At the Back Fence Issue #244

November 6, 2006

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Proper Deportment and Labeling in the Bookstore: A Guide for Staff

Even with the rise of on-line bookstores such as Amazon, most romance readers still do a lot of their shopping at bookstores. Scratch a romance reader, and you will probably find someone who has been snubbed or insulted or ignored in a bookstore. At the same time, we remember the bookstores that do it right, and we vote with our pocketbooks.

With romance readers buying so many books, and thus helping to keep many publishers afloat, why is it that so many of them have memories of being treated badly by staff in bookstores? I guess “Because some people are ignorant jerks” is too simplistic an answer. While some people are ignorant jerks, other salespeople might act this way toward romance fans because they want to feel superior, or because they think their quips are actually funny, or because … well, because they’re ignorant jerks.

AAR’s Lea Hensley admits that she avoids buying romances with embarrassing covers in the bookstores because of past experiences where salespeople or other customers gave her funny looks. But lately, she decided to be brave and look for Tender is the Knght by Jackie Ivie at the store. “When I was unable to find it, I went to the information desk and asked a young man if they had it and he was so nice and courteous and started typing away and then I said ‘It’s spelled k-n-i-g-h-t.’ He caught himself halfway through his obvious show of disgust but I still saw the way his eyes rolled. I stood there and told myself again and again – you are not the empty minded woman he thinks you are – you are not the empty minded woman he thinks you are.”

You really have to wonder about staff members like this. What are they doing in the book business if they’re going to roll their eyes and act superior? For that matter, what are they doing in retail? They’re the bookstore equivalent of that salesclerk who greeted me as I entered her store by saying “We sell clothes in sizes 2 through 12.” (If I hadn’t been so shocked she would say that, I might later have told her that not only did I fit in their clothes, but I wasn’t going to buy them because they were ugly.) Only instead of saying “You’re too fat to buy clothes here,” some bookstore clerks seem to be saying “You’re too dumb to shop here.” Even when, of course, we’re a lot smarter than those clerks might want to admit.

Robin Uncapher, my ATBF co-columnist, ran into a clerk at Waldenbooks who proudly announced that she “didn’t read those books.” (Isn’t that like a butcher proudly stating that he never eats hamburger?) This clerk made it a point to rant about how she had read the first chapter of a Nora Roberts book and was shocked at how bad the writing was, but Robin thought it sounded as if her preconceived notions were blinding her because she had nothing bad to say about other best-selling authors. Yeah, that Dan Brown is such an inveterate stylist, isn’t he?

A snarky comment really annoyed Tracy on a recent visit to a Borders Express. The store was having one of those buy four romances, get one free sales. Tracy only brought one book to the counter, so the male manager asked, “Can’t find enough trashy romances to get a free one, huh?” Tracy admits that her mouth fell open at this “quip.” Luckily, the woman behind her said, “They keep writing them, we’ll keep buying them.” Tracy was glad for the help, upset at herself for not standing up for romance, and really annoyed that guy said that. She is planning to call him on his rudeness the next time she visits. We’re behind you, Tracy!

Many romance fans are afraid to say something after they have been slighted by clerks, But Tracy wants to do something about it. That’s a great idea. Power to the people! But what should a reader do when we encounter snarky or outright rude behavior? Most people suggest telling the manager. And if the manager doesn’t care, find out who the regional manager is and complain to them, or even to the president of the company. Vote with your pocketbook if you want, but also let them know why you have stopped shopping there. Varina says, “The manager needs to know if a clerk’s stupid mouth costs them sales. If we simply stop going to stores where clerks behave badly, without telling the management why, they will not know or possibly even notice, and the people who hand the clerk his paycheck won’t tell him to mend his manners and act smarter, so he’ll just keep acting like a half-whit and maybe not pay for it as quickly as he should.”

