Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Essay: International Science Fiction Reshelving Day - A Dick Move

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

A part of me didn't want to write this essay since it draws undue attention to them but somebody has to say it: International Science Fiction Reshelving Day is a dick move.

The instigators might have their have their hearts in the right place and I can sympathize with what their attempting, especially since I'm a genre fan and writer, but their methods is as annoying as rabid Mac fans whose every response to your computer problem is "get a Mac!" (and yes, I'm using a Mac at the office--doesn't make your "recommendations" sound any more reasonable).

To those unfamiliar with the project, here's what it says on their front page:

Join us this November in a new and unique celebration of science fiction and fantasy literature. Many books from our fine genre are regularly placed in the wrong section of bookstores. This not only hides the books from us, but it prevents readers of those books from discovering the rich tradition to which they belong.


On November 18th that changes. We will go to bookstores around the world and move science fiction and fantasy books from wherever they might be to their proper place in the “Science Fiction” section. We hope that this quiet act of protest will raise awareness of this problem and inspire new readers to explore our thought-provoking genre.

Never mind the fact that there are more Fiction readers than Science Fiction readers, thus an author shelved under the Fiction section will probably have a wider readership than if they were shelved under Science Fiction. I don't like this fact but that's reality.


If you dig deeper into their FAQ, you'll find their motivation:

When a genre fiction book is shelved as general fiction, it does a disservice to two types of reason. Those who enjoy genre fiction may not find the book and non-genre readers may not recognize that they might enjoy other books of that genre.

In addition, it reinforced the notion that non-genre books are somehow better than genre books. It does this by suggesting, however passively, that the misshelved genre books are good enough to have escaped the genre sections of the bookstore.

We do not expect to stop misshelving, but we hope to bring attention to the problem. Consider it an act of protest.
Of course in the same FAQ, you'll find out why they chose November 18 as their date:
November 18th is Margaret Atwood’s birthday. Given how well respected Atwood is as a writer and how vehemently she has denied belonging in the science fiction section, ISFRD seemed like an appropriate birthday present.
Not so benevolent now, are we?

But intentions aside, here are several concrete problems this event will cause, should the movement acquire a following:

Inconvenience to Bookstore Staff

Well, it has to be said, a bookstore is like a library in the sense that somebody needs to catalog and shelve the books. And if you notice bookstore racks, there's a certain pattern to how books are shelved (i.e. arranged alphabetically). Unfortunately, while we are strong advocates of science fiction, this does not happen magically.

The organizers of International Science Fiction Reshelving Day are aware of this. In fact, they have a blog entry stating:
A number of people have commented that this project may cause bookstore workers undue hardship by forcing them to put the moved books back. I suppose there is some truth to this. Given that the books are clearly marked by the bookmarks, I am not sure how arduous their task would be, but I concede the point.
I've highlighted some key words in their statement. There is no may or suppose in this inconvenience. You will cause inconvenience, even if you include bookmarks into the books that you shift around (and hey, that bookmarking tactic? It's not stated anywhere on your front page!).

And let me address something here: books do get shelved around the bookstore normally. Sometimes, it's a bookworm who's afraid that the last copy of his favorite book won't be there the next time they visit, so they hide it. Or it might be someone who picks up several books and before they make it to the counter, realize that they don't have enough cash to purchase all of them and so leaves a book or two at the nearest shelf. (Same philosophy goes for libraries.) This is an inconvenience to employees (or at least those who care and are passionate about their jobs). Systematically re-shelving them, especially without informing the said bookstore, will aggravate this problem.

There's also the problem of limited shelf space. If you're going to re-allocate books from the Fiction section to the Science Fiction section (and vice versa), then you'd better be taking out one book (of identical size and shape) for each one you add or else it won't fit. Good luck balancing the numbers.

