November 6, 2006 - Issue #244
From the Desk of Anne Marble:
Proper Deportment and Labeling in the Bookstore: A Guide for Staff
Even with the rise of on-line bookstores such as Amazon, most romance readers still do a lot of their shopping at bookstores. Scratch a romance reader, and you will probably find someone who has been snubbed or insulted or ignored in a bookstore. At the same time, we remember the bookstores that do it right, and we vote with our pocketbooks.
With romance readers buying so many books, and thus helping to keep many publishers afloat, why is it that so many of them have memories of being treated badly by staff in bookstores? I guess "Because some people are ignorant jerks" is too simplistic an answer. While some people are ignorant jerks, other salespeople might act this way toward romance fans because they want to feel superior, or because they think their quips are actually funny, or because ... well, because they're ignorant jerks.
AAR's Lea Hensley admits that she avoids buying romances with embarrassing covers in the bookstores because of past experiences where salespeople or other customers gave her funny looks. But lately, she decided to be brave and look for Tender is the Knght by Jackie Ivie at the store. "When I was unable to find it, I went to the information desk and asked a young man if they had it and he was so nice and courteous and started typing away and then I said 'It's spelled k-n-i-g-h-t.' He caught himself halfway through his obvious show of disgust but I still saw the way his eyes rolled. I stood there and told myself again and again - you are not the empty minded woman he thinks you are - you are not the empty minded woman he thinks you are."
You really have to wonder about staff members like this. What are they doing in the book business if they're going to roll their eyes and act superior? For that matter, what are they doing in retail? They're the bookstore equivalent of that salesclerk who greeted me as I entered her store by saying "We sell clothes in sizes 2 through 12." (If I hadn't been so shocked she would say that, I might later have told her that not only did I fit in their clothes, but I wasn't going to buy them because they were ugly.) Only instead of saying "You're too fat to buy clothes here," some bookstore clerks seem to be saying "You're too dumb to shop here." Even when, of course, we're a lot smarter than those clerks might want to admit.
Robin Uncapher, my ATBF co-columnist, ran into a clerk at Waldenbooks who proudly announced
that she "didn't read those books." (Isn't that like a butcher
proudly stating that he never eats hamburger?) This clerk made it a point to
rant about how she had read the first chapter of a Nora Roberts book and
was shocked at how bad the writing was, but Robin thought it sounded as if
her preconceived notions were blinding her because she had nothing bad to
say about other best-selling authors. Yeah, that Dan Brown is such an
inveterate stylist, isn't he?
A snarky comment really annoyed Tracy on a recent visit to a Borders
Express. The store was having one of those buy four romances, get one free
sales. Tracy only brought one book to the counter, so the male manager
asked, "Can't find enough trashy romances to get a free one, huh?" Tracy
admits that her mouth fell open at this "quip." Luckily, the woman behind
her said, "They keep writing them, we'll keep buying them." Tracy was glad
for the help, upset at herself for not standing up for romance, and really
annoyed that guy said that. She is planning to call him on his rudeness the
next time she visits. We're behind you, Tracy!
Many romance fans are afraid to say something after they have been slighted
by clerks, But Tracy wants to do something about it. That's a great idea.
Power to the people! But what should a reader do when we encounter snarky
or outright rude behavior? Most people suggest telling the manager. And if
the manager doesn't care, find out who the regional manager is and complain
to them, or even to the president of the company. Vote with your pocketbook
if you want, but also let them know why you have stopped shopping
there. Varina says, "The manager needs to know if a clerk's stupid mouth
costs them sales. If we simply stop going to stores where clerks behave
badly, without telling the management why, they will not know or possibly
even notice, and the people who hand the clerk his paycheck won't tell him
to mend his manners and act smarter, so he'll just keep acting like a
half-whit and maybe not pay for it as quickly as he should."
