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Treat yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

November 15, 2002 - Issue #148


The up side to taking some time off when you're sick is that you can recover. The down side is that there invariably are too many things to talk about, and all of them time-sensitive. Which means that we're going to do two complete columns between now and the end of the month in order to catch up. This column goes online today; look for an entirely new column (already written and ready to go!) to be posted November 22nd.

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A Reality Check (LLB)

Last month I reported that Susan Grant's Contact was not available at most of WalMart's brick and mortar stores because Anderson Merchandising, which stocks 80% of the stores, had requested content changes from the book's publisher, Dorchester, and Dorchester had declined to ask the author to make those changes.

There was a fury of activity over my reporting, which, because of the nature of investigating, went online in dribs and drabs. Why was I so concerned about this when WalMart refuses to carry other books because of their covers and/or sexual content? Why not report on the fact that WalMart refuses to sell many CD's unless re-cut to remove profanity? Why not simply accept the fact that Anderson Merchandising decided not to stock the book because they didn't think it would sell?

As I tried to make clear throughout the reporting process, this case was different from others. It is indeed unfortunate that a book might not be stocked simply because of its cover. And it is also unfortunate that a book might not be stocked because it fails to pass WalMart's "family values" code of decency, whatever that might be. As for changes in CD's, I understand those changes eliminate profanity, which again has to do with WalMart's code of decency.

The Contact situation is different. Anderson didn't make it's choice because of profanity or poor sales - Susan Grant's book was turned away from these WalMart shelves because Anderson didn't think the hijacking content was "appropriate" in these post-9/11 times.

Earlier this year I devoted an ATBF column to censorship and wrote about an episode of WKRP in Cincinatti. In a third season episode, Dr. Bob Halyers, leader of a group known as Clean Up Radio Broadcasting (CURB), asks station manager Mr. Carlson to remove songs with profanity from the WKRP playlist. If not, the group will organize a boycott of the station. Mr. Carlson, appalled at the lyrics, acquiesces, but then the group's next list arrives and it includes songs without profanity. Mr. Carlson goes to see Dr. Bob and presents him with the lyrics of John Lennon's Imagine and asks whether the song is one which Dr. Bob would approve. Because of its secular ideas, putting man above god, and "implied communism," he'd include it on a no-play list. At this point Mr. Carlson realizes they've moved beyond "bad words" and have started down the slippery slope of "bad ideas." He cuts off ties with CURB and the station suffers the boycott.

In my mind there's a parallel between what Anderson and WalMart did in refusing to stock Contact and what the fictional CURB did to WKRP. I can think of no idea in and of itself in a fictional realm that is "inappropriate." And while I respect the many AAR readers who disagree, I thought it would be interesting to point out what's happened since my reporting last month. First was that Pat Holt picked up the story in her Holt Uncensored column, after which the online genre magazine Crescent Blue did as well. Apparently a Wall Street Journal reporter picked up the scent, but was unable to convince Dorchester to cooperate on a story. From my own discussions with some of the parties involved, it's clear to me that this is a story nobody wanted reported, out of fear that the behemoth WalMart would blackball either the author or her publisher.

Back in October I indicated that while poking around, we discovered what looked to be like other instances of retailer interference in the content of fiction and that we would investigate. What we've found is that many have reported the event, but nobody has reported the facts. In other words, there's been lots of commentary, but no specifics provided. One article published on the ReclaimDemocracy.org web site boldly proclaimed that:

"Some authors now receive suggestions for 'improvements' from the chains to make their work marketable, while others simply are not published due to lack of interest by those few buyers. We should weigh the potential consequences carefully. For example, we might wonder if the chain stores were predominant in 1860 whether the hugely controversial and influential anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, would have found a publisher."

And, in an another Holt Uncensored column, Pat Holt writes that "publishers are asking buyers at chain bookstores to make decisions about editorial content." That, of course, is a slightly different than a retailer asking a publisher for changes, but when pressed, she had no specifics. Given her lengthy and distinguished history in publishing, as well as the discussions we have had during the last month, I believe Pat when she says there have been instances when this has occurred, but having put out the word to writers and publishers of genre fiction, there seems to be no story to tell other than Susan Grant's where romance novels are concerned. To be sure, publishers solicit feedback all the time from retailers and distributors - that's the nature of sales and there's nothing at all sinister about it. But ceding direct editorial control over the content of a book is a far different animal, and we went to a variety of sources to check it out. Anne Marble contacted several online groups of authors, mostly in the SF/F field. There were no specifics to report, although the director of marketing and content for Powells online said "We hear about this kind of thing somewhat regularly. Unless it's a big, mainstream, major publisher title, the media doesn't tend to say much."

