Monday, October 23, 2006

The Segregation of Certain Types of Books

I don’t like the term ‘mystery’.

I haven’t always felt this way, and I’m a bit of a hypocrite on it, because I still head straight for the ‘mystery’ section when I go into a bookstore.

But I don’t like the term. I much prefer crime fiction over mystery. And arguing over labels might sound about as fun as arguing over infant baptism, but I’m actually starting to think that the prevalence of the term ‘mystery’ is hurting the crime fiction industry.

A little less than a year ago, Kevin went on a search for a few books for me for Christmas. According to the Chapters/Indigo computers, the books were in the stores. But he couldn’t find them.

After visiting three stores, he did locate them. In Fiction & Literature.

By the time he located them, he was extremely pissed off. And I was baffled. What were the books doing there? They say they’re thrillers right on them.

Which, of course, was the problem, and is where the divide comes in. A mystery, by definition, is typically about an unsolved crime and the driving force of the book is to resolve the case by determining who did it. It’s a situation where something isn’t known, and a lot of people like their mysteries to provide the answers and resolve the crime.

A thriller, by definition, involves knowing. In a thriller the emphasis is on a chase, showdown, rescue… stopping something bad from happening, be it from within or outside the bounds of the law. You usually know who the bad guys are. You might not know everything, but that isn’t the point. The point is about how our protagonist will rescue his kidnapped daughter, or how our hero cop will prevent the robbery.

Not how to figure out who committed the crime.

One of the things that continued to baffle me for the longest time was why I couldn’t find some books in the ‘mystery’ section. I always maintained that when my book came out, that’s where I wanted to find it. I couldn’t figure out why some of the books I associated with my genre weren’t there, and it bugged me.

Until I figured out that 99% of the thrillers were being put in general fiction.

It explained why I couldn’t find Tess Gerritsen, PJ Parrish, MJ Rose and many others in the bookstores. I’m one of those people that carries a list of names, and can be swayed into purchases based on what’s in the store. But by sticking in the mystery section, I wasn’t seeing a lot of authors that I associated with my genre.

Now, what’s funny is that Ken Bruen and Lee Child are both over in mystery. So is Simon Kernick (who is moving more and more into thriller domain with each book, and does it brilliantly).

I have to say that I think it’s a bad move, having them separated out. Perhaps some other people don’t care, but I do. The majority of the people I know, people like me who focus on crime fiction, don’t really look outside the mystery section. That’s where the big table display for hot books is put out. It’s where I can find Mark Billingham, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Laura Lippman, Stuart MacBride, and Simon, so why would I go anywhere else? To me, the ‘mystery’ section has been the cornerstone of my reading life for a good few years now, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

I find myself wishing they’d rename it Crime Fiction – which is what it is. Crime fiction encompasses mystery and thriller territory. I can understand from a simplistic point of view why some people don’t consider thrillers to be mysteries. The main focus of the story is different. But thrillers and mysteries are still first cousins. They're part of the same family - there's more common ground between John Rickards and Stuart MacBride than there is between John and Mordecai Richler.

It seems silly to get into debates about semantics, even to me. I’m not terribly keen on narrow labels, although I’ve admitted I understand how they evolve and that they’re here to stay.

But if I was going to fight over one change, I think this would be it. I hate wandering through Fiction & Literature. It’s such a nebulous section of the bookstore, where action-packed thrillers cozy up beside airy-fairy nonsense about the meaning of light. I can’t quickly put my hands to the stuff that interests me over there.

And I have bought authors off of browsing through the mystery section. Several, in fact, right back to purchasing my first Rankin book. More recently, names that have been on my radar, and because I know every book in that section fits my area of interest, I will peruse the A to Z and select a handful of books from new-to-me authors to give them a try.

But I won’t do that in fiction & literature, because there’s too much stuff over there that doesn’t interest me and it takes far too long to wander through.

I guess, if there’s a moral of the story in this, it’s that if your book is being called a ‘thriller’ and is likely to be put over in that general fiction category, getting into bookstores isn’t going to be enough to get a sale from me. You’re going to have to get my attention some other way. I don’t have the luxury of living anywhere close to an exclusive ‘crime fiction’ bookstore – in fact, I’m about 50 km away from the nearest chain store (one way – that’s a 100km round trip) - which means I’m stuck with how the chains decide to categorize their books.

I’ve got a limited amount of time to make my selections when I do go. Since I tend to always find something I want over in ‘mystery’ I really have no reason to look anywhere else unless I have a specific name I’m looking up.

Most thriller writers will need to find another way onto my radar and, from talking to other readers, I know I’m not the only one who isn’t very likely to pick those books up on chance, either. Being on store shelves is a good thing, but it isn’t enough. You need to be on the right shelves to get noticed by your target audience and I firmly believe that most ‘thriller’ writers are missing a good chunk of that market here. Being more of a ‘mystery’ junkie than a conventional thriller reader, figuring this out isn’t enough to entice me out more. I have limited bookstore time because of living so far away.