Of course, sometimes it's the owner that's being rude. There isn't much you
can do in those cases because those are the ones often too dense to realize
you're outsmarting them. Robin endured continual obnoxious
incidents involving the owner of a used bookstore in Rockville, Maryland.
The owner told Robin that she probably didn't know about Georgette Heyer and went on to inform her that Heyer was the founder of the romance genre.
Robin pointed out that she clearly knew of Heyer as she had written an
article about her, "but it was clear from his expression and response that
he had already made up his mind that I was a complete idiot since I was
checking out a pile of romance novels." Considering that this store has a
large romance section, Robin thinks this guy should know better. Years
later, she called to ask if he wanted to buy some books. Instead of
bothering to find out what she had, he dismissively told her he didn't
need "a bunch of run-of-the-mill romance novels." She tried to explain that
she wasn't bringing "run -of-the-mill" romances, but because of his
insulting tone, she gave up. The same owner gave an obnoxious quote about
selling romance novels in the Washington Post not long after that,
claiming that he could run the store just by selling romance novels but
making it clear he thought the very concept was disgusting. Robin was
disgusted with him and never went back to the store.
Sometimes You Need a Scorecard
Several years ago, a new Barnes & Noble opened up near me, and for the
first few weeks, I found myself correcting the shelving errors of some of
the employees. Yes, I am a total shelving geek, but I can't help myself!
And I still can't imagine who thought that Judith McNaught book belonged in
SF, or why so many historical mysteries ended up in either romance or SF,
while Westerns with horses on the cover often traveled into the SF/Fantasy
section. On the other hand, in some cases, I can see where the staff might
get confused. After all, the fans aren't always sure how to classify some
There have always been those "gray area" books that exist in the borderline
between genres. Barbara Michael's Gothics have always perturbed bookstore
staff. Some stores shelve her under horror, some under mystery, some under
romance, and some give up and put her under general fiction. And J. D. Robb
is sometimes shelved in the mystery section, sometimes in the romance
With today's changing romance market, saying "what the heck is this?" is even more common. Sometimes you need a scorecard to figure out what's on the
shelves. Gone are the days when all you had to worry about were
historicals, contemporaries, romantic suspense, Regencies, series romances,
and the occasional "alternate reality" romance. Nowadays, besides the old
standbys, the romance shelves can also hold Chick Lit, Women's Fiction, Erotic Romance, and even outright Erotica. There are also more and more
cross-over books, such as romantic SF and fantasy and romantic mysteries.
For example, some stores keep the Luna books in SF/Fantasy, while others
shelve some of the Luna books in Romance and some in SF/Fantasy. (You can
shelve some of the books some of the time, but you can't shelve all of the
books... Never mind.)
What all this means is (to paraphrase Forrest Gump) that the Romance section
is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're gonna get. My
local Borders and Barnes & Noble intersperses the trade paperbacks and mass
market books. This means that in the romance section, you might have
Catherine Anderson's romances bumping right against an Aphrodisia by
Evangeline Anderson, or that you might find Lucinda Bett's Aphrodisia
between mass market romances by Patti Berg and Jo Beverley. Talk about your
strange bedfellows! Add to that Spice, Avon Red, Berkley Heat, and Cheek,
and you might find yourself yearning for the good, clean fun of a Brava
Bad Boys book. <g>
There's also Chick Lit, Erotic Romances that look like Chick Lit, and no
doubt there is Chick Lit dressed up to look like Erotic Romance. Yet to
further confuse things, not all trade paperbacks are erotic either; some are Historical or non-erotic Paranormal. And of course,
plenty of Erotic Romance ends up in mass market. Like I said, these days
readers need a scorecard to figure out what to read.
At a recent trip to the bookstore, I browsed random Erotic Romance books
and took notes on what I found. (Sigh, the things I'll do for this column!)
