Wednesday, July 18, 2012

ReaderCon, SF and Independent Bookstores

This past weekend my husband and I made our annual trek to Burlington, Mass., (actually about 20 minutes from Cambridge) for ReaderCon, that celebration of science fiction and fantasy literature. It's four days of panels, readings, signings and shopping (the dealer room is always a highlight).  I've always gone because I learn a lot; I'm not a hard-core (or even medium-core) SF reader, so ReaderCon is my opportunity to learn about the latest and greatest in the genre and take that back with me to enrich my reading and my understanding of the book world. Working as a bookseller, I had an additional motive- to gather some information that might help the bookstore where I work serve its fan customers.

As I said, the dealer room is a major highlight of the show. Booksellers as well as publishers gather to share and promote their books. The publishers include Small Beer Press, Prime Books, Tachyon, and others; some of them will be familiar to you but many are small presses that will not. All of them have generous selections of their offerings and knowledgeable representatives as well as authors present. Over the course of the weekend, several sessions focus specifically on the year's best books, many from these smaller presses as well as big houses like Random House and HarperCollins. Both the sessions and the opportunity to shop and talk with small presses represent valuable opportunities for booksellers.

The weekend included sessions on the year's best short fiction and novels; Sunday featured the presentation of the Shirley Jackson Awards for horror, psychological suspense and the dark fantastic, and many of the books that make these lists are probably already in the bookstore ripe for display. This year's Year in Novels panel included mention of books like Kim Stanley Robinson's latest 2312, two China Mieville books (Embassytown and Railsea) and Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin. Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf was nominated for a Shirley Jackson award; it's out in paperback now and its sequel, Tallulah Rising, is hot off the presses. The dealer room featured interesting things like Tachyon's The Secret History of Science Fiction, an anthology featuring literary authors like Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem alongside genre standbys like Connie Willis and Robinson and more, as well as the only James Tiptree Jr. short fiction anthology currently in print and gems from Kelly Link, Ekaterina Sedia and others.  Lots of these things folks probably already know about and stock, but there are so many discoveries waiting to be made and seeing them here helps me see them in a new light.

I've only been a bookseller for a short time, but even this experience coupled with a lifetime of book shopping and reading has taught me that many independent bookstores give genre short shrift. A well-stocked general fiction section tended to by literary-bookish staff is wonderful but often other areas, like mystery, romance and science fiction, are scanty at best, stocked with the bestsellers but little else. So what happens to those customers? They go to specialty shops, and shop them loyally, or, in the absence of a strong SF bookstore, they go online, all the while thinking indies don't care about them or understand their needs. I've seen this phenomenon over and over again and I believe there's a real opportunity for general-interest indies to make inroads into the fan community, if only they'll take the time and interest.

I understand that there are constraints. Shelf space is limited. Staff time is limited. Small presses often present unattractive selling terms that make it difficult or impossible for many bookstores to buy from them. But I also believe more can be done. Put George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan on a spinner and fill the shelf with a deeper selection from mainstream presses and bigger small presses, keep a copy of Locus in the staff room and find someone on staff to make a project of the section, including creative displays and events. Promote to the fan community. Small efforts can add up.

I would really love to see more booksellers attend ReaderCon and put all this information to use in their stores, and for ReaderCon to include more people from the local literary community as well. SF specialty stores are rare; independent bookstores have an opportunity to find something different for their shelves and reach out to the fan community through displays, small-press evenings and other events- just by getting to know it better. I'd love to see ReaderCon reach out to independent bookstores in the Boston area especially, since the conference takes place here every year. And I'd love to see booksellers included on panels like the Year in Novels and others, to bring that perspective to the event and build relationships between booksellers and the very knowledgeable critics who routinely attend and participate in the conference. I was surprised to learn how few of the people I know in the local book world even know about Readercon. That should change!


Jenna said...

I was unaware of Readercon!... what a cool experience. Thanks for introducing me to this!

stacybuckeye said...

I love that you came away with great ideas for your store. Your customers will be happy :) It's often the genre readers that are the most ardent fans.

Kathleen said...

You have great ideas about how to advocate for genre readers and books. I think a lot of people think of the big box stores as the devil but they do tend to carry more depth of books because they do have the space. That is why I always shop at indies and at the big box stores when I need to.