Monday, January 25, 2010

Power to the People!

Tell us how you feel about genre vs. literaryfiction.

Depends if you’re asking me the reader/book consumer or me, the author/small businessperson.

As a reader, makes no difference. I read them both and enjoy them. And anymore, just as genre boundaries are being crossed and cross-pollinated, so is the boundary between literary and genre blurring.

Only problem? The bookstores just don’t get this. In fact, something that constantly frustrates me, the author, is that the major chain bookstores and my own publisher don’t understand how most consumers buy books.

For instance, the closest bookstore to me is twenty minutes away—it takes a lot to get me there, usually combined with other errands and usually with the intent of buying several books, not just one. Despite this, the last three times I’ve made the trip, I’ve been stymied and walked OUT empty-handed without buying the books I went to buy, much less any impulse buys.

In my opinion this total lack of understanding their target customer is why chain bookstores are failing—and the publishers aren’t helping by persisting in their age-old genre bias.

Here’s one of the books I drove twenty minutes to buy and failed. I went to find a James Lee Burke novel—an author I’m sure we’d all agree is one of the most literary writers out there, although his books center on a detective protagonist, they have varying degrees of mystery and suspense elements in them.

I expected to find him in the General Fiction and Literature section of the store since, well, he’s James Lee Fricking Burke. So I dove into the murky morass that is Gen Lit, armed with my trusty compass—my alphabet—and surface near the “B’s”. Only to find no James Lee.

Instead I found his daughter, Alafair, whose books I enjoy, but they are straight mystery/suspense, nothing literary about them. Okay, I swim out of Gen Lit and head over to Mystery/Suspense, again plunging right into the “B’s”.

There I find his backlist in mass market paperbacks. No sighting of the book I wanted, a book that at the time was on the NYT bestseller list. Hmmm… to the trusty clerk at the kiosk who is busy fielding phone calls and questions. He checks the computer and assures me they have the book I want in stock but is interrupted by another phone call, so I go off to find it myself.

Turns out my compass, the alphabet, no longer works in either Gen Lit or Mystery/Suspense….as this store has begun to segregate some hardcovers (but not all—don’t ask me how they decide) away from the mass market and trade paperbacks. Now the hardcovers (some, not all) are lined up in a separate shelf closer to the center aisle where everyone walks….but with NO SIGNS to tell the consumer this!

And, if you’re an author with a hardcover out and you’re already shelved in Mystery/Suspense, your hardcover book can be one of three places—the center aisle hardcover penthouse, the first row of Mystery/Suspense, or in the ghetto along with the paperbacks….but here’s the problem. How the heck is the customer to know???

Imagine searching for an author who is truly cross-genre like John Connolly or Mario Acevedo or Neil Gaiman??? Or, for that matter, little ole me!

Here’s where the author/businessperson in me gets frustrated. Because not only do the bookstores persist in segregating books with no rhyme or reason, the publishers encourage them!

I’ve lost track of the number of writer friends whose books I, a highly motivated shopper, can NOT find because the publisher decided to shelve their romantic suspense or police procedural or paranormal in Gen Lit.

And guess what, my own publisher does the same with mine. Yes, my fast-paced, fun beachy read paperback novels are shelved not in Mystery/Suspense but rather in the morass of Gen Lit, just to the left of MOBY DICK!!!

Look at these covers—my publisher is clearly marketing to a specific target audience: women who enjoy medical dramas/romantic suspense. Are those women going to browse the quamire that is Gen Lit? Are they going to look for my sexy suspense stories to the left of Herman Melville?

NO! They’ll look in Mystery/Suspense first, and since so many of the romance reviewers/readers have embraced my series, they may look in Romance next. And then they’ll leave the store empty-handed because my books won’t be in either place.

I get hundreds of fan letters. The only complaint I have ever gotten from any reader is: I can’t find your books in my store.

Of course they can’t. You don’t go looking for a candy bar alongside the capers.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my books, I think they’re fun, kick-ass, mighty-good reads. So do the critics and so do my readers—if they can find them.

My books perform the same purpose as any books in the Gen Lit section including any that could be called “literary”—they entertain. They provide a diversion and escape from the mundane world. They give the consumer their money’s worth.

But they’ll never be confused with Moby Dick!

I propose that the bookstores, at least the chains, use the system that makes shopping for books in Europe so delightful. The stores I’ve been in abroad encourage browsing and make things ever so simple for everyone, customers and clerks alike. How? They have no genre sections for fiction—everyone is arranged using my trusty compass, the alphabet.

So yes, in Europe my books are still to the left of Moby Dick—but everyone knows where to find them, right at the end of the “L’s” where they belong!

Speaking of the power of the consumer, I’ve begun a new program called: BUY A BOOK, MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

As a pediatric ER doctor turned author, I applaud the efforts of Doctors Without Borders and their humanitarian aid during disasters such as the recent earthquake in Haiti . In order to support their continuing good work, I will be donating the royalties from the sales of four of my Kindle titles from now until February 29, 2010 to Doctors Without Borders.

The titles, all romantic suspense novels, are: NERVES OF STEEL, BORROWED TIME, CHASING SHADOWS, and LOST IN SHADOWS. For more information on these titles or my Buy a Book, Make a Difference program, go to

If you don’t like romantic suspense, you can still make a difference! Make a donation to a worthy cause of your choice and pass this offer on to your friends and family.