I came across a Black Lace book that starts with one of the villainesses
watching a young soldier prove his manhood while having sex with a willing
wench while others cheered him on. On the other hand, the book featured a
hero who thought the heroine had betrayed him years ago and thus kept
bullying her and accusing her of sleeping around, so maybe it is a
traditional romance novel. <g> I also noticed one by Cheek book in which the heroine let her
boyfriend spank her - and then realized he wasn't her boyfriend, he was a
stranger the boyfriend had hired to have sex with her so he could watch.
Gee, don't you hate when that happens? Even within the same line, books can
veer from vanilla Erotic Romance to "What were they thinking?!" For example, one
Heat book starts with a heroine who attracted the hero to her by
masturbating on a casino surveillance camera and uses frank, modern
language, while another one was a Norman conquest book that built up to the
sex over several chapters to get to the sex. The type of language can vary,
too. The Black Lace used "penis" a lot, while other erotic romance use "co_ks", and still others fall back on purple prose. (The Blonde
Geisha referred to "Buddha-seed"!)
And before anyone accuses me of being a prude, I'm not. Like Laurie, I've
read plenty of Erotic Romance, as well as outright Erotica. Some of it
makes me sweat, and some of it makes me roll on the floor laughing. But I
still want publishers to make it clear what kind of book I'm buying. After
all, I'm currently writing a bawdy fantasy novel, and once it gets
published, I don't want people to buy it expecting C. S. Lewis.<g>
And I'm not the only one asking "What the heck is this?" While I was
working on this column, Sylvia Day posted an article about the mislabeling of romance at Romancing the Blog. Even authors
of Erotic Romance are worried about how their books are
labeled. As is Laurie, who said she'd had a couple of recent experiences that she wanted to write about, which she does below:
Last week, after reading and reviewing Keri Arthur's Kissing Sin, the second book in her very readable Guardians series, I noticed that on the bottom of the front cover, a banner proclaimed her as "The New Star in Paranormal Romance", and the back cover blurb compared her not only to Laurell K Hamilton and Kelly Armstrong, but to Christine Feehan and Sherrilyn Kenyon as well. I noted in my review that the book's marketing might backfire because to me, the book was not Romance. With four sex partners for the heroine - one vampire, two werewolves, and one horse shifter - and not an HEA in sight, I felt the book was a hybrid between Urban Fantasy and Erotica.
I make it a point to visit bookstores whenever I can, and when I do, I see what's selling in the Romance aisles, at the very least. The day after I wrote up my review, my husband and I had dinner in a part of town we don't often visit, and stopped in afterward at a new Barnes and Noble. I immediately took stock of the store, noticing the layout before honing in on the Romance section. I was shocked...by the time I left the store an hour and a half later, I realized I would have to amend my comments about Kissing Sin. Apparently Romance changed while I was sleeping.
Remember when the sexiest books out there were those annual Secrets anthologies? Or when Kensington took the similar four-story format and published Captivated, then Fascinated, with stories by Bertrice Small, Susan Johnson, Thea Devine, and Robin Schone, in 1999 and 2000 respectively? If I'm not mistaken, those books were the genesis of Kensington's Brava imprint, which was considered incredibly racy at the time. How times have changed! Today Brava isn't sexy enough for Kensington, which began to publish a new imprint for Erotic Romance - Aphrodisia. My guess is that nearly ten percent of the books in this B&N's Romance aisle were Aphrodisia titles. Brava titles may feature lots and lots of sex in every conceivable position, but those I've read feature one man and one woman who engage in "vanilla" sex.
Several of the Ellora's Cave authors I've read in the past are now being published by Aphrodisia, Pocket, or as part of Berkley's Sensation imprint (I'm not altogether familiar with Berkley's Heat imprint, which appears to have only a few releases published thus far). Of the Berkley and Pocket titles I've read by these former EC authors, while the sex is less "vanilla", the Romance convention of monogamy remains. I've not yet picked up anything from Red or Spice, so I can't talk about the new Avon and Harlequin imprints, but it's most assuredly not the case with several of the Aphrodisia titles I perused recently, and that concerns me.
