A good idea whose time has come . . . and gone

I’m leaning toward declaring my support for this idea — the idea that it would be better if physical bookstores didn’t have subsections for different fiction genres, but just shelved all fiction alphabetically by author.

It won’t happen, of course, but what if it did? Sure, you’d spend more time browsing past romances / horror / literary fiction / and more romances while you looked for the fantasy novel you want, but

a) time browsing in a bookstore is certainly not wasted;

b) discovering that stuff outside your genre sometimes looks appealing might well broaden everybody’s reading experience;

c) it would sure discourage treating literary fiction as a special elevated category of fiction.

All three of those effects look like features rather than bugs to me.

On the other hand, how long are physical bookstores going to be important, anyway? And would anybody at all find it helpful or pleasant to “browse” online? I don’t see how. I even think the categories at Amazon are almost 100% useless — DOES anybody ever just browse through the no doubt infinite offerings under “fantasy books”? Surely not. Surely everyone searches strictly by author?

“Browsing” for me means looking through the SFBC mailing to see what’s out and reading blogs to see what’s good, and that sure limits my view of what’s out there. The only things that generally expand my horizons as a reader is getting sold on a book outside my normal range by a fantastic review on a book review blog, or getting hooked by a well-written hook on the SFBC mailing.

Of course, I can’t really browse in a physical store because the nearest said store is an 80 mile trip, one way. I do miss browsing sometimes! One of the very few disadvantages to living in the country.

How and where do you all browse? Or notice books usually outside your range?

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13 thoughts on “A good idea whose time has come . . . and gone”

  1. I generally browse in the SF/F section of bookstores — although I very, very seldom buy anything from browsing. Most of my purchases are made on the basis of a recommendation from a trusted reviewer, or they’re the new book by a buy-on-release author. (I only have a couple of those: congrats, you’re one of them!) One exception was my visit to Powell’s in Portland earlier this month; I bought a couple of books I’d had my eye on for a while, but picked up several more that just looked interesting. I’m much more likely to do that in a used bookstore than in, say, Barnes & Noble. $3 is rather more justifiable than $8 or $9 for a book that I might not end up enjoying after all.

  2. I’ve been burned three times this year on hardcovers I bought from the SFBC because their hook appealed to me and then the book didn’t. : ( Now I’m a lot more likely to go look for a used copy for 0.1 c from Amazon to try a new author.

    On the rare occasions I’m in a bookstore, honestly, I do try to buy something by someone I’m not familiar with, just on principle. But it’s easier to read a page or two and see if the style looks good and the characters look appealing if you’re in a physical bookstore, impossible to do that with an SFBC mailing.

    Of course I’m glad to know I’m on your auto-buy list! Mine includes CJ Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold and, um . . . not sure anybody else is on that list for me . . . oh, wait! Patricia McKillip of course, and Robin McKinley. And that may really be it for me. Though some individual series are auto-buys for me — the Mercy Thompson series by Briggs and the Kate Daniels series by Andrews.

    Who’s on your auto-buy list?

  3. Bujold and McKinley definitely on my auto-buy list, as is N.K. Jemisin. Hmm… I can’t really think of anyone else whose books I buy as soon as they’re released…though Maggie Stiefvater may be moving up into that position for me: I really loved THE SCORPIO RACES and I quite enjoyed her latest book, THE RAVEN BOYS, which came out yesterday. But I still haven’t read her SHIVER series because I’m scared I won’t like it as much, as I’ve heard mixed reviews. Probably should just gather up my courage and go to the library; even if it’s not good, it can’t dilute my love for RACES. I’ve got all of Sarah Rees Brennan’s books, too.

    C.J. Cherryh and Robin Hobb are individual series for me, and usually I try to look for them in used bookstores. Oh, and the Western writer Luke Short–all his books are out of print, so I always keep an eye out for them in any used bookstore I visit!

    My book-buying budget isn’t very large, so I try to keep my auto-buy list fairly small (and visit the library for most of the others.)

  4. Oh, hey, Dad likes westerns! And I sometimes read them. I’ll have to find out if he’s got any by Luke Short and pick up a couple if not.

    I feel exactly as you do about Stiefvater; I haven’t read the SHIVER ones either, but I haven’t read THE RAVEN BOYS yet — don’t have it yet and don’t have time just at the moment. NK Jemisen may be on my auto-buy list shortly, but I haven’t read her latest duology. I have it, but I just am not reading ANY distracting fiction right now. I expect to be done with the WIP in October; I have so many to read then! Starting with The Demon’s Lexicon by Brennen, which will be the first by her I’ve ever read. Looking forward to it!

    I wish we had a better library in town! I have a *much* better personal collection of SFF, gardening, cookbooks, and of course science / animal behavior than the library. All I ever get there is audiobooks. After I get an Audible membership, I’ll probably let my library card lapse. But I must admit I buy a lot of books used — especially if it’s my first book by that author.