Robin looked into various web sites such as Reclaim Democracy, but none had specific instances they could point to - only allegations about chain bookstores. And Jennifer Schendel, AAR's Publisher Liaison, checked with romance publishers and promised anonymity to any publisher afraid of being blacklisted. Harlequin didn't want anonymity; their official response, from VP Craig Swinwood, is that, "With regard to editorial, we are always looking for feedback on emerging trends and editorial concepts." We did hear from one of our contacts at another publisher who would only state: "Even if publishing people know of this practice, they would never discuss it."

As Robin and I discussed this, she mentioned something that struck a chord with me; most of the chatter about changing editorial content comes in relation to literary fiction and/or chain bookstores. Indeed, the reason Pat Holt left her position at San Francisco Chronicle and began the Holt Uncensored column was to take up the plight of the independent bookstore as bookstore chains began their relentless assault to reign supreme in the mid-1990's.

Who doesn't remember the coverage of Charles Frasier's Cold Mountain, which was originally published by a small press, hand-sold by independent bookstores, then picked up by a major publisher only to become a major best-seller? And who, more recently, hasn't read about Dave Eggers' (author of the critically acclaimed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) decision to self-publish his novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, and only sell it through independent bookstores?

As I wrote in my piece for Pat Holt's column (we've written reciprocal pieces for each other; hers can be found below), there's a major difference between a literary indie bookstore and a "romance friendly" bookstore, and the fight for the indie bookstore is being waged by those primarily interested in literary fiction. Which means a couple of things, the first of which is that the content of romance novels is rarely going to set off the types of red flags that might pop up in a literary novel (and if it does, fewer people are going to care given romance's "ugly step-sister" image), and secondly, that it is useful for the "literary/indie fight" for these stories of retailer interference to persist. Given how bountiful they are, it seems equally reasonable that there is some basis for the allegations, though some proof would be nice. But given the increasing power of retailers and distributors, it also seems reasonable that stories such as Susan Grant's are generally hushed up. Indeed, one publishing executive with whom I spoke said off the record that further comment was not possible given that "he has to work with these people every day."

Although Susan Grant's situation may indeed be an anomaly, what frightens me is this: after years of mergers within the publishing industry, there are fewer mainstream publishers and, just as important, fewer distributors, which means fewer people are making decisions about the books you'll be able to buy. The print run of a book, after all, is predicated in part on the number of orders received from distributors and large retailers. In situations like this, it's not hard to imagine even fewer chances being taken by romance publishers, particularly when, at the same time, shelf space seems to be shrinking in many retail arenas.

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A Different Perspective (Robin Uncapher)

When Laurie first told that Susan Grant’s book Contact had been banned from 80% of WalMart stores, and that WalMart had asked the publisher for changes to the manuscript I was as appalled as anybody. No, it’s not a first amendment issue, but the prevalence of these stores certainly is a concern to anyone who cares about reader choice. Many readers, romance readers and otherwise, get most of their books from chain bookstores, so if they wanted to, a chain could have a pretty disturbing effect on the material available to the reading public. I am a regular watcher of C-SPAN’S Book TV that frequently features owners of independent bookstores. These people often discuss the overwhelming number of chain stores that have taken over the bookstore market in the last fifteen years.

Laurie asked Anne Marble and me to look around the Internet and get some specifics on charges being made that chain bookstores, particularly Barnes and Noble and Borders, are doing just that. She suggested I look in a couple of places and ask around. The first place I looked was Reclaim Democracy, which features the article by Jeff Milchen that Laurie excerpted earlier. This article makes some pretty serious charges and frankly, when I read it, I though I had hit the jackpot. I wrote immediately to the writer of the column and asked him for some authors I could contact who could tell me about how their books had been banned from chain stores or how authors had been asked to revise their manuscripts.

Imagine my disappointment when Jeff Milchen, who is also the Director of Reclaim Democracy.org wrote to me and told me he had no “current information.” He also failed to include any “uncurrent” information in the letter but he did suggest I call the American Booksellers Association and gave me their number. This was disappointing and disturbing. Milchen’s column is very damning yet mentions no authors coming up to the plate with specific complaints (though there were general anti-chain statements by literary authors like Barbara Kingsolver.)

