mortar book retailers force publishers to categorize titles with something called BISAC codes. A certain chain based in Ann Arbor makes life even more difficult for publishers by having their own categorization system. This makes it virtually impossible to ‘tag’ a book in the same way that Amazon’s “recommendations” feature does (though, shockingly, many of Amazon’s tie-ins are paid for as well) and why it’s hard to cross-pollinate categories within the physical store.

    And that, in turn, is why (notwithstanding the fact that I love browsing bookstores) the web is really the only place I look for books these days.

  • Clive Warner // Aug 6, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    Readers are already writing there own books, isn’t that called fanfic?

  • Deborah Smith // Aug 7, 2007 at 11:22 am

    One of the perennial topics at romance writer conferences is “What trends are the editors buying this year?” The obsession with micro-managed categories sometimes gets as detailed as which varieties of sex acts are still forbidden by Publisher A while being boffo successful for Publisher B. Are vampires in or out? Are more suspense novels needed, or instead their kissing cousin, Romantic Suspense? Chick-lit, Mom-lit, no-lit? Humor or no humor? Sagas? Fugetaboutet. Long, sexy, Regency historicals? You want ’em with or without comedy? Westerns? Civil War? How about werewolves in the Civil War? But every year, editors sit with straight faces and tell authors that the key point remains to write a good book.

  • Susan // Aug 9, 2007 at 6:36 am

    FYI: I search regularly for science fiction and fantasy and this is the first time your site came up. Loved your title, read your article, and–as an educator–applied the same question to my students’ attention or lack of it. So, I crossed the road and was rewarded with new ideas. Thank you!

  • Bruce // Aug 9, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    Great article, thanks.
    One thing that we will be doing in our shop in the coming weeks is putting in one big group, divided along geographic lines, all our History, travel guides, travelogues, politics, some biographies, exploration. In other words, everything about China will be in the China section of the World area. Everything from a bio on Mao, history on the Ming and a tourist guides to the great wall…hope it works.

  • Mitzi // Aug 15, 2007 at 2:24 am

    I cross the aisle frequently. I’m a cross-genre/gender reader. But I’m a woman…hear me roar? Or, more decidedly, watch me spend my money.

    Women buy more books – women read male authors more than male authors read women authors.

    But in fiction, the genre I read depends on what I want at that time. Confusing? You should see the books I’m reading: a cozy mystery, a paranormal (excuse me – 2 paranormals that could be niched as romance), a nonfiction about auditory hallucinations, and a nonfiction about Gettysburg (the Battle). Oh, wait – I forgot the nonfiction about crows.

    Maybe this is why I love Amazon – I can cross the aisle without moving my lazy butt. 😉

    Unfortunately – I really think the genres have appeared in the last few decades as the marketing departments of the growing publishing conglomerates began deciding what to publish – instead of editors.

    This may be way there are some very good writers going the self-pubbed route. They would love an editor – just not the marketing department – until they’re ready to…uh…market the damn book.

    But JMHO

  • Mitzi // Aug 15, 2007 at 2:25 am

    I cross the aisle frequently. I’m a cross-genre/gender reader. But I’m a woman…hear me roar? Or, more decidedly, watch me spend my money.

    Women buy more books – women read male authors more than male authors read women authors.

    But in fiction, the genre I read depends on what I want at that time. Confusing? You should see the books I’m reading: a cozy mystery, a paranormal (excuse me – 2 paranormals that could be niched as romance), a nonfiction about auditory hallucinations, and a nonfiction about Gettysburg (the Battle). Oh, wait – I forgot the nonfiction about crows.

    Maybe this is why I love Amazon – I can cross the aisle without moving my lazy butt. 😉

    Unfortunately – I really think the genres have appeared in the last few decades as the marketing departments of the growing publishing conglomerates began deciding what to publish – instead of editors.

    This may be why there are some very good writers going the self-pubbed route or the small press route. They would love an editor – just not the marketing department – until they’re ready to…uh…market the damn book.

    But JMHO

  • Helen E. H. Madden // Jan 15, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    I’m preparing for a science fiction conference this weekend, and I’m moderating a panel on cross genre books and the issues associated with marketing and displaying those books. You’re article was extremely helpful in helping me organize my thoughts. I’m very glad I found this blog! Many thanks!