  5. I’ve read some Luke Short and remember enjoying them.

    McKillip’s new book – a collection – arrived yesterday. :-) She’s an automatic buy. Bujold, CJC.. I think I have a couple others, but I’ve been trying to cut back.

    I used to love browsing in bookstores, and still enjoy doing it in used bookstores, but B&N doesn’t have enough stock these days. And what they do have all looks the same. When I’m trying a new author, though, I try the library first these days. Hardcovers are too expensive and take up too much space. Or Kindle sample…
    But our library has agreements with other libraries up and down the state, public and academic, so if I’m not sure of a book, I can usually get it to try out first.

  6. The library I work at keeps thinking about whether to go to the all types of fiction in one place method. I really wish they would because our catalogers already do some odd things with organization — for instance, vampires are really in, so they tend to end up in the Fiction section rather than sci-fi/fantasy. Of course, so many books are multi-genre nowadays, so it’s got to be tough to decide what category to slip a book into…

    Personally, I am a browser when I go to book stores, but I got much less now that I’m working in a library AND can pre-order things from Amazon and have them on my front porch the day they’re released.

    My automatic order list would be you, Patricia Briggs, Sharon Shinn (though that last one wasn’t really my cup of tea…), Jack McDevitt, Alan Bradley, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

  7. B & N — I could not BELIEVE how totally alike every single book looked last time I browsed through the SFF section. Every single cover was like: Woman In Contorted Pose With Weapon And Animal. I have no idea how anybody would be drawn to pick one off the shelf when they all look exactly the same. (This was a while ago, I admit, maybe it’s moved on to a different trend by now?) And Sarah Prineas made a pretty scathing comment to me about YA covers. The Prom Dress Girls, she said, and after she said that I sure noticed a lot of Prom Dress Girl covers. Very, very, VERY boring when all the books look the same.

    And yes, B & N never has anything like a real selection. The problem for me is: neither does the tiny local library. I don’t know what proportion of their current stock of SFF titles I’ve personally donated this year, but it might be significant, since I give away a lot of books and particularly give the nice-looking hardcovers to the library. I am hereby officially envious of all of you who have access to a nice big library.

    I’m really interested to see Jack McDevitt on your list, Matthew: really? I have read a couple of his and feel very little urge to run out and get the rest. Alan Bradley I don’t even know! Okay, looking on Amazon, I see he writes mysteries! One of which is called I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS, which certainly grabs my attention because I was just playing The Lady of Shalot on a cd in my car on the way to work. Okay, adding that one to my wishlist. Or do you have any suggestions which of his would be good start with?

    Which do you have in mind when you mention “that last one” of Sharon Shinn’s? She says her werewolf book got a star from PW but has had VERY mixed reviews and she’s pretty tense about the second one in the series. I haven’t read it yet, but with all this is-it-good-or-isn’t-it, I kind of want to.

    Also, the minute your library started shelving vampires with “fiction” rather than SFF was the VERY MOMENT they should have just dissolved all categories. Honestly, what’s next, trying to sort out all the vampire/werewolf/angel/mermaid/selky/demon/witch books from all the other fantasy? Time to give up and throw it all on the shelves alphabetically by author and let the reader sort it out. That would be SO MUCH BETTER for people who love Barbara Hambly’s fantasy but don’t know she writes mysteries and vice versa. Anyway, that’s my vote.

  8. FWIW we have lots of Jack McDevitt on our shelves because my husband reads them. I haven’t, so can’t say whether I’d recommend them to you or not.

    I wouldn’t mind if libraries just blended all fiction together. My local one has put some Tim Powers under regular fiction, after all. And I just read an article about Philippa Gregory’s work that said she’s including magic that works in her historicals. So did Dunnett in her second series (although IMO Dunnett handled it badly). So why not save the categorizing headaches and just call it all fiction?

    Lee & Miller’s Liaden books used to be on my auto-buy list, but I haven’t been all that interested in the books focusing on Theo, so I haven’t bought the last two yet.

    Rachel’s work has gone the other way, from checking out the hardcover in the library, to pre-order on Amazon.

  9. My library puts paperback SFF in a category by itself (also mysteries, romance, horror, etc) but all the hardcovers (the vast majority of the library collection) are shelved together. Which isn’t quite as convenient for browsing when I’m in the mood for, say, planetary sci-fi, but is very nice for when I want one specific author but am intrigued by the books shelved next to it. (It’s why I just picked up Mary Stewart’s NINE COACHES WAITING, which I loved, while looking for Maggie Stiefvater’s SHIVER.)

    Also, I just read THE CUCKOO’S EGG, and you’re right, I think it’s one of Cherryh’s best. It’s less claustrophobic than a lot of her others, though still very very thinky, and I just ACHED for Thorn and wanted to give him a human hug most of the time — but Duun did love him, and Thorn knew it.