Before making the call, I scanned the American Booksellers Association web site and found that they are an association dedicated to independent booksellers. Given this it did make sense that they would be delighted to pass on stories of authors being coerced by chain bookstores. I called the ABA, identified myself as a columnist for AAR, romance web site, and was referred to the voice mail of a communications staff member whom I was told “would surely have some information for me if my concerns were justified.” I left a detailed voicemail explaining both who I was and that I was looking for specific information about authors who had been banned from chains and/or situations where publishers and authors had been asked for changes to manuscripts.

No one called me back. Not only that - as I asked individuals who also told me that these kinds of stories are "all over the web" - I discovered that what seems to be on the web are rumors. No one I contacted knew authors who had actually had difficulties. People were not willing to speak on or off the record.

As I mentioned I am a fan of C-Span’s Book TV so I am pretty familiar with the concerns that independent booksellers have about chain stores. Many of their concerns are serious to readers, in my opinion, in that consolidation is bound to be a problem when a smaller and smaller group of people is involved in selecting the bulk of the books we buy.

However (and this is a big “however”), having been through the process of asking for details I think it's important for us to keep a few things in mind. First of all, independent booksellers are not an objective group giving a disinterested opinion. Barnes and Noble and Borders are cutting into their profits and making it harder and harder for independent booksellers to run their businesses. For the number of claims I have seen, there has been very little proof and more and more I am thinking that what happened to Susan Grant is more of a fluke than I first thought.

Second, for all of our problem with the chains, and on-line bookstores like Amazon, chain stores have taken romance readers far more seriously than the more “intellectually minded” independent stores, some of which turn up their noses at anything that looks at all like a romance. I live outside of Washington, DC. Independent stores like Oleson’s have virtually no romance section or a very small one. WaldenBooks and Dalton’s on the other hand, make it a policy to ask all readers if they have found what they are looking for, and are delighted to order anything on the shelves.

This came to mind this weekend when one of our reviewers posted among AAR's staff about a presentation he recently attended at his university. The guest speaker was a woman who runs the local independent bookstore. Our reviewer has shopped in this store and told us that though it's okay, it has a very limited romance section. He was shocked, to say the least, about what she said when he asked about this limited selection.

According to our reviewer, this manager said that there was no point in her store stocking romance novels, because readers are "conditioned" to only look for them at outlets like WalMart, KMart, and so on. She claimed that the books are "formatted," and that editor has a list of house guidelines, like that somehow makes it less creative to tell a story within a framework. She went on to say that Regency plots are recycled and that whole books from forty years ago are reprinted under different titles, and readers are too dumb to remember! She implied that there are no new Regencies being written, and that the new titles you see on the shelves every month are just 40-year-old books with new cover art.

As our reviewer said, this was not just any bookstore. He wrote, "Bear in mind, this was not some kook, but the owner of the biggest independent book store in our area. And the professor and all the other students were treating her like some kind of Robin Hood type hero, just because she's stood off the 'chains' for the last ten years."

Haven’t we all heard something like this at some point? Aren’t there very highbrow independent stores in your area who would turn up their noses at Mary Jo Putney but love to talk about the limited choices that chains provide?

Each of us tends to look at the book world from his and her own perspective. Bethesda, Maryland seems to be very bookstore rich in comparison with much of the country. Within a 15-minute drive from my house there are two Barnes and Nobles, two Borders, a WaldenBooks, a B. Dalton, Oleson’s Books (a small Washington area chain) and two good sized used bookstores neither of which carry romance. The two Borders have very different selections and can be counted as different stores. In addition to that, there are at least ten drugstores and supermarkets near here that carry romance. We do not have a large discount store near here so I never buy from WalMart’s, Target or similar places. Small independent stores in the Washington area are seldom romance friendly. They want my business but only when I am interested in buying authors like Barbara Kingsolver (the author quoted in the Reclaim Democracy column.) If romance readers were dependent on the independent stores in the DC area we would be reading Gone with the Wind - over and over again!

So, the fact that my romance buying choices are limited to chains gives me a healthy skepticism about the ax that independent booksellers are grinding about chain stores. Why should I be impressed with people who, despite their cry of intellectual freedom, judge romance novels by their covers?