Of course, sometimes it’s the owner that’s being rude. There isn’t much you can do in those cases because those are the ones often too dense to realize you’re outsmarting them. Robin endured continual obnoxious incidents involving the owner of a used bookstore in Rockville, Maryland. The owner told Robin that she probably didn’t know about Georgette Heyer and went on to inform her that Heyer was the founder of the romance genre. Robin pointed out that she clearly knew of Heyer as she had written an article about her, “but it was clear from his expression and response that he had already made up his mind that I was a complete idiot since I was checking out a pile of romance novels.” Considering that this store has a large romance section, Robin thinks this guy should know better. Years later, she called to ask if he wanted to buy some books. Instead of bothering to find out what she had, he dismissively told her he didn’t need “a bunch of run-of-the-mill romance novels.” She tried to explain that she wasn’t bringing “run -of-the-mill” romances, but because of his insulting tone, she gave up. The same owner gave an obnoxious quote about selling romance novels in the Washington Post not long after that, claiming that he could run the store just by selling romance novels but making it clear he thought the very concept was disgusting. Robin was disgusted with him and never went back to the store.

Sometimes You Need a Scorecard

Several years ago, a new Barnes & Noble opened up near me, and for the first few weeks, I found myself correcting the shelving errors of some of the employees. Yes, I am a total shelving geek, but I can’t help myself! And I still can’t imagine who thought that Judith McNaught book belonged in SF, or why so many historical mysteries ended up in either romance or SF, while Westerns with horses on the cover often traveled into the SF/Fantasy section. On the other hand, in some cases, I can see where the staff might get confused. After all, the fans aren’t always sure how to classify some books.

There have always been those “gray area” books that exist in the borderline between genres. Barbara Michael’s Gothics have always perturbed bookstore staff. Some stores shelve her under horror, some under mystery, some under romance, and some give up and put her under general fiction. And J. D. Robb is sometimes shelved in the mystery section, sometimes in the romance section.

With today’s changing romance market, saying “what the heck is this?” is even more common. Sometimes you need a scorecard to figure out what’s on the shelves. Gone are the days when all you had to worry about were historicals, contemporaries, romantic suspense, Regencies, series romances, and the occasional “alternate reality” romance. Nowadays, besides the old standbys, the romance shelves can also hold Chick Lit, Women’s Fiction, Erotic Romance, and even outright Erotica. There are also more and more cross-over books, such as romantic SF and fantasy and romantic mysteries. For example, some stores keep the Luna books in SF/Fantasy, while others shelve some of the Luna books in Romance and some in SF/Fantasy. (You can shelve some of the books some of the time, but you can’t shelve all of the books… Never mind.)

What all this means is (to paraphrase Forrest Gump) that the Romance section is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get. My local Borders and Barnes & Noble intersperses the trade paperbacks and mass market books. This means that in the romance section, you might have Catherine Anderson’s romances bumping right against an Aphrodisia by Evangeline Anderson, or that you might find Lucinda Bett’s Aphrodisia between mass market romances by Patti Berg and Jo Beverley. Talk about your strange bedfellows! Add to that Spice, Avon Red, Berkley Heat, and Cheek, and you might find yourself yearning for the good, clean fun of a Brava Bad Boys book. There’s also Chick Lit, Erotic Romances that look like Chick Lit, and no doubt there is Chick Lit dressed up to look like Erotic Romance. Yet to further confuse things, not all trade paperbacks are erotic either; some are Historical or non-erotic Paranormal. And of course, plenty of Erotic Romance ends up in mass market. Like I said, these days readers need a scorecard to figure out what to read.

