26 March 2010

Shelving and Marketing in the Dark

Alaya Dawn Johnson recently wrote on Justine Larbalestier’s blog about the experience of finding her debut fantasy novel Racing the Dark shelved—or actually reshelved in its paperback edition—outside of Borders’s Fantasy section:

Cut to this past Christmas, when my Dad, my sister, my brother and I were all last-minute shopping at the local mall. Like we do every Christmas, we all tromped through the local Borders, looking for presents. This time I was especially excited, because the store claimed to have a copy of my book.

My dad and I searched all through the fantasy section, just so I could experience hasn’t-gotten-old-yet zing of seeing my own work in a bookstore. But Racing the Dark wasn’t there. Finally, we went back to the computers to look for it again.

And we saw what we had missed the first time: though Racing the Dark is clearly labeled “fantasy” on its spine, the powers that be at Borders, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to shelve me in the “African American” section.
Borders indeed recategorized Racing the Dark: the chain’s website lists the hardcover edition under “Popular Fiction - Science Fiction & Fantasy - Science Fiction/Fantasy,” and the paperback edition under “Literature/Fiction - African American - African American Fiction.”

Johnson perceives this as Borders’s choice, but it looks to me like the decision started with her publisher, Agate Publishing. It issued Racing the Dark through Bolden Books, “Agate’s imprint dedicated to publishing both fiction and nonfiction dealing with the African-American experience.” Though it’s unclear whether the “islander” heroine of the book has any connection to “the African-American experience” except as a reflection of one African-American author’s imagination.

Of course, the hardcover was a Bolden book as well. But Agate is now emphasizing Johnson’s ethnic identity more than before. Racing the Dark has the tagline “A brilliant debut fantasy novel with a powerful female sensibility by a youthful writer to watch.” The second title in the trilogy, The Burning City, is “by a brilliant young African-American fantasy novelist with a powerful female sensibility.”

Compared to the figure on the Racing the Dark hardcover (shown here), the model on the paperback is easier to identify as a person of color—though not necessarily one with recent African roots. She’s also wearing less clothing, which might grab customers’ eyes faster.

Unlike Borders, Barnes & Noble doesn’t display categories in its online listings. Then again, Barnes & Noble stores don’t appear to be carrying Racing the Dark as part of their regular inventory. The chain’s buyers apparently passed on the book, deciding it wouldn’t sell enough. If B&N had tried that hardcover, then it based its decision on that edition’s sales.

In contrast, someone at Borders still sees enough potential in Racing the Dark to stock it. But who? The Fantasy and African-American shelves are managed by two different buyers at the chain’s headquarters. (At least “Genre Fiction” and “African-American Fiction/Studies” had different buyers as of a couple of years ago.)

Did the two buyers and Agate’s sales rep discuss the book and decide where it had the best chance of selling? Did the new cover come before or after that discussion? Did the Fantasy buyer pass on Racing the Dark, but the African-American section buyer thought it still deserved a slot in Borders stores? In that case, Agate’s choice would have been not “African-American” or “Fantasy,” but “African-American” or not being stocked at all.

Johnson describes how her family moved the paperback from the “African-American” shelves to “Fantasy” (and gave it a face-out display—as authors and their families often do). However, if that copy sells as a result, the credit will still go to the “African-American” section.

Whatever happened, I’m sure that the people involved—Borders buyers, sales reps, Agate marketers—have every incentive to make Racing the Dark sell as profitably as possible. That’s how corporations are set up. But none has complete freedom of action. Among the limitations, the big chains aren’t set up to try shelving the same edition in multiple sections and see where it sells more. And a small press with a relatively new author doesn’t have the clout to drive them change.

I see an interesting contrast with Racing the Dark in Johnson’s new supernatural thriller, Moonshine, from the much bigger publisher Thomas Dunne, which is part of St. Martin’s, which is part of Macmillan. That book’s bio for “Alaya Johnson” says nothing about the author’s ethnicity, and the cover shows a woman of no color at all. (Of course, she may be a vampire.)

Reflecting my own interests, I also note that Alaya Dawn Johnson scripted The Goblin King in Graphic Universe’s “Twisted Journeys” series, which combines the comics form, prose, and choose-your-own-path storytelling. So I think she is an author to watch.

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