Let's hope that the WalMart debacle with Susan Grant’s Contact really was a fluke. Make your opinions known. But let's keep after those independents too. Romance readers seem to be the Rodney Dangerfields of the book world and it's important we pick our friends wisely.

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Holt...Definitely and Defiantly Uncensored (Pat Holt)

Like Laurie Gold, I have heard for years that publishers routinely show jacket illustrations and manuscripts to buyers at chain bookstores, seeking advice that will increase sales.

One can see the temptation: Change a cover here, take out controversial references there, a buyer might say, and the difference in the number of copies we'll take could range between 900 and 10,000 copies. Or 20,000 or 30,000.

My area of critical commentary includes more "literary" books than romance novels, but the concern is still the same: If a marketing director sees a chance to increase sales - and don't we all want higher sales for books we love? - and can convince the editor of a book to see if the author wouldn't mind making these "few changes," how could the house pass this opportunity by?

Well, we've known for decades, even centuries, that marketing people can't pass it by, and that's the reason that publishing companies have traditionally kept editorial and marketing departments separate.

To make sure that editorial standards are held at whatever level editors have chosen, a publisher tries to protect the author by keeping the editor from thinking about commercial concerns. Historically, this meant a hard-and-fast rule: editors choose the titles based on quality; marketing and sales departments chose how to sell them. And never the twain should meet.

But then publishers started merging just as chain bookstores started dominating the retail market. Editors lost control of the standards of the house, and marketing people were given way too much power. As a result, authors, who were once universally acknowledged to be at the top of the publishing ladder (at the very least, they paid all the salaries), have been unceremoniously dropped to the bottom rung.

So what I listen for these days is not just the fact that a marketing director may cross that sacred space between bookselling and publishing to ask a chain bookstore buyer to make editorial decisions. I listen for an attitude that requires authors to make one compromise after another. I listen for sounds of authors trying to squeeze themselves into a system that has gotten too big to allow for (let alone encourage) independence of thought or action.

I first noticed this problem about 30 years ago while visiting a literary agent's office, where I happened to read a letter on the agent's desk (true, he had left to get us coffee and I'm adept at reading upside down, but no apology is offered - this was a letter that cried out to be read). In it, an editor from a prestigious publishing house wrote something like this:

"We think we would like to publish the first novel you sent over last month, as we admire the author's originality and wondrous storytelling talent. However, our concern is that Uncle Henry's announcement in Chapter 1 that he is dying of cancer will depress readers and keep them away from the book. If the author would consent to moving this announcement to Chapter 7, we would consider making a bid."

I was horrified, and, when the agent returned, I made no bones about having read the letter. "I can't believe a highly respected editor would ask the author to make an editorial decision for commercial reasons! The whole idea breaks every rule in publishing! It undermines the author's role! It -- ."

"True, but don't make a federal case out of it," the agent said. I had forgotten how thick-skinned they can be. "This kind of thing happens all the time. He's probably just fishing. I'll have to see what the author says."

"You're going to broach it to the author?" I gasped. "I would think your job is to protect authors from making cheap compromises like this right out of the gate."

"Are you kidding?" the agent said. "This author would sell one or two parents and a grandmother for a crack at this house. And who are you, with your high-falutin' ways, to step in and make the decision?"

Well, all right, point taken. But as I say, the attitude shared by the agent and editor was what bothered me. Their attitude made it apparent that authors were pawns on the chessboard of publishing. And that was just for starters. Wait until the house accepted this author's manuscript, I thought: Then the compromises would really begin, starting with the jacket.

I had seen letters from editors who had just come from a meeting with the art department and who breathlessly wrote something like this to the author:

"Your book has nothing in it about horses, but I just learned that the fashion in jacket illustrations today is to get a horse in there somewhere. So don't worry - the art director promises a cover illustration that will get to the essence of your book, but just keep an open mind about the horse. And by the way we may show you the jacket illustration, but don't expect anything by way of author approval."