    And I do like the last line. It’s a fun kind of puzzling (what does Thorn mean by “man”? Human-man or shonunin-man? I think both).

  10. With McDevitt I don’t expect all of his books to be fantastic, but I’ve loved some of them so much that I’ll risk every book of his to get another great one. I tend to really enjoy his Chase Kolpath series (it’s actually called the Alex Benedict series, but the book before Chase showed up was not near as good and Benedict is often kind of annoying because he knows too much), though some of the stand alone novels are really good. Of course, part of the reason why I like him is probably because I was an archaeologist for awhile and McDevitt seems to know enough about archaeology not to drive me nuts. I guess I can’t resist a sci-fi, archaeological mystery with edge of my seat adventure. :)

    As for Bradley, “I Am Half Sick of Shadows” is, I think, the third book? Maybe further along than that. The first is “the Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” — probably reading them out of order wouldn’t be an issue, I think. (was that Loreena McKennitt’s “Lady of Shalott”?)

    The Sharon Shinn novel was “the Shape of Desire” — and the writing was great as always. I think I read someplace that Shinn categorizes herself as a romantic fantasy writer, but to me that always seemed to mean that she writes these really vivid characters and really explores how they feel about things (like the amazing worlds they live in). I mean, I’ve read a few anthologies that she’s contributed to and her stories are so different than the other authors in them — the others feel like romance novels with a a wizard or something tossed in. That’s just not my cup of tea and I’ve learned to just skip all the stories but hers. Anyway, so the thing is, I feel like “the Shape of Desire” is MUCH closer to the romance side of things than usual and the fantasy element was faint and ambiguous for a portion of the book. I don’t know if I would have finished it except that 1) the main character was interesting, 2) the book description said there were shape shifters in it, and 3) I was in the midst of a bad relationship so I could identify with some of the character’s love-angst for once, lol. I’m still going to read the second book in the series and I’ll probably even buy it, because I’d like her to help her keep writing as long as she wants to. :)

    I agree a hundred percent with what you said about the library — and I forgot, angels tend to also be in with the regular fiction. Those Nephilim things are everywhere nowadays!

  11. Mary Beth — glad you read Cuckoo’s Egg! That’s right at the top for me, and yes, I love the way the word “man” is going to resonate differently with Thorn vs the reader.

    Elaine — I read the Niccolo only once and some time ago, and I must admit I cannot remember any element involving dowsing or any other fantasy element. At all. Hmm.

    What I do remember is reaching one point in the series where EVERYTHING COMES CRASHING DOWN on Nicolas, and I quit reading the series for a whole year because it was just too hard to take, even though I knew Dunnett would make things work out at the end. I’ve read the Lymond series several times and definitely prefer it!

    Have you read any of her mysteries? I love them. You can see they’re written by the same person, sort of, but they’re quite different from those huge historical novels.

    And btw, if you try one of Leah Cypess’s books, let me know what you think!

    Matthew — what’s one of the McDevitt stand-alones you’d recommend? And yes, it definitely makes a difference if the author knows what he’s talking about, if you do!

    Yes, it was Loreena McKennitt’s version of Lady of Shalott. I love McKennitt and I wanted something pretty in the background after I finished listening to SNUFF.

    I’m definitely interested in reading THE SHAPE OF DESIRE. I’m really interested to know what I’ll think of it after everything I’ve heard. I’m glad to have a warning that it’s a Romance With Fantasy rather than a Fantasy With Romance; as long as I expect that, I won’t mind. Probably. Much. I think it must be her angel books that got her the Romance Fantasy rep, because mostly that’s not how her books read to me, either.

  12. I have read Dunnett’s mysteries, and own them from my completist days. It’s been at least ten years since I picked them up and at that time only one caught my interest (the one featuring the makeup artist). When I first ran across them in my teens I didn’t know what to make of them. Now, while I can see the Dunnett-touch, they still lack the whatever-it-is that makes me reread the historicals. (even some of the Nicholas books.) And it’s about time to reread KING HEREAFTER. There’s a short story she wrote floating around (illegally) on my hard drive, I think, too…..

    Did you finish the Niccolo series? I wonder if you stopped before getting to the dowsing – it played a huge role in the fifth and sixth books with our hero himself being the dowser. Was the point at which everything comes crashing down the end of the fourth (African) book? I know of someone who just stopped there ‘too manipulative’ she said. As I said the dowsing made an impact on me because of my very non-Renaissance Europe mental associations for it, which completely threw me out of the book, which otherwise had been the best read of the series. If you didn’t have that problem, maybe you registered other elements in the book instead. People do… my husband once asked ‘what was that book about the former slave…’ me . Eventually we figured out it was CURSE OF CHALION, but it is not one I’d’ve mentally tagged as ‘about the former slave’, you know? Other ingredients registered more strongly.

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