Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dear Barnes & Noble: If You're Not Gonna Try, I'm Not Gonna Buy

There's a big Barnes & Noble store near me - one of the few booksellers that has withstood the onslaught of Amazon. There was a time when I hated B&N for gobbling up independent bookstores like Mysterious Ink and Coliseum. These days, I buy from B&N because they're all that's left, and they're in trouble.

Except today, I've begun to realize that some of their wounds are self-inflicted. Sure, the business model of retail book sales is under enormous stress. But even within the constraints of that model, Barnes & Noble is FUCKING UP.

Because I went to the science fiction section of that big B&N, and none of's 2014 "Best Book" recommendations was on the shelves. No Three-Body Problem. No Questionable Practices. No Southern Reach Trilogy.

There were two exceptions: Lev Grossman's The Magicians - which is published and marketed by a mainstream lit imprint - and the big SF success of 2014, Andy Weir's The Martian.  (Just one copy of that one, BTW. In hardcover.)

Now, obviously io9 isn't the final arbiter of F/SF, and there are plenty of other tastemakers out there, from Locus to SF Signal - but io9 is a well-respected blogsite, part of the Gawker/Kinja network, and the place that a lot of fans turn to first in their browsing. You'd think that one or two of those recommendations, in addition to the two books that have achieved beyond-genre success, would have made it to the shelves. But no.

So what was there? First of all, a LOT of old stuff. Not just Tolkien and CS Lewis - although they were well represented - but Raymond Feist. Richard Jordan. Arthur Clarke. HP Lovecraft. These authors are doing crazy mad shelf space now that they've croaked. (And they don't have to pay for booze anymore, so there's that.) These weren't originals or second editions, either - serious reprintage going on.

Now, I don't have anything against classic science fiction and fantasy. In fact, if you've read this blog for a while, you know that I even compiled The List, describing the first stories to deal seriously with some of SF's Big Ideas. I'm a big believer in what engineers and patent attorneys call "prior art." But if they're that old, that well known, that canonical, then move them into the CLASSIC LITERATURE section along with Jules Verne and Aldous Huxley and be done with it. And of course, most of the stuff wasn't classic. (Sorry, but The Wheel of Time fails the "classic literature" test with a resounding thump.)

So what else was there? Well, nothing that would surprise the cynical amongst us. A lot of merchandise tie-ins - Star Wars, various video games, Star Trek. A lot of fantasy series. A lot of military SF from Baen. Some stuff that won awards, like Anne Leckie's Ancillary (another series, BTW). What seemed clear to me was that this department wasn't "curated." The book choices hadn't been made by someone who loved - or even cared about - speculative fiction. Instead, the criteria seemed pretty much about marketing. "Here's what our outlets have vomited forth. Take your fill."

I'll grant that my search wasn't the most exacting: I spent about 30 minutes in the department, looked for the recommendations, and then left. So I'll probably return to confirm. Specifically, I'll return with a monthly list of recommends and see if any of those are on the shelves. I know that many books don't get a lot of time before they're deshelved, so perhaps some of the 2014 recommends appeared and then vanished. But at the same time, I've seen the same line of Baen paperbacks whenever I go to that store, and I can't believe that they are sold so often that these are particularly new.

So unless I'm wrong, and have totally missed something...
Barnes & Noble, if you're not making sales (at least in speculative fiction) it isn't Amazon's fault. It's yours.

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