So many compromises were asked of authors - and for a long time I heard all the horror stories - that over the years I compiled a list of questions authors hear about as they "go through the system," a term I abominate. These are the questions nobody in publishing likes to talk about with authors for obvious reasons. They are:

Is It True (In Today's Mainstream Publishing Industry) That:

    An increasing number of editors never get around to reading their authors' manuscripts?
  • Publishers are asking buyers at chain bookstores to make decisions about jacket illustrations and editorial content?
  • The size of the author's advance determines the extent of a publishing house's support?
  • Editors may tell agents they're going to bid on a manuscript, but increasingly marketing departments are pulling the carpet out from under by overruling their decision?
  • If your editor leaves your publishing house, your book will be considered "orphaned," probably will be printed but dropped?
  • Mainstream publishers say they want originality but pressure authors to stick to safe, no-risk books with easy commercial appeal?
  • Publishers and agents cave in to trends - they look for the next Bridget Jones or Terry MacMillan or "magical realism" or "Sex in the City" plots or Kelly Ripa specials or yoga for pets or First Lady bios or hardboiled/softboiled/parboiled mysteries, and if you don't fit in, you're dead?
  • Agents prefer to read marketing plans (or demo videos of the author) first and skim the manuscript?
  • Agents "pitch" editors who "pitch" marketing departments who "pitch" sales reps who "pitch" bookstore buyers so that the fate of the entire book is based on 25 words or less?
  • Agents and editors have fallen for Hollywood comparison-shopping such as: "This book is: Good in Bed meets The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" ?
  • Authors should never submit more than two or three chapters in a proposal because agents and editors believe they can imagine a book better than the author can write it?
  • Favorable book reviews from respected critics mean less today than opinions of book clubs?

The answer to each question is yes, it's true enough to worry about: It's true enough, if you're an author, to learn how to work the system to your advantage. It's true enough to keep yourself from chasing after a system that infantilizes all of us. It's true enough to force you as the author to figure out what is true for you - what is your core statement, your best writing; your message to the world, your plan, your goal, your vision.

And it's true enough for you as the author to decide going in where you'll draw the line - maybe you can move Uncle Henry's announcement to Chapter 7 without destroying the book's integrity. Just know this early on; don't expect to be nurtured or protected as in the old days (that sometimes happens but you can't depend on it).

So to get back to the specific issue that began this piece: When there is evidence - or a hint - that publishers are seeking advice from chain bookstores about changing cover illustrations or editorial content, I think it's incumbent on writers like Laurie Gold and me to write about it publicly, always asking: What are the consequences when this happens?

This is how I discovered Laurie's columns on the Internet. I was trying to figure out if Wal-Mart's buyer had complained that Contact by Susan Grant was "inappropriate" for Wal-Mart readers after 9/11; if the buyer wanted the publisher (Dorchester) to convince Susan Grant to change the hijacking theme and thereby make it "appropriate"; if, when the publisher refused to ask Grant this, Wal-Mart cancelled the order (it would have been a relatively big order, since Contact was a lead title for one of Dorchester's imprints); if this will hurt sales in a major way for this book (probably); if it will hurt Grant in the long run (she believes not, and the publisher seems to be standing by her); and if there is anything any of us can do. The answer to all this is a resounding yes!

I felt that Wal-Mart was guilty of "censorship" in this instance because it arbitrarily wanted to cut out certain parts of the novel it didn't like, and when that didn't work, it withheld the book from its customers. When readers of my column wrote in to say that censorship only occurs when a government takes this kind of action, I responded by saying that Wal-Mart has become such a giant it might as well be the government - heaven knows it acts like one.

What we can do as readers when this happens is to go to the nearest Wal-Mart and ask for Contact or any other book we hear has been taken off the shelves. Wal-Mart insists that its decisions are based on the author's sales track record. While Susan Grant's other books took a dip in sales last year following the 9/11 disaster, so did every body else's. So that was no reason, based on Wal-Mart's own ordering program, to keep Contact off the shelves.

Thus if we all go in asking for Contact, the number of sales lost - and possibly the number of customers lost - will register somewhere in around the bottom line where Wal-Mart knows its decision will hurt.

Meanwhile I think it's important that people like me, who are tired of seeing authors of Susan Grant's caliber shoved around like this, state openly that the actions of Wal-Mart in this situation were unnecessary and shameful. I am embarrassed for this company, which I don't like to begin with, because for all its happy customer-greeters who make the atmosphere appear so welcome and democratic, Wal-Mart violated principles so fundamental to our democracy that the company has destroyed its credibility in every other aspect of business.

And also to say: Good luck to you, Susan Grant, and all the Susan Grants out there. Authors are at the top of the publishing ladder whether their books are "appropriate" or not - in fact that's why we want them at the top. Often it is the unfashionable, the risky, the subversive, even the dangerous point of view in a book that strengthens democracy, that keeps conformity of thinking at bay.