At a recent trip to the bookstore, I browsed random Erotic Romance books and took notes on what I found. (Sigh, the things I’ll do for this column!) I came across a Black Lace book that starts with one of the villainesses watching a young soldier prove his manhood while having sex with a willing wench while others cheered him on. On the other hand, the book featured a hero who thought the heroine had betrayed him years ago and thus kept bullying her and accusing her of sleeping around, so maybe it is a traditional romance novel. I also noticed one by Cheek book in which the heroine let her boyfriend spank her – and then realized he wasn’t her boyfriend, he was a stranger the boyfriend had hired to have sex with her so he could watch. Gee, don’t you hate when that happens? Even within the same line, books can veer from vanilla Erotic Romance to “What were they thinking?!” For example, one Heat book starts with a heroine who attracted the hero to her by masturbating on a casino surveillance camera and uses frank, modern language, while another one was a Norman conquest book that built up to the sex over several chapters to get to the sex. The type of language can vary, too. The Black Lace used “penis” a lot, while other erotic romance use “co_ks”, and still others fall back on purple prose. (The Blonde Geisha referred to “Buddha-seed”!)

And before anyone accuses me of being a prude, I’m not. Like Laurie, I’ve read plenty of Erotic Romance, as well as outright Erotica. Some of it makes me sweat, and some of it makes me roll on the floor laughing. But I still want publishers to make it clear what kind of book I’m buying. After all, I’m currently writing a bawdy fantasy novel, and once it gets published, I don’t want people to buy it expecting C. S. Lewis.

And I’m not the only one asking “What the heck is this?” While I was working on this column, Sylvia Day posted an article about the mislabeling of romance at Romancing the Blog. Even authors of Erotic Romance are worried about how their books are labeled. As is Laurie, who said she’d had a couple of recent experiences that she wanted to write about, which she does below:

Last week, after reading and reviewing Keri Arthur’s Kissing Sin, the second book in her very readable Guardians series, I noticed that on the bottom of the front cover, a banner proclaimed her as “The New Star in Paranormal Romance”, and the back cover blurb compared her not only to Laurell K Hamilton and Kelly Armstrong, but to Christine Feehan and Sherrilyn Kenyon as well. I noted in my review that the book’s marketing might backfire because to me, the book was not Romance. With four sex partners for the heroine – one vampire, two werewolves, and one horse shifter – and not an HEA in sight, I felt the book was a hybrid between Urban Fantasy and Erotica.

I make it a point to visit bookstores whenever I can, and when I do, I see what’s selling in the Romance aisles, at the very least. The day after I wrote up my review, my husband and I had dinner in a part of town we don’t often visit, and stopped in afterward at a new Barnes and Noble. I immediately took stock of the store, noticing the layout before honing in on the Romance section. I was shocked…by the time I left the store an hour and a half later, I realized I would have to amend my comments about Kissing Sin. Apparently Romance changed while I was sleeping.

Remember when the sexiest books out there were those annual Secrets anthologies? Or when Kensington took the similar four-story format and published Captivated, then Fascinated, with stories by Bertrice Small, Susan Johnson, Thea Devine, and Robin Schone, in 1999 and 2000 respectively? If I’m not mistaken, those books were the genesis of Kensington’s Brava imprint, which was considered incredibly racy at the time. How times have changed! Today Brava isn’t sexy enough for Kensington, which began to publish a new imprint for Erotic Romance – Aphrodisia. My guess is that nearly ten percent of the books in this B&N’s Romance aisle were Aphrodisia titles. Brava titles may feature lots and lots of sex in every conceivable position, but those I’ve read feature one man and one woman who engage in “vanilla” sex.

Several of the Ellora’s Cave authors I’ve read in the past are now being published by Aphrodisia, Pocket, or as part of Berkley’s Sensation imprint (I’m not altogether familiar with Berkley’s Heat imprint, which appears to have only a few releases published thus far). Of the Berkley and Pocket titles I’ve read by these former EC authors, while the sex is less “vanilla”, the Romance convention of monogamy remains. I’ve not yet picked up anything from Red or Spice, so I can’t talk about the new Avon and Harlequin imprints, but it’s most assuredly not the case with several of the Aphrodisia titles I perused recently, and that concerns me.

