Article by LOU ANTONELLI
Back in 2008, when Tor publishing launched Tor.com, they apparently decided to reach out to mainstream media – as opposed to genre outlets – and used an outside public relations company.
I was contacted as the managing editor of an Associated Press daily newspaper, and offered an opportunity to do a phone interview with Tom Doherty. At this point, I had already been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction and Jim Baen’s Universe, among others, so I obviously knew who Tom Doherty was, and I jumped at the opportunity.
My far ranging interview ultimately became a newspaper article which I ran in a weekend edition, as well as another story I sold to the SFWA Bulletin. The Bulletin article focused on Doherty’s role in the genre, and his observations on the changes and turmoil in the publishing industry he’d seen in his long career.
The newspaper article focused on the role Tor envisioned for the web site. In talking about publishing original fiction, Doherty mentioned that those paperback spin racks we used to see in stores and pharmacies were often a point of entry for people to the s-f and fantasy genres.
They used to be ubiquitous – those tall, vertical wire racks that you could spin around to see all four sides loaded up with mass market paperbacks. Doherty noted how the consolidation of book distribution had all but eliminated them. He said he hoped the fiction published by Tor.com would serve the same function as a point of entry for new readers in the digital age.
A few months later, I was reminded of how common those spin racks used to be – and how often you could find science fiction and fantasy titles in them – when in the course of rummaging through some boxes of books I found a paperback copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ “A Tough Guide to Fantasyland” which I bought in the only convenience store in Ovilla, Texas, in 1998.
Back then I owned and operated a small community weekly paper – so small I brought the papers to stores and vending machines myself. One day, as I dropped off copies of The Ovilla Vanguard at the store, I saw the “Tough Guide”, and I was so tickled that I bought if off the spin rack.
Picking it up again in 2009, I recalled what Doherty had said, and how true it was – the spin racks had really pretty much disappeared.
Now, fast forward two and half years, to the summer of 2011. I was scheduled as a panelist at ArmadilloCon in Austin, and one of the panels was on “Secret History”. The Thursday before the convention I stopped at a local Dollar General in Mount Pleasant to pick up some groceries on the way home from work, and while standing in line, I caught sight of a spin rack.
Yes, Dollar General still believes in the spin rack. I walked over and saw that among the books was a copy of Steven Brust’s “The Paths of the Dead”. While I don’t read high fantasy, I bought the book because Brust was on the panel with me.
The following Sunday afternoon, as the panel on Secret History broke up, I stopped and pulled the book out. I told Steve “you know you are a best-selling author when you’re on the spin rack in the Dollar General in Mount Pleasant, Texas! That means your books are sold EVERYWHERE!”
He really got a kick out of that! I asked him to sign the book, too, and he did, with a big smile.
The next time I visited the store, I checked out the spin rack again. This time, it looked like there were a few more s-f books. I found a copy of Kristine Katherine Rusch’s “Paloma”, and then I remembered something Doherty said back in 2008 when I interviewed him.
Not only did spin racks make cheap paperbacks available to the masses, he said, but the men and women who ran the distribution routes made note of what genres sold, and they would restock accordingly.
So I decided to test a theory. If the same principle applied, every time I bought a paperback the person stocking the spin rack should notice.
Bear in mind, these paperback books are only selling for a dollar or three dollars – they have been discounted. I felt it would be a small investment – whether I planned to read the books or not –to support those last lonely spin racks.
I’ve been doing that for four years now. I’ve found plenty of excellent titles, such as the Martin and Dozois “Warriors 3” anthology, “Fugitives of Chaos” by John C. Wright, “The Last Days of Krypton” by Kevin J. Anderson, “Rebel Moon” by Bruce Bethke and Vox Day, and the “Fellowship Fantastic” anthology by Greenberg and Hughes, among many others.
I’ve donated most of them to free book giveaways, a local book store, and, best of all, a group called Books for Soldiers. If you join the group, you can review requests and make up boxes for soldiers who specifically ask for s-f.
Has my plan to boost s-f paperback sales worked? Hah!
Over the past four years whoever was in charge of stocking that spin rack loaded it up with so much s-f and fantasy books that they finally moved all of them to a separate shelf nearby. Now the spin rack has the westerns and romances and thrillers, while s-f and fantasy has shelf space!
This is just one store, but I’d like to suggest that if you do the same, who knows what good may come of it? How can you go wrong?
Earlier this week, I stopped by that Dollar General store again, and as usual looked over the spin rack. Now I have an enormous selection of books to choose from. I saw an anthology I never heard of, another Greenberg/Hughes compilation:
“Zombie Raccoons & Killer Bunnies”.
And yes, once again, I plunked down a dollar and took it home.
I feel somewhat bad for the authors – I know they will get essentially nothing from my purchase at that price, and I know some of them in that anthology personally, such as Jody Lynn Nye and Steven Silver. But in the long run, just getting more and more of these books out to the public has to have a positive effect.
I know many fans and authors who are so broke that spending even a dollar or three dollars hurts, but I would suggest that if you can, these little occasional investments may pay off and help bring back a greater distribution of fantasy and science fiction mass market paperbacks.
My local grocery store recently did an extensive remodeling, and in the process added a shelf for mass market paperbacks. I assume they must have some market information to indicate that, after the slump caused by the advent of digital media, the cheaper, durable and disposable paperback format is making somewhat of a comeback.
Let’s encourage that.