On the Organization of Bookstores

Carleen has a poll over at White Readers Meet Black Authors, asking whether bookstores should have a section for African American fiction. Head over and leave your opinion.

Me, I have a few thoughts, which tend to distill down to “This is complicated.”

Because basically, it’s all about authors wanting readers to find (and buy, and read) their books, and readers wanting to find books they’d want to buy and read. So there’s actually a larger issue here of bookstore organization in general, as opposed to just a question of whether books by Black authors should all be shelved together in their own section. So where will readers most easily find books by Black authors?

Well, if the main criterion readers are searching by is the race of the author, then having a special section for Black authors might be the way to go. Want Black authors? African American section. Want Hispanic authors? Latin@ American section. Want Asian authors? Asian American section. Want gay authors? Gay Studies section. (Which is its own issue, because shelving novels with sociological studies, sex manuals, gay history and gay travel guides does not sell a lot of fiction.) Want white authors? Ummm… well, that’s the rest of the store, basically.

Which is where my main problem with this kind of sorting comes from. Giving each group its own little ghetto-shelf in the store doesn’t do very much to encourage people to buy books by writers who aren’t just like them. And by “people” I mainly mean “white people” here, because a Black reader who wants SF has to go to the SF section, and an Asian reader who wants romance has to go to the romance section; it’s not like there are duplicate stores complete with genre sections for each racial group. They might browse through “their” race’s special lit section too, but they’ll hardly ever find anyone else in that aisle.

Reading other discussions of this subject, I’ve seen people of color, both readers and writers, commenting with about equal energy and numbers on either side of the issue, and there is another side to it. If it’s mainly Black people buying books by Black writers, then putting all the Black writers in one section makes it easier for the target audience to find them. For writers, it’s playing to their core audience, and for readers, it lets them hit one spot in the bookstore instead of rambling all over.

To me, this seems like surrendering to the racial barriers, though. It’d never occurred to me, for example, that there were romance novels with Black characters until someone online mentioned them. Once I thought about it, sure, it made perfect sense that Black women would want to read romances too, and would want to have books about people like themselves. But they weren’t (and even now, still generally aren’t) shelved with the rest of the romances, so readers who just want “romances” without having any particular preference about the race of the main characters won’t find anything but white romances unless they think to go looking in the African American Lit section, or wherever that particular store or chain has the Black romances stashed. Impulse buys on the part of the other 80% of the reader market are forfeited when the books aren’t shelved in the place where most readers looking for a given genre would go looking for them.

The argument, though, is that virtually all the people who would actually buy the book are going to be looking in the “Whatever-American Lit” section, that putting the book somewhere else will forfeit the purchases of people who shop there and not in the genre section (and there are people who do that — I’ve seen them arguing in favor of the special sections on that very basis) while gaining few or no new readers from the genre section. It’s a smaller market, but it’s theirs and these authors don’t want to miss out on a chunk of it by gambling on maybes.

Fair enough.

I think it’s a shame, though, that people who might well be interested in a book by a writer of color, whether they’re consciously looking to choose books by writers with a variety of backgrounds or whether they just think that some book which caught their eye looks interesting regardless of the author’s race, are unlikely to ever run across such books in stores where they’re all sorted away into their “special” sections.

I don’t think this situation can be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, unfortunately. Someone in the comments to Carleen’s post suggested shelving books in both places — the special ethnic section and the relevant genre section. That sounds good in theory, but unless you’re already a pretty great seller, getting a bookstore to stock multiples of your book can be tough. Heck, these days getting them to stock one copy can be tough. And I’ve never worked in a bookstore, but there are probably inventory and tracking issues with cross-shelving too.

Brick-and-mortar stores are just too limited to solve this problem. Luckily it’s not the only option.

This is a situation e-commerce handles perfectly. Since there are no issues around the physical location of the books, it’s just a matter of building your search database to handle any sort of query a customer might have. Want books by Black authors? Ask for a list. Want SF books by Black authors? You can have that too.

Or you should be able to have it — there’s no technical reason why “romance novel ‘Black author'” should be an impossible search. Practical application lags, unfortunately (just try to find those Black SF authors’ books at Amazon, for example) but the potential is there; it only requires making use of the available tools.

If online bookstores realize we want to be able to search this way, then there’s no reason they couldn’t virtually shelve any book in as many “sections” as will help readers find it. Beloved could be in “African American Lit” and “Literature” and “Fantasy” and “Bestsellers” and “Books-into-Movies” and anywhere else anyone can think of to put it. Or rather, it can carry any other tags or keywords anyone can think to hang on it. Any individual book can be found in a dozen different places around the virtual bookstore, giving its author the greatest chance of catching the eye of a new reader or being found by their core audience.

Everyone wins.


[EDIT:  Comments closed because of spammer trash.]

Published by


Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and a few thousand books. She loves romance for the happy endings, for the affirmation that everyone who's willing to fight for love deserves to get it and be happy with someone. She's best known for her Sentinel series of novels, the most recent of which is Captive Magic.

4 thoughts on “On the Organization of Bookstores”

  1. Hi Angie, I really enjoyed reading your post. I consider myself to be in the camp against the A.A. fiction shelf, but I’ve heard so many pros and cons over the last few days that I have to agree with you: “This is complicated!” And you are right to point out that online sources are best as cross-listing with ease. Too often, this is how I do my book browsing these days.

  2. Claudia — I’m generally against it too, mainly because the whole ghettoization thing is like fingernails on a blackboard. :/ And my experience with the “Gay/Lesbian Studies” shelf as a reader (and potentially as a writer, if I ever get anything released in hardcopy) is frustrating and annoying; it doesn’t feel at all like a haven or a showcase, but rather a catch-all shelf where all that problematic Gay Stuff has been stuffed. This doesn’t make my thoughts about similar areas tend at all toward the positive.

    At the same time, though, there are plenty of Black writers and readers both who like the idea, and I’m not going to try to tell them they shouldn’t. I really do think that having online bookstores get their act together on the keyword searches is the best option here, so no matter which option someone prefers, they can hunt for books the way they like.

    I do most of my book buying online these days too, for a variety of reasons, but at this point I rely on recs (and blogs like White Readers Meet Black Authors) whenever I’m looking for books in a new genre or by a group of writers I’m not familiar with. Have you tried finding “SF books by Black authors” on Amazon or B&N online lately? [sigh] The tools are there, though, as I said in the post; it’s just a matter of getting the people who manage the stores’ databases to set them up for these kinds of searches.

    Thanks for commenting. 🙂


Comments are closed.