Last year in a column on Erotic Romance, Jaid Black explained why EC's brand of Romantica has been so successful. For her it's as simple as this: "It was erotic and it was romance. It was erotic romance." Today I think that's too facile a response. I realize that fiction today is so hybridized that genre conventions don't really hold. For many of us, defining what we're reading is now difficult, if not impossible. That's not to say I'm not enjoying many of the books I think are increasingly mislabeled, but the mislabeling does create problems, particularly as the kink factor increases, which is inevitably the case when very sexy material combines with out-of-this-world characters. After all, human rules of behavior don't apply, and things can get pretty kinky in a werewolf den, on planets run by seven-foot kings running around looking for their Sacred Mates, or in a world where scientists cross-bred humans with big cats, wolves, and coyotes.
The new Urban Fantasy and Action/Adventure elements, in addition to the existing but stronger Fantasy and SF elements, as well as more modern sensibilities brought in via Chick Lit, and the stronger sexuality that previous Secrets and e-book authors took with them into the mainstream have led to remarkable differences in what your bookstore may look like today in comparison with just a few years ago. The original types of Erotic Romance we saw in Blaze and Brava are tame in comparison to what we're seeing in the new imprints - and some of what I read from Ellora's Cave. And I'm okay with most of it being marketed as Romance...except for the lack of monogamy and the threesomes. When I pick up an Ellora's Cave book, I accept that it may be "out there", but "out there" now seems to be "in here", and all of a sudden I'm not sure where I stand on the whole pushing the envelope thing, particularly as it's bled into more mainstream Erotic Romance.
Out in the blogosphere, it's become fashionable for authors who present Cassandra-like arguments against too much erotic content finding its way into Romance to be attacked for it. Given that probably a third of my reading these days is what is now labeled Erotic Romance, I'm no prude, but I too am beginning to worry about the size of the umbrella, and the anything's-okay-if-we-call-it-Romance attitude.
Mainstream publishers are selling more and more books that don't fit the traditional definition of Romance, all the while calling it "Romance". It's quite possible that indeed, the definition changed while I wasn't looking, but no matter how much I enjoy Keri Arthur's Guardians, the two books in the series thus far are not Romances...or are they? And neither is that copy of Zalman King's Red Shoes Diary: Strip Poker I also saw in the Romance aisle at B&N the other night...or is it?
Hellacious Stocking Practices
Not counting UBS's, there are three bookstores I shop at most frequently -
a Barnes & Noble, a Borders, and a Borders Express. All of them stock both
Romance and Erotic Romance in the Romance section. Besides the fact that
they suck money out of my wallet, each one has its pros and cons. For
example, the Borders Express has less stock than the other stores, but they
usually have the best genre displays, they put new romance novels out on
the shelf right away, and they display most of the new books face-out
rather than spine-out.
The Barnes & Noble has several places where new books can be displayed (two
new arrivals sections near the front, end caps, plus featured new arrivals
in the romance section). Unfortunately, this means that they have fewer
copies to put out on the actual book shelves. For example, there was only
one copy of the new Madeline Hunter historical romance in the romance
section, but they had copies in two different "new arrival" displays. This
means readers looking just for new arrivals might end up buying the book,
but those looking for that specific book might have a hard time finding it.
Also, I've had problems with new books not ending up on the shelf the day
they were released - and not just in romance, but in SF/Fantasy as well. On top of that, in the romance
section, the New Arrivals shelves sometimes don't have copies of what I
consider the hot new releases, but it often includes some lesser known (to
me) titles, with an emphasis on contemps over historicals and
The Borders has more stock, but sometimes, more confusion. When I visited
on a Thursday, there were stacks of books on the floors alongside the
shelves. I couldn't tell if these were newer books coming in, older books
being moved out, or all of the above. Also, Borders doesn't have a "New
Arrivals" shelf in the romance section (which is annoying). On the other
hand, Borders does have a three featured shelf where books are displayed
by category - there's a "Romance Favorites" area, a "Like Contemporaries?"
section, and a "Like Historicals?" section. This is a cool idea, but it
could be even cooler. First, with romance changing so much, why not have
sections for paranormals, romantic suspense, and maybe even erotic romance?
