October 12th, 2012

Bizarre Bookstore Finds (That Most People Wouldn't Recognize As Bizarre)

Whenever I escape from my house to write at Barnes & Noble, I check out the New Releases shelf in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The New Releases shelf is very desirable shelf real estate, almost as desirable as the multi-genre displays by the store's main entrance. On that promised land of shelves, that Big Rock Candy Mountain of shelves, your book is displayed cover-out, instead of spine-out, with only a few other books competing for the buyer's attention. My understanding--which could be wrong, of course--is that publishers usually have to pay bookstores a kickback for a spot on that shelf. Of course they use a nicer term than kickback, but the nicer terms is so transparently euphemistic I keep forgetting what it is. As a general rule, only very large publishers can afford a spot there, and even they can only afford to do it for books they are especially confident will recoup the cost. Oh, and they only get the chance to make that investment if the bookstore chain's book selector has decided to pick up the title in the first place. You can't buy your way to the Big Rock Candy Mountain with a title that Barnes & Noble doesn't expect will sell.

So imagine my surprise to find a trade paperback from Samhain Publishing displayed alongside books from the Big Six. Samhain started out as an e-book only publisher, and I didn't even know they'd started moving into print. Samhain's fortunes have risen with those of the paranormal romance genre, but they're still a pretty small player. I'm not sure which is the more refreshing surprise--that the corporate book selector would bet on one of their titles in a print edition, or that Samhain would be able to afford a spot on the New Releases shelf. So Samhain's coming up in the world, maybe. If I wrote paranormal romance, I'd be doing the dance of joy about this.

My second bizarre find of the evening is a confluence of several forms of unlikeliness. It's unusual for the small but brilliant Tachyon Publications to land a spot on the New Releases shelf--unusual but not unprecedented. It's unusual for a press as small as Tachyon to put out a novel by a major bestselling novelist like Brandon Sanderson, and even rarer now than it used to be because of the current ways bookstores use to decide how many copies of a title to order. Weirdest of all, The Emperor's Soul is a novella, just 30,000 words long. I can't imagine seeing any of the Big Six publish a 30,000 word book for adults--the bottom of the word count range for young adult fiction is 40,000 words, and even in YA a book that short is a hard sell. Usually the Manhattan publishers will only put novellas out in print in collections or anthologies. You'll sometimes find a trio of novellas by three big name authors in the same genre collected into a single volume, or you'll find a novella or two anchoring a single-author collection, but otherwise you're as likely to find a moose in Manhattan as a novella.

Why is The Emperor's Soul not anchoring a 100,000 word collection of Sanderson short stories? Why is it not one third of a 90,000 word trio of novellas by different authors? In order for the book to be published as it is, a lot of people would all have to believe that a freestanding novella stands a chance in a print edition in brick and mortar bookstores at this particular moment in the life of the industry. They would all have to believe it simultaneously, and emphatically enough to bet their bosses' money on it. As a writer of novellas who has been told innumerable times that the novella is a dying form, I would love to know how this happened. Yes, of course the rules are different for Brandon Sanderson, with his proven track record, than they are for nearly-unheard-of me. I just never would have guessed the rules could be quite that different, or bend quite that far, even for the big-name people.

I was so perplexed, I tracked down my key informant among my local B&N's booksellers and asked her what was up. Was there a new book selector at the corporate office, or what? Her best guess was that these books had been selected as some sort of experiment. The market's changing so fast, nobody knows the true parameters of what works, so every once in a while, the book selectors dare to try something wacky.

If you want to see more small presses or novellas in the mix at big chain bookstores, consider giving these books a look. The best way to vote for book biodiversity is with your dollars.