Last year in a column on Erotic Romance, Jaid Black explained why EC’s brand of Romantica has been so successful. For her it’s as simple as this: “It was erotic and it was romance. It was erotic romance.” Today I think that’s too facile a response. I realize that fiction today is so hybridized that genre conventions don’t really hold. For many of us, defining what we’re reading is now difficult, if not impossible. That’s not to say I’m not enjoying many of the books I think are increasingly mislabeled, but the mislabeling does create problems, particularly as the kink factor increases, which is inevitably the case when very sexy material combines with out-of-this-world characters. After all, human rules of behavior don’t apply, and things can get pretty kinky in a werewolf den, on planets run by seven-foot kings running around looking for their Sacred Mates, or in a world where scientists cross-bred humans with big cats, wolves, and coyotes.

The new Urban Fantasy and Action/Adventure elements, in addition to the existing but stronger Fantasy and SF elements, as well as more modern sensibilities brought in via Chick Lit, and the stronger sexuality that previous Secrets and e-book authors took with them into the mainstream have led to remarkable differences in what your bookstore may look like today in comparison with just a few years ago. The original types of Erotic Romance we saw in Blaze and Brava are tame in comparison to what we’re seeing in the new imprints – and some of what I read from Ellora’s Cave. And I’m okay with most of it being marketed as Romance…except for the lack of monogamy and the threesomes. When I pick up an Ellora’s Cave book, I accept that it may be “out there”, but “out there” now seems to be “in here”, and all of a sudden I’m not sure where I stand on the whole pushing the envelope thing, particularly as it’s bled into more mainstream Erotic Romance.

Out in the blogosphere, it’s become fashionable for authors who present Cassandra-like arguments against too much erotic content finding its way into Romance to be attacked for it. Given that probably a third of my reading these days is what is now labeled Erotic Romance, I’m no prude, but I too am beginning to worry about the size of the umbrella, and the anything’s-okay-if-we-call-it-Romance attitude.

Mainstream publishers are selling more and more books that don’t fit the traditional definition of Romance, all the while calling it “Romance”. It’s quite possible that indeed, the definition changed while I wasn’t looking, but no matter how much I enjoy Keri Arthur’s Guardians, the two books in the series thus far are not Romances…or are they? And neither is that copy of Zalman King’s Red Shoes Diary: Strip Poker I also saw in the Romance aisle at B&N the other night…or is it?

Hellacious Stocking Practices:

Not counting UBS’s, there are three bookstores I shop at most frequently – a Barnes & Noble, a Borders, and a Borders Express. All of them stock both Romance and Erotic Romance in the Romance section. Besides the fact that they suck money out of my wallet, each one has its pros and cons. For example, the Borders Express has less stock than the other stores, but they usually have the best genre displays, they put new romance novels out on the shelf right away, and they display most of the new books face-out rather than spine-out.

The Barnes & Noble has several places where new books can be displayed (two new arrivals sections near the front, end caps, plus featured new arrivals in the romance section). Unfortunately, this means that they have fewer copies to put out on the actual book shelves. For example, there was only one copy of the new Madeline Hunter historical romance in the romance section, but they had copies in two different “new arrival” displays. This means readers looking just for new arrivals might end up buying the book, but those looking for that specific book might have a hard time finding it. Also, I’ve had problems with new books not ending up on the shelf the day they were released – and not just in romance, but in SF/Fantasy as well. On top of that, in the romance section, the New Arrivals shelves sometimes don’t have copies of what I consider the hot new releases, but it often includes some lesser known (to me) titles, with an emphasis on contemps over historicals and paranormals.