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More Discussion of Indies versus the Chains (LLB and Anne Marble)

Robin and Pat certainly provide differing viewpoints as far as bookstores are concerned. My own thoughts on this are somewhere in between. I am so used to my own experiences at "romance friendly" independent bookstores that the large chain stores haven't fared well in comparison. However, after having read posts on AARList and among AAR staff about bad experiences in "literary" indies, I've softened my viewpoint.

You may remember the Friends episode wherein Rachel buys an apothecary table from Pottery Barn but lies to roommate Phoebe about its origins because, according to Phoebe, Pottery Barn represents "everything wrong with the world." I continue to believe that, to a certain extent, the super-bookstore is less and less about the selling of books and more and more about mass merchandising and that, with all the "stuff" on sale, and those comfy couches and scones, you might not immediately notice fewer genre books for sale. However, contrary to the belief that all chain stores are impersonal and unfriendly to romance, it often boils down to the management of an individual store, and those who staff it. A romance reader may feel dissed at an indie that sells primarily literary fiction but may feel at home at a chain store with a sales clerk who reads and knows romance.

I also think that the online super-bookstores such as Amazon have much to offer the romance reader, particularly as so many romance novels go out of print relatively quickly and Amazon continues to offer these books new for many months after they disappear from your local bookstore. And while many brick and mortar independent bookstores have come to consider Amazon the Anti-Christ of booksellers, this is not a universally held belief. Indeed, Sandi Heeter, who owns and operates Hard to Find Books, says her storefront through Amazon has helped her grow her business immensely, not only for used and collectible books, but new books as well.

I alluded to a recent thread on AARList above about independent bookstores. AARList's moderator, Anne Marble, has put together a segment which provides additional analysis and reader input on the subject.

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Book buyers are often exhorted to shop at independent bookstores instead of chains. Phrases such as "Support your local independent bookstore" have become catch phrases, just like "Buy organic coffee." Yet can genre readers, especially romance fans, be happy at most independent bookstores?

Many romance fans grew up shopping at the mall bookstores, and as those stores started to close, went on to superchains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble or shopping on-line at Amazon and other large web sites. Our experience with indie stores is sometimes extremely rewarding but often frustrating.

Views on Chain Stores

Lian loves chain stores and describes the experience well. "However wonderful it is to go into a big chain store and be totally surrounded by books, for me it is such a mass experience that I never feel that 'personal' touch that you can get in independent stores." However, she adds, "I regularly visit the Borders in Oxford Street in London and I have yet to see any sign of someone that looks after a particular 'section/genre'. Waiting at an information desk for ages and then having someone look at you blankly just gets my back up" Lian also admits that she loves the independent bookstore "Murder One" but cannot shop there because of their prices.

Stacy loves chains even though she realizes they aren't the perfect solution. She points out, "Big chains have made book-buying a feasible endeavor, even a destination shopping experience, in places where the idea of "elite" independent stores weren't necessarily a smart business move. There are problems with chains, just as there is in all huge business, but as a reader and book buyer, I find the chains have the best selection and prices. After all, what book buyer wouldn't want 50,000+ titles to choose from?"

Yet Cindy, who lives in Canada, has not had warm and fuzzy experiences with chain stores. "You would think that with the arrival of the superstore there would be a plethora of romance books to chose from. When I first went into the stores with lists I was shocked at the number of books they wouldn't have. I remember going in with a three-page list of books that I was looking for. I did not find one book. The same goes for other fiction. I loved the new larger stores when they first arrived but, I now realize that you have to find one that caters to romance properly. For example, I don't think a complete four foot section needs to be filled with Nora Roberts books."

Views on Indies

Laura shops at Borders if she's looking for a quick read but knows better than to avoid her local store if she's looking for something specific. In that store, the service is often less-than-exemplary, and she finds that the experience isn't very warm. On the other hand, she does a lot of shopping at indies. She buys far fewer books at her local Borders because her indie bookseller "reads romance, and knows what to suggest, based on what I have already picked up that day. She reads everything - every era, every setting, and that means she knows her product. Because she's a romance reader, she knows that I, as a romance reader, am likely to devour books, too. I prefer indies, but only because they know the books I read (the indies I visit). I haven't been fortunate enough to find a chain in our area that gives me 1/10 of the service I get at the indie - and I guess if I'm laying down over $100.00 at a time, I expect a bit of service. So that's where I spend my money - where I also get service."