Sometimes I wonder how long it will be before I give up and just start ordering all my books online, but I still love going to the store, holding books in my hands and finding one to leave with that I’m excited about reading. And that’s an experience you just don’t have online.

23 comments:

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

My local bookstore has separate Mystery and Fiction sections, but mysteries, crime novels and thrillers seem to get shelved with no real plan, though most of the Mystery section is dominated by cozies.

They keep Jonathan Kellerman in fiction, but Faye Kellerman in mystery. Half of the HardCase Crime books are in fiction. Ed McBain is in mystery and Evan Hunter is in fiction. Robert Crais? Fiction. Michael Connelly? Fiction. Janet Evanovich? Mystery. Tess Gerristen? Fiction. Elmore Leonard? Fiction. Stuart MacBride? Mystery. Ian Rankin? Mystery. Archer Mayor? Sometimes both sections at the same time.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Oh, and I prefer the term "crime writer" as well, since there's very little mystery in my novel. You'll know who the bad guys are right from beginning. I'm not really into the whole "puzzle" aspect of the genre. The real question is who manages to avoid being maimed, killed or sent to prison in the end.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Michael Connelly is solidly in mystery here.

I really want to read your book!

Trace said...

Isn't that frustrating? I find it strange that there isn't a horror section anymore in any bookstore. Freaky. Actually, there isn't a horror section in video stores either.

SAND STORM said...

"It seems silly to get into debates about semantics, even to me."
...so you are antisemantic :) sorry

Trace
There is a "Horror" section in McNally Robinson I was just intheir store. As for a well defined thriller area, er not so much.

Sandra Ruttan said...

There is a horror section out here, but it's very small.

Where Trace lives, there is no McNally Robinson, Sand Storm. You're localizing yourself! Although it seems that the problem with thrillers is pretty standard.

angie said...

It's bizarre what I'll find in mystery and what's been shelved in general fiction. It's not that I mind looking in the fiction section (I like to stretch out & read other stuff, too), but it bugs me that when I'm in a mood for a particular kind of crime fic. book and don't have the author's name or the book's name written down, I'll probably miss it in the fiction section. Just gets lost in the shuffle.

It's my understanding that the way these books are shelved is a fairly arbitrary decision. A writer shelved in the mystery section in one store may well be shelved in fiction in another.

So long story short, if I'm in the mood to browse, I'm likely to miss out on some writers 'cause I won't find them in mystery. How weird.

And I don't really get the separation between mystery & thriller (yeah, yeah, bomb under the table scenario). They are both puzzles - it's just that one is whodunnit/howdunnit/whydunnit and the other is how is s/he going to stop "x" from happening or catch "x" before they kill again. Not all that different, really. Except for the cats. Although even McDermid has cats in her books...just no knitting that I've noticed yet.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I used to read other stuff.

Back before all my time was consumed with reviewing, writing and editing. Now, I barely have time to keep up with what's happening in my genre.

But it sounds to me like I'm not the only one who finds the random scattering of the books frustrating, and who feels like they may be missing out on books as a result. And you're right about thrillers and mysteries, Angie. That's why I say, 'call it crime fiction' and put it all together, which is as it should be, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

I've given up sending people to bookstores for me, I just load up my Amazon wish list. I've gotten used to having to look everywhere, although finding a Ramsey Campbell in Fiction was a little unsettling. Were they trying to give someone a heart attack?

I don't think Barnes and Noble has a horror section anymore but their F&L section starts out with erotica collections. Quite frankly, unless you're looking for something that just came out, it's not even worth going to my local bookstores, not matter what genre titles you prefer. I like mystery, by the way. I guess because crime always makes me think of true crime, which is a different section. norby

Bill Cameron said...

I have to admit that I haven't seen this problem too much, but then it may be because of the bookstores I have close to me. I do see the "genericization" of crime-related fiction under the Mystery category, as if every word of crime fiction written was just about the puzzle. But generally speaking, I've found most of what I could think of as "crime fiction" in that section called Mystery, and I guess I've been well trained to look there when that was what I wanted. In my experience, only mysteries and thrillers with that word "literary" glued to the front are found exclusively in general Fiction & Literary.

But I have to admit a caveat. I live in Portland, home of the Powell's Books Mothership, which does a very good job of organzing its shelves (though not as well at some of its smaller branches). I wonder if that doesn't influence the organization of other bookstores around town, even the chains. While Barnes & Noble or Border's, for example, has a generic Mystery section, I think you tend to find thrillers, mysteries, cat novels, (which should have their own section in any store, if you ask me) all there.