The Borders has more stock, but sometimes, more confusion. When I visited on a Thursday, there were stacks of books on the floors alongside the shelves. I couldn’t tell if these were newer books coming in, older books being moved out, or all of the above. Also, Borders doesn’t have a “New Arrivals” shelf in the romance section (which is annoying). On the other hand, Borders does have a three featured shelf where books are displayed by category – there’s a “Romance Favorites” area, a “Like Contemporaries?” section, and a “Like Historicals?” section. This is a cool idea, but it could be even cooler. First, with romance changing so much, why not have sections for paranormals, romantic suspense, and maybe even erotic romance? Some of the featured authors weren’t the best known names in their fields. (“Like Historicals?” included Jen Holling, Cheryl Holt, Hannah Howell, Julianne MacLean, and Sari Robbins, not the first people I think of when I look for a historical romance.) Also, the sections were sparse and not kept up. Still, at least they’re trying…

On the other hand, AAR’s LinnieGayl never had problems with Borders getting the books on the shelves on time. Like many readers, she knows the release dates of the books she wants. So she’d show up on the “street date,” looking for a new release by a major author, and she would always find them at the Borders in her area. But that wasn’t the case at the Barnes & Noble. When LinnieGayl couldn’t find Nora Roberts’ Morrigan’s Cross on its release date, the clerk said, “Oh yeah, I think that might have come in today, check back tomorrow.” But it wasn’t there on the next day, either, so she had to buy it at another store. And this is Nora Roberts! Imagine how the midlist authors are treated!

Karen W. has pretty much given up on finding the books she wants in brick and mortar stores. Instead, she orders most of the books she wants on-line. While she misses browsing, she also likes saving money because buying on-line keeps her from making impulse purchases that she later regrets. In her case, the straw that broke the camel’s back was a Waldenbooks that could take weeks to put out new books, even though they were from major publishers. Special orders would take five to six weeks to come in, and then, the store had the gall to make Karen rush in to buy it within hours. Once, she rushed to the store after work to buy the book she wanted, only to learn that they had sold it to someone else! Her complaints never found a reply, and eventually, Karen found Amazon.

Like Karen, I remember the days when ordering a book was something special and bizarre that took ages. In the 1970s, I ordered the book Exit Sherlock Holmes, and the store actually charged me a dollar for the privilege of ordering it! Few books can live up to that kind of trouble. I also tried to order The Changeling, a famous British drama, at a Waldenbooks. Not only was I told it would take weeks, but my book never came in. Times have changed. The other weekend, I ordered a book at Barnes & Noble, and it came in by the middle of the week.

AAR’s Lee Brewer also orders must of her romance books on-line (from Books-A-Million). She finds it a lot less frustrating than dealing with big chain stores that don’t understand that the word “new” in “new releases” means that people want to buy the books now. Lee also suggests the following steps for bookstores to follow.


1. Stock lots of romance novels – and make sure the newest ones are displayed on the sale date.

2. Instruct staff to be pleasant to all customers who read all genres.


1. Don’t roll eyes, make snarky comments, etc. when people approach the sales desk with $50 worth of romance novels in their arms.”

These should be common sense, but you know what people say about common sense not being common at all.

Questions to Consider:

Have you ever been treated rudely in a bookstore, by either staff or other customers? If so, what happened, and how did you react, if at all? Did you later wish you had acted differently?

Do you have problems finding the latest releases on the shelves of the bookstore, or are your favorite stores good about getting the books out on time? Also, do you find that the books on display don’t always reflect what’s “hot” in romance?

Do you find that the bookstore staff is sometimes confused about where some books should be shelved, whether they are romance or romance hybrids?

Do you sometimes feel that you need a scorecard to keep track of all the new types of romance and romance hybrids? Have you ever picked up a book and found it to be mislabeled? (For example, you were expecting a Romance and got an Erotic Romance – or Erotica – or vice versa?)

Does it seem as though the definition of romance is changing faster than you can keep up with it? Is it all marketing, or do you sometimes or always rely on what the book calls itself on its cover or spine? Have you been or would you be bothered by reading a book that you thought was mislabeled? How do you define a Romance, and has your definition ever changed?

Anne Marble

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