Bare Shelves and Bleak Futures at Borders

I went into my local Borders bookstore this weekend because I heard that Pyr had just released the latest book by legendary Science Fiction author Mike Resnick. The book is called Flagship
and it is the conclusion of a five-book series of classic space opera set in Resnick’s Birthright universe. The first four books have been extraordinarily well written and a joy to read and I have been looking forward to this final volume for months. Amazon lists the release date as December 22nd and I had heard from the author that it was available in bookstores before Christmas, so I expected to be able to cruise into my local Borders and pick up a copy.

Not so. Much to my chagrin they didn’t have it on the shelves in Science Fiction or in the new releases section — which seemed to mostly be reprints. In fact, it was nowhere to be found. Nor did they have any of the previous volumes in the series, though they are still in print. When I went to ask a clerk whether they had copies on order and when they might be getting them, he didn’t just tell me they were delayed by the holiday or backordered, he explained that for reasons which were above his level someone had made the decision not to carry Flagship in that store at all, despite the fact that I had bought all of the previous volumes in the series there and they had sold out of them.

Ok, so now I’m just bitching because they didn’t have my book and I’m going to have to order it from Amazon and wait two days and be mildly inconvenienced, boo hoo. But there’s more to it than that. As I wandered the stacks in dismay I noticed some changes at my local Borders. First off, there were far fewer actual books on the shelves. They’ve expanded the space for non-book products and reduced the space for actual books. Then there’s a problem with what’s actually on the shelves. Apparently there’s no room for Flagship because the shelves are full-up with supernatural themed romance novels most of which verge on being pornographic, marketed not only under romance but in every other section of the bookstore, including taking up about half the shelf-space in the Science Fiction and Horror sections. For some reason, just under the letter K in Science Fiction there were 5 shelves of vampire romance novels with pale and glabrous male models on the cover, flashing unholy lust from their dark, sunken eyes.

When one type of book comes to dominate the market every other genre and preference in literature suffers, and I’ve never before seen the kind of market dominance which has been seized by supernatural romance novels, especially those involving vampires. Some of these novels are good. My wife and daughter read them and I’ve even read a few. But most are not. I suppose it’s the Twilight effect, and like that series most of them are not terribly well written, imaginative or interesting. They’re just the same old formulas dressed up with a little magic, fangs and a cape. And it’s not just that they’re squeezing marginal or obscure works off of the shelves. Resnick’s books have been performing well at Amazon by any standard, but if you look at the list of top-sellers in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, out of the top 100 books at least 65 fall into the sub-genre of supernatural romance. That’s really an unprecedented share of the market. Like a lot of great science fiction authors, Mike Resnick used to make ends meet writing adult novels and romances. Maybe he’ll have to don a pseudonym and purple pen again if he wants to stay on the shelves.

Of course, the key to the changes at my local Borders is that these novels are profitable. They sell regardless of the quality, on the strength of the cover and the name of the author and the popularity of the genre. It leaves us nerdy middle aged guys grousing around the store muttering about the decline of literacy and ending up looking for solace in the non-fiction section or going home and thanking the internet gods for the existence of Amazon where we can buy anything we want. I’m also thankful for print-on-demand which has let small, specialty publishers keep some excellent but less commercially viable authors in print in an unfriendly market. So for now I can still get my books, even if wandering the stacks and reading the flyleaves has become obsolete.

Clearly internet shopping also plays a role in this. Publishers aren’t working quite as hard to sell second-tier writers to the bookstores when they know they can sell to the established fan base through online outlets. Some publishers like Tor and Baen have become really masterful at this, building online communities and essentially mentoring new writers in the process.

We’re also on the verge of seeing substantial market impact from electronic books which are now available from Apple and Amazon and other sources to be viewed on your Amazon Kindle or Sony Book Reader or even your iPhone. I think this is a great boon to optometry and the sale of reading glasses to younger and younger audiences, but the things actually seem to be popular. Someone has been working on this for a while and there’s already a huge back-catalog of classic literature and everything new also comes out in this format when it is released. The growth of this technology is getting a big boost from Amazon which is offering scads of new releases for free if you download the Kindle version, which helps offset the somewhat inflated cost of the readers.

With this new techology, those of us who don’t want to read about busty vampire hunters and their dark and forbidden lovers, are going to be even farther out in the cold, as books that aren’t at the top of the sales lists are going to be harder and harder to find in printed form. A printed book is so much more expensive to produce than an electronic edition that there has to be an enormous pull for financially strapped publishers to move in that direction. It won’t be long before I have to read the books I want to read in that format, but I’m going to miss holding a printed work in my hands and feeling the rough paper on my fingers and the solidity of the boards and binding. Hey, that gives me an idea. I can hollow out obsolete printed books and turn them into holders for Kindles. You’ll still have the feel of your real book and women who like vampire romances will think you’re all antique and literary in a dark and sexy way. We can hope, anyway.

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