Of course, when I am out to buy crime novels, I go to Murder by the Book, which breaks things down into a couple-dozen sub-categories and furthermore is run by very nice ladies who help me find what I'm looking for, even if I don't know what it is!

I'm down with calling the catchall section Crime Fiction if they then go ahead and put all the crime fiction there. I just hope my novel by "Bill Cameron" doesn't get lost in the primary color haze of all those novels by Rite Mae Brown and Pozie or Pookie or whatever the hell her cat is called.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Drive me nuts, too. I'd love to see a Crime Fiction section, but I don't think I ever will. Yes, people want to read crime fiction, they want to write it.

But "Crime Fiction" also sounds harsh to the millions of readers who want to follow Mr. Tibbetts, the gray speckled tabby, as he helps solve a murder where someone was dispatched with a poisoned roast at a lush Napa Valley resort.

Crime is a dirty word. So is violence. Nice people don't celebrate crime. Murder is dignified, however, as long as it is done and described in as bloodless a manner as possible.

And the breakdown of books in stores reflects that. Where's horror? Depends. Fiction and Literature if it's Stephen King or Peter Straub. Sci-Fi/Fantasy if it's got vampires. or maybe in Romance.

Or maybe not at all. I've been in places where the only thing by Poppy Z Brite I can find is where she edited a colection of short stories. Others where I can find her serial killer fiction in Fiction/Literature.

As you've illustrated yourself, the people who are going to go to Mystery aren't the same ones who are going to go to Fiction/Literature. As are the ones who read science fiction or fantasy or romance.

Part of it is the expectation of the reader. Everyone has their own view of what constitutes a particular genre. I had this conversation last night with my wife as we both tried to puzzle out our views on what constitutes a thriller, and how it's broken down (Romance thriller? Action thriller?)

It won't get all lumped together because people want labels. They may not agree with the labels and the labels may make no sense, but we're wired to organize. We're wired to look for some kind of order. Lump it all together and I think most average readers would have a problem finding what they're looking for.

anne frasier said...

"Being on store shelves is a good thing, but it isn’t enough. You need to be on the right shelves to get noticed by your target audience"

this has been a concern of mine for a long time. how does the target audience find the book when it's shelved in a strange place? my books are almost always in fiction and literature, so basically the person has to be looking for my book when they go to the store, AND they have to know to look in fiction and lit. and i wouldn't be mystery, so yeah -- no place for it.

Dr. Lisa said...

I'm doing my part: I buy books both online and at the local bookstore. :-)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Why is it you guys have been able to comment and blogger's been having pissy fits on me all day?

Stephen, I don't like it when you're right.

Anne, scary indeed. I found your books, though! And they were turned cover out, if that's any consolation.

Lisa, you're far too on the ball.

Norby, I found The Torment of Others in true crime once.

Bill, you suck. It isn't fair that you have properly organized stores to shop in.

anne frasier said...

sandra, i haven't been able to read, blog, comment, etc. using safari today. had to switch to firefox, which i don't like as well.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Curse you, Patrick Shawn Bagley! I coulda been first -- there weren't no comments when I got here earlier today, but Booger wouldn't let me post! :-)

Um -- what was I saying?

Oh yeah. Sandra, come to the dark side! Amazon is your friend. Hear it beckon to you with a whole year of free priority shipping, and any book you could ever want, without having to wander all three floors of Borders...

We float down here. We all float.

Bill Cameron said...

I do suck, but I picked Portland for a reason! Mmmm, bookstores from heaven!

Bill Cameron said...

I use Opera for Mac, which I find friendlier than Firefox and more robust than Safari. Safari is wickedly fast, but not all sites like it. Firefox is safe, of course, and usually works with most sites, but it seems to plod along to me.

Anyway, for what it's worth.

anne frasier said...

bill, can i have mine with a shot of vanilla?

opera....

haven't tried that...

Lisa Hunter said...

Y'know, you have a brilliant idea here. I'll bet the genre would sell better if they renamed it crime fiction. Look how much interest there is for crime shows on television (all the zillion CSI shows, etc.) For years, I never looked at "mysteries" in the bookstore because in my mind, they had the taint of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, etc. I wonder how many other readers don't really know how broad the field is?

Anonymous said...

Well aren't I the lucky one?

My local bookstore has a crime fiction section, a thriller section, a horror section...it even has a Richard and Judy section.

Personally, I think that the crime fiction heading should only be used for books that involve detection - whether it is some form of police procedural, private detective or forensics driven novels.

A thriller is different. There almost definitely is at least one crime. There probably will be police in there somewhere, but it is a completely different type of book, so I am afraid I have to vote for separate bookstore shelving as I think to lump it all under Crime would be misleading.

But they certainly don't belong in General Fiction.

Sarah H

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah Sarah, but you live in the UK. I love the UK.

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