Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shelves? We Don't Need No Stinking Shelves

by R.S. Mellette

A lot of people are guessing about what the digital revolution will bring to the publishing industry, so why should I be any different?

One of the current catch phrases we hear in the industry is "What shelf would this book go on?" This forces an author who might have a mystery series, set in the future, with a teenaged hero in an adult world to have to state not only a single genre (mystery or sci-fi), but also an age group (YA or Adult).

But in the digital world, there are no shelves. This book can be listed as a Mystery AND Sci-Fi; YA AND Adult. It can be labled as simply Fiction and show up on a list based on sales.

How soon will it be before agents and editors stop saying, "I don't know what shelf this goes on," and start saying, "I only see one category for this MS." How many writers will be arguing that a certain sub-plot makes their book qualify as a Romance?

And what will this multi-labeling do to writing styles? If self-publishers begin to attach so many categories to their books in order to cross-promote, will the labels lose their meaning? How valuable then will independent bookstore owners be, when someone asks, "Can you help me find a good book?"

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers anthology.


JeffO said...

I'm not 100% sure how I feel about this possibility. On the one hand, I do believe there's too much of a move toward over-compartmentalization of fiction, too many categories, too much emphasis on where the book fits and how it must be marketed. On the other hand lumping it entirely into one fiction shelf, or having books showing up in multiple genres, is more likely to mean the high-profile authors with bigger marketing bucks behind them will grab prominent slots on multiple 'shelves' and further crowd out the little guy.

Darke Conteur said...

Cross-genre is becoming more popular because of the lack of restraints put on a writer by Traditional publishers. What I'd like to know, is when are they going to stop saying "I don't know what shelf this goes on", and start saying, "I really think this this cross-genre novel has sales potential."

jmarierundquist said...

@Dark Conteur: I think many agents are already quite savvy to the idea of crossover genres - at least from what I see on Twitter and on their blogs. I frequently hear that we shouldn't worry about narrowing the exact genre in our queries (although we should know what we're writing) because they will help figure that out later.

I see @JeffO's point about high-profile authors dominating with cross-tagging, but I think that happens anyway - especially online - because big sales for a company are always going to attract more marketing.

If everything is digital, then the whole question of genre-tagging is irrelevant.

Authors self-tagging their work is potentially problematic (and maybe already is, I don't know). If we are self-publishing our books, then we want them to sell, right? Maybe that means we tag them with every conceivable one that we think could fit so that the maximum number of potential readers see it in the list. How annoying if you are expecting one thing, but find it is not even that sub plot you mention.

Perhaps in the future readers will be able to validate tags, thus not only providing feedback for authors if they are not sure of their genre, but keeping accountability for them on marketing honestly.

Arlee Bird said...

I like the idea of multiple labels to open up books to broader audiences. With computer referencing it can be much easier even in a bookstore. I like the concept that Amazon and other use with tags. I think books should be compartmentalized into primary genres, but cross-tagged for the reference of the book sales people.

I love bookstores and would hate to see the concept of shelves go away, but I'd also hate to walk through a bookstore and see the same books popping up on shelves throughout the store.

Tossing It Out

LD Masterson said...

I have such mixed feelings here. My current book is a cross-genre, so I had the whole "what shelf" issue. But one of my joys in life is browsing through my local bookstore. I don't want to ever lose that. Catch-22?

Jean Oram said...

What the world needs is a good set of librarians.

Jean Oram said...

Testing...please ignore.

Jemi Fraser said...

I love stories that blend my favourite genres, so that's a huge positive! I can see the other points too, though. The e-shelves are still new and shiny. It will be interesting to see how all of this looks in another couple of years.

RSMellette said...

I think everyone says they want a cross-genre book, but when one slaps them in the face, they don't know what to do with it.