To be fair, the blog entry has some sensible alternatives. Unfortunately, they also cite some insensible ones. For example:
Move the books, take a picture of them where they belong, and then move them back. You can use the picture to promote the correct shelving (send us a link, please!), which not causing anyone distress (except maybe Margaret Atwood).
It won't work, at least not in all instances. What if someone re-shelved your book? (See my earlier statements above.) What if somebody actually bought the book? How will you know it's the latter and not the former? (And unless you're the bookstore staff, they certainly won't be showing you the receipts.) Better yet, how will the staff know that a book wasn't actually sold or that it wasn't stolen? (Anyone who's worked in retail that the most common method of checking for inventory sales or theft is counting what's available on shelf.) How will the staff know where to look?

It's Costing Both Bookstores and Publishers

There's this thing called Co-Op. Publishers pay bookstores to get placement in a key location. You don't have to like this practice but it's there. So through this re-shelving practice, you're denying publishers of what they paid for and disrupting bookstores' agreement with publishers. The former might even complain to the latter because they're not getting what they paid for.

It'll Annoy The Publisher's Staff and Everyone Under Them

Well, there's actually a method as to why a book is classified under a particular genre (be it Fiction or Science Fiction). If a book is marketed as Fiction and then shelved under Science Fiction, it'll annoy the hell out of marketing (for one thing, the book covers aren't optimized to attract that particular market). It'll also annoy the authors. And really, what is the message of this project? To create "justice" for the science fiction genre by annoying bookstores, publishers (and their corresponding staff), and the authors themselves?

What Happens to the Non-Science Fiction Customers?

I mean they were looking for, say, Michael Chabon's work in the Fiction section and they saw it there the previous day. What happens to them? They'll think it might have sold out so they approach one of the booksellers. But guess what, the said bookseller also can't find it because it's not where it's supposed to be. Will it be considered theft since it doesn't show up in the receipts?

What Do You Hope to Accomplish?

At the end of the day, this is a question you need to ask and spend time deliberating.

If your goal is to annoy Margaret Atwood, congratulations, you've succeeded. But it also begs the question, if you're so annoyed at Atwood, you're causing this strange relationship where she's mad at you because you're labeling her work as science fiction, but she's also thankful to you for theoretically exposing her work to other readers. Make up your mind!

If your goal is to actual promote science fiction, well, you are promoting it, but you're achieving it in the same way terrorists promote their causes. Now I'm not equating this act with actual terrorism. No lives are lost. There might be some damages and financial costs involved, but obviously not on the scale of an actual disaster. But I associate it as such because you're not respecting the other parties involved. That's what peaceful protests are--advocating for change but nonetheless respecting the boundaries of those that need converting. I mean honestly, if you want to draw attention to themselves and achieve maximum impact, just hold an actual protests (placards and all) and not this quasi-secret sabotage that bookstore patrons might not notice. You'll probably get more media attention that way.

You know what International Science Fiction Reshelving Day really is? It's "I want to help Science Fiction but wash my hands free of responsibility". I mean the reason there's this re-shelving is to remain anonymous, instead of walking up to patrons, introducing yourself, and recommending such and such book. I've seen something similar done in other organizations (and why the group suggested bookmarks) such as religious groups leaving their tracts in books. This is as cop-out, and a malicious one at that, no matter "pro-genre" intentions.

Recommending Fiction books that could be classified as Science Fiction? Good idea. Re-shelving books in a bookstore? Very disruptive.

5 comments:

David D. Levine said...

ISFRD has been canceled.

Charles said...

Yep. It happened one day after my post...

Michael M. Jones said...

Huh. I used to work in a bookstore. And if people had come in, and started randomly reshelving books based on where they thought the books belonged, as opposed to what the inventory and computers and manager decree? I'd have been extremely displeased.

Good post.

MrTact said...

Seems like a better approach to address this concern would be to raise a little money, have some "Like this? Then you might also like..." inserts printed, then stick them in genre books found in the fiction section. Or maybe even have them printed in a way where they can be wedged into the shelves but face out.

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