Monday, March 15, 2010

Books in series: smash Dewey Decimal thinking!

One of the undeniable advantages internet book retailers enjoy over bricks and mortar stores is the ability to sort and categorize their inventories in seemingly infinite ways.

The presses I represent- to their credit- publish many books that can be considered inter-disciplinary. As an aid to booksellers, librarians and catalogers, we assign subject categories to every book, but these are not necessarily obvious and can even be contentious.

The new titles on our spring lists had many straightforward category designations like “art,” “science,” and “literature.” But we also had some combinations like these:

- Design/Urban Studies/Transportation
- Photography/Environment
- History of Science/Women’s Studies
- Education/Computer Science/Race Studies
- Literature/History of Science

That scholarship ranges across disciplines is a great thing, but here’s the problem: whereas an online bookseller can present a book simultaneously to the photography buff and the environmental activist, the storefront retailer has to shelve the book in a physical location. Thus, reps and booksellers spend a great deal of our time hashing out, book by book, the best place to shelve it.

This can be a useful, clarifying discussion. Sometimes a book genuinely has multiple possible audiences. But sometimes the more we talk about it, the more apparent it becomes that the message is muddled, and perhaps the multiple categories is a sign that the author doesn’t exactly have a reader in mind. There’s a big difference between having too many distinct potential customer profiles, and having one vague, jumbled one.

When expectations for a book run high, it’s always possible to place the book in multiple locations in the bookstore. But typically every book still requires a primary section assignment, and the default unit of commitment these days is one copy.

I once saw a buyer at the University of Minnesota Bookstore (now retired) who was so obsessed with subject categories that he would simply take as many copies of a title as it took to keep one on every relevant shelf. (Needless to say, he was chronically over-inventoried.)

One related problem of the multiple categories dilemma is the “books in series on slightly different subjects” conundrum.

Like many publishers, we have a great collection of books in series. These are not like the numbered Young Adult sequels, which are actually pretty easy to get into the hands of the right customers. Ours tend to cross subject categories, yet are united by a uniform editorial approach, or a unique physical design, or some other characteristic that extends one good book idea to another. (See below for some examples)

But bookstores face a conceptual challenge: do we maximize the design impact (and sales) by displaying them together, or do we protect the sanctity of the category by using Dewey decimal thinking and shelving them where they technically belong.

I’m familiar with several series now that have enough critical title mass to see the results of different approaches, and I have to say the boundary-busting, shelve them together approach seems to yield better results. It requires some willingness to look past the apparent subject matter, which is hard to do. But over the past year I’ve heard and seen more booksellers experiment with breaking out of category thinking.

Like so many seemingly new ideas in bookselling, this is actually an old one. I fondly recall the late Great Expectations Bookstore near the Northwestern campus in Evanston. Books there were shelved by publisher (!) Crazy as it sounds, the store looked great, and customers tended to develop a loyalty to certain areas of the store just as they do in places that sort by subject. (Plus, as proprietor Jeff Rice would tell you, it made pulling returns a heck of a lot easier)

I visit a couple stores where the travel section is arranged by publisher and series. I’m a big fan of this approach. We tried it for awhile in the store I once managed, but I think it was defeated by the hassle of explaining to a customer who asked for books on France that they are here, and here, and here. It’s a legitimate issue.

So maybe not the whole travel section. But the point is that books in series often look fantastic together, and they lose that impact when each one is spined, by author, across various store sections. There’s lots of evidence that people who pick up one will pick up another, but they won’t see them, or even realize it’s a series, when they are distributed across the store.

Just to cite a few examples, here are a half dozen of my favorite books in series from Harvard, MIT and Yale. Any brave booksellers willing to experiment with anti-Dewey marketing could start here.

The Loeb Classical Library

The granddaddy of all book series, the familiar little green (Greek) and red (Latin) volumes sell surprisingly well in stores that dedicate a section to them. They range across subjects- epic and lyric poetry; tragedy and comedy; history, travel, philosophy, oratory, religion, medicine and math- but it seems unnatural to split them up. Next year we’ll celebrate the centennial of this noble endeavor, so start thinking about section space now!

Wonders of the World

Classics scholar Mary Beard, who edits this wonderful series about the world’s key cultural and historical monuments, describes it this way:

I suppose there are three intentions. The first is that I want these books to open up culture and history, as well as dissent about culture and history, through the contested life stories of individual monuments and wonders – real or imaginary.

Number two – and these are not meant to be hierarchical – is quite a simple one, and it’s to show that bricks and mortar, or concrete and marble, are always more than that.

And I think the third intention is that you want to help people to enjoy looking at monuments, and at the complexity of monuments – and to see that the complexity and the arguments are what’s fun about this. Sometimes, when people write for what they think of as a popular market, they think that they should make it simple, whereas I think that what you should be doing is helping people to enjoy how complicated it all really is.

This is an excellent little series of small, elegantly designed hardcover books (though they’ll be released in paper beginning this season with The Parthenon) which straddle several potential readerships: history buffs, architects, well-endowed travelers. Where they’ve been treated individually and shelved in isolation, they’ve not done so well; where they’ve been displayed en masse, much better.

Documents of Contemporary Art

This lovely series, done by London’s Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, features stunningly beautiful anthologies by artists and writers addressing key subjects in contemporary visual culture from quirky perspectives. The roster of contributors is top-notch, the pieces are short and punchy, and the very titles in the series ( The Everyday, The Sublime, Chance) demonstrate how refreshing it can be to break out of conceptual categories. These books have lavish jacket art and hip design at an affordable price. They cry out for display treatment.

Boston Review

A couple years ago, MIT began distributing small, chapbook-like contemporary issues books for Boston Review magazine. These appealing little hardcover books- short, accessible, challenging conventional preconceptions- look great together but are completely lost when dispersed and consigned to their technically correct subject areas. More than any other series we publish, this one ranges across vast terrain, but the eighteen titles so far have a distinct approach to public discourse and look fantastic together.

Margellos World Republic of Letters

Literature in translation is on fire these days, and this bold series is dedicated to: works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by translators and publishers, canonical works of literature and philosophy needing new translations, as well as important contemporary authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. It’s designed to bring to the English-speaking world leading poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, and playwrights from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to stimulate international discourse and creative exchange.

This is the sort of publishing for the long haul that I’m really proud to represent and booksellers can be proud to sell. With six titles to date and more in the pipeline (Romain Gary’s zany Hocus Bogus, just published, has never been in English), these elegant volumes have already earned acclaim. The unique design element here is tactile- it’s subtle, but the trim size and heft of the volumes are as appealing as the excellent jacket illustrations.

If you’ve read this far, I’m a broken record by now. But they would look terrific shelved together.

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