Some of the featured authors weren't the best known names in their fields.
("Like Historicals?" included Jen Holling, Cheryl Holt, Hannah Howell,
Julianne MacLean, and Sari Robbins, not the first people I think of when I
look for a historical romance.) Also, the sections were sparse and not kept
up. Still, at least they're trying...
On the other hand, AAR's LinnieGayl never had problems with Borders getting
the books on the shelves on time. Like many readers, she knows the release
dates of the books she wants. So she'd show up on the "street date,"
looking for a new release by a major author, and she would always find them
at the Borders in her area. But that wasn't the case at the Barnes & Noble.
When LinnieGayl couldn't find Nora Roberts' Morrigan's Cross on its
release date, the clerk said, "Oh yeah, I think that might have come in
today, check back tomorrow." But it wasn't there on the next day, either,
so she had to buy it at another store. And this is Nora Roberts! Imagine
how the midlist authors are treated!
Karen W. has pretty much given up on finding the books she wants in brick
and mortar stores. Instead, she orders most of the books she wants on-line.
While she misses browsing, she also likes saving money because buying
on-line keeps her from making impulse purchases that she later regrets. In
her case, the straw that broke the camel's back was a Waldenbooks that
could take weeks to put out new books, even though they were from major
publishers. Special orders would take five to six weeks to come in, and
then, the store had the gall to make Karen rush in to buy it within hours.
Once, she rushed to the store after work to buy the book she wanted, only
to learn that they had sold it to someone else! Her complaints never found
a reply, and eventually, Karen found Amazon.
Like Karen, I remember the days when ordering a book was something special
and bizarre that took ages. In the 1970s, I ordered the book Exit
Sherlock Holmes, and the store actually charged me a dollar for the
privilege of ordering it! Few books can live up to that kind of trouble. I
also tried to order The Changeling, a famous British drama, at a
Waldenbooks. Not only was I told it would take weeks, but my book
never came in. Times have changed. The other weekend, I ordered a
book at Barnes & Noble, and it came in by the middle of the week.
AAR's Lee Brewer also orders must of her romance books on-line (from
Books-A-Million). She finds it a lot less frustrating than dealing with big
chain stores that don't understand that the word "new" in "new releases"
means that people want to buy the books now. Lee also suggests the
following steps for bookstores to follow.
1. Stock lots of romance novels - and make sure the newest ones are
displayed on the sale date.
2. Instruct staff to be pleasant to all customers who read all genres.
1. Don't roll eyes, make snarky comments, etc. when people approach the
sales desk with $50 worth of romance novels in their arms."
These should be common sense, but you know what people say about common
sense not being common at all.
Questions to Consider:
Have you ever been treated rudely in a bookstore, by either staff or other
customers? If so, what happened, and how did you react, if at all? Did you later wish you had acted
Do you have problems finding the latest releases on the shelves of the
bookstore, or are your favorite stores good about getting the books out on
time? Also, do you find that the books on display don't always reflect
what's "hot" in romance?
Do you find that the bookstore staff is sometimes confused about where
some books should be shelved, whether they are romance or romance hybrids?
Do you sometimes feel that you need a scorecard to keep track of all the
new types of romance and romance hybrids? Have you ever picked up a book
and found it to be mislabeled? (For example, you were expecting a Romance
and got an Erotic Romance - or Erotica - or vice versa?)
Does it seem as though the definition of romance is changing faster than you can keep up with it? Is it all marketing, or do you sometimes or always rely on what the book calls itself on its cover or spine? Have you been or would you be bothered by reading a book that you thought was mislabeled? How do you define a Romance, and has your definition ever changed?
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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)