As always, thanks for reading!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, October, 2009. Contact her at


Sophie Littlefield said...

hey cj - it's true that the blurring of the lines is causing a lot of consternation for readers and, from what they say, booksellers. Not to mention leading to some really creative pitching when you read things like Publishers Marketplace - industry people trying to find the right new names for books that are "a little of this, a little of that."

but there's a huge upside, too - as a reader, I *love* discovering a new book that is an unexpected blend of things I thought I knew. I'm reading an arc right now that is a blend of women's fiction - in the gentle tradition of favorite authors who come out of romance - and science/thriller. Awesome!

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Sophie! I agree--I love blended fiction (which I guess is why I write it, lol!) but why does it need to be so very difficult to find?

I say, break the bonds of the genre pigeon-holes!!!

Unknown said...

Literary fiction *is* a genre. That's how Hammett can be both wildly popular and studied in school.

Bookstores & publishers do need to develop a better algorithm for handling blended genre, because it's only going to keep blending, I think. (And the software that supports both).

CJ Lyons said...

I agree, Mysti! Thanks for stopping by!

Mike Dennis said...

Great post, CJ, on a topic that desperately needs airing.

I agree that the current bookstore mishmash is unproductive, but to lump all fiction in together? Wouldn't that turn a lot of people off who want to browse for something new in, say, the romance section? Or mystery?

Now, I agree that ghettoizing some books while highlighting others makes no sense, (and I might add, I'm no expert on bookstore organization), but I might get frustrated if I had to look down endless shelves stacked in endless aisles of Fiction for a crime novel impulse buy.

I don't know, what do you think?

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Mike! I understand--but think of how frustrating it would be to go to a store looking in your romance section for the new Debra Webb book and not being able to find it because the publisher and bookstore moved her to Gen Lit?

Also, most libraries shelve all the fiction together--who doesn't love browsing among all those books?

Joshua Corin said...

CJ, that was such a fantastic post. I couldn't agree with you more. The way that bookstores pigeon-hole writers just completely boggles the mind (and the poor customer).

I'll admit - I first did search the Mystery/Suspense shelves for your first novel and it only occurred to me after much frustration to delve into the General Fiction section (which is such a ridiculous label in and of itself).

This is why I am all for indie bookstores -- which are (usually) shelved by actual readers who know where a book really belongs.

Bernadette said...

This is one of the reasons I do most of my book shopping online these days - I usually know what I want and it's much easier to find it at Book Depository (and as a bonus they will charge me less than a local store would AND ship it to me free all the way from England).

Book stores should be like my local library - they shelve fiction alphabetically regardless of its genre but they put little coloured dots on the spines and covers to represent different genres - green for crime, red for romance, yellow for sci-fi etc. Some books have two or three dots if they cross genres.

It's a brilliant system catering for all - those who only want to browse their favoured genre can still do so with ease, those prepared to read anything and everything can browse generally and those who don't know what genre the book they want is in can find it alphabetically. Libraries Rule (like we didn't know that).

I know people might not want their brand new book with a coloured dot on it but I'm sure it could be incorporated into the price sticker or be easily removable in some other way.

Jen Forbus said...

I'm with you CJ! I love the idea of shelving all fiction together alphabetically. I don't think I'd be able to find anything at Borders w/o their computer locators. And really, how many people actually take the time to use those. I once had to ask them to help me find Michael Koryta's new release - which they incidentally didn't have and I'll not get started on how I feel about a Cleveland Borders not having his book in stock on the release date - they looked in four different places on the sales floor to try to locate it. Why should it be that hard to find a book?

CJ Lyons said...

Josh, I agree--Indies know how to sell books! They actually read them, and ignore their labels to give the customer exactly what they want--even when the customer doesn't know what they want!

Gotta love that!

CJ Lyons said...

Jen, don't get me started! Borders didn't have URGENT CARE on the shelves for three WEEKS! after its release.

I had over a hundred emails from folks who shopped at Borders (one poor lady went to three Borders and one Waldenbooks in her area, not realizing that they are all the same) and couldn't find it--and not a single Borders employee offered to order it for them or check their stock!!!

Guess you'd call that anti-customer service....

CJ Lyons said...

Bernadette, thanks for stopping by! I sooo totally agree with you and think the idea of using the price sticker to actually give the CONSUMER information instead of just the retailer is a brilliant one!!!

You should pitch that to NYC! Really!!!

Shane Gericke said...

Great post, CJ. The other things booksellers could do is carve up the books they do purchase into all the shelving areas that make sense. In your case, put a couple copies of your new release in mystery/thriller, a couple in romance, a couple in general fiction, a couple in ... well, you get the idea. I mean, why limit a book to just one category? Since so many readers shop only within one particular category, sellers should hit all the particular eyeballs.

Kelli Stanley said...

Wonderful post, CJ!!

And it make you wonder ... where did the broken system come from, and since everyone knows it's broken, why can't someone just fix it?

Bad business all the way around.

One comment, though ... after reading that "snake" post the other week, there's a distinct possibility of getting you confused with Melville's greatest work!! ;)