Cindy has been in a lot of indie stores and loves the atmosphere. However, she does not enter those stores expecting to find romances. She says, "In my innocent youth I remember taking lists of authors I was interested in and learning quickly that those sort of books were not considered good enough to grace the shelves. This was the beginning of my knowledge that there are people out there who hold romance books in the lowest regard. I no longer enter independents with a list and I never tell the keeper what I am looking for."

Dyanne also has had good experiences with indie bookstores, both with the romance selection and the service. She says there are three independent bookstores in Tampa with large, used romance sections that also sell new titles. And "while the primary focus for all three is used books, they do a better job in carrying the new romance titles than our local chain bookstores. I prefer shopping at these independent stores because they are romance-friendly and the owners and staff are themselves romance readers - as well as readers in other genres." She added that there is "no worry about being sneered at because of your choice in reading material - on the contrary, you are more likely to get recommendations for other authors!"

However, Traci's experience at indies has been less than glowing. "The majority of independents in my city carry about 75 romance titles at one given time ... and they are 90% new releases. Several independents stores here carry no romance novels whatsoever. These 'poor' independents are ignoring the majority of readers including me, and I'm supposed to feel bad for them? Not. The more I think about it, the angrier I get."

Sherri had a similar experience to Traci's. "The last independent bookstore I went to didn't even have a romance section! They had a SF rack of about 6x6 places, so 36 titles. The only genre they carried much of was mysteries. Those I guess are acceptable?"

Mixed Feelings

Like many of my fellow readers, I have mixed feelings about chain stores versus indies. All my life, I've had wonderful experiences at chain stores, both the smaller mall stores and the superchains. For example, I still miss the WaldenBooks at the mall in Hunt Valley and the Waldenbooks at Towson Plaza. Going to my first Borders was a life-changing experience as well, or at least I walked out with a lighter wallet and copies of books I had been trying to find for many years. I have found many of the books that changed my life at the chain stores, big and small.

Yet at the same time, I can't imagine my childhood without begging my parents to stop by Greetings & Readings in Towson until they got annoyed with me, and college would have been dull without the Bookstack on Beverly Street in Staunton, Virginia. Picture me singing the line from the Cheers song, "Where everybody knows your name..." Both of these stores are still in business; in fact, while Greetings & Readings has only one store, it has grown to take over several storefronts. It is a Towson tradition. In fact, part of the John Waters movie Serial Mom was filmed in the parking lot of the shopping center. (They were closer to the fabric store - I guess sometimes even John Waters can't get a parking space near Greetings & Readings.)

A few more words on Greetings & Readings because it's so darn cool. I was once shocked when I read a list of local independent bookstores and saw Greetings and Readings on that list. Then I thought "Well of course it's an independent bookstore, what else would it be?" I shop there all the time, even after moving to another county; I buy genre books without getting sneered at; I ask questions of the staff; I subscribe to their e-mail alerts and own their discount card... Yet I never thought of it as being an independent bookstore.

At the same time, I've shopped at chains that were so well managed that they lived up to everything that indie stores are supposed to be. If you listen to what some of the naysayers claim about mall stores, for example, you'd expect the stores to be run by automatons. But if that's true, why did those people often recognize me and point out new arrivals in genres they knew I liked? If you believe what people often claim about Borders, those stores are supposedly staffed by kids with mohawks and piercings. So how do you explain the guy who started chatting me up about Glenn Gould when he learned my mother was ordering a Glenn Gould book as a present for me? If all superchains are alike, he would've asked, "Who's Glenn Gould? And if he's so great, why didn't he have any tattoos?"

Maybe when a bookstore is really good, you never worry about whether it's an indie or a chain, you just love to shop there.

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It's Nearly Time to Post to the Message Board

It's nearly time to post to the ATBF Message Board, but first, here's what you can look forward to in the ATBF to go online next Friday, November 22nd:

  • Erotica and Erotic Romance, with author Patricia Ryan, Red Sage publisher and editor of the Secrets anthologies, Alexandria Kendall, and more;
  • Survey results on the number of books you buy and read; and
  • An in-depth look at a bizarre backlash we've noticed.

We usually provide specific questions for you to consider, but occasionally stray from this routine. We strayed with the last issue of this column as well, and discussion didn't seem a bit hampered, so we're going to omit specific questions this time as well. Please feel free to comment and/or question any of the commentary you read above.


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