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February 24, 2006

Filed under: fiction»industry»brick_and_mortar

Science Friction

The scifi/fantasy section at the nearby Borders bothers me. In fact, most bookstore SF sections bother me. But the L Street Borders is especially bad, for several reasons.

First, it's being squeezed gradually into a smaller area. The back shelves are gradually being taken over, like kudzu, by manga paperbacks. There are rows and rows of these things, ugly little white books with garish logos in place of titles on the spine. Looking at the manga books, whose consumers seem to be mostly 13-year old girls, I feel old. These are not something I am going to ever enjoy, or even likely understand, in my lifetime. Get off my porch, CLAMP! If I see you brats in my yard again, I'm calling your parents, see if I don't! Why a genre with such a young demographic has three shelves in DC's business district is a mystery to me. Maybe the proximity of GWU has something to do with it.

But even while other genres force scifi over, the books themselves are getting bigger. Trade paperbacks have become fashionable--and why not? I pay $7 to buy The Scar as a regular-sized novel, but $12 for it as a trade. The paper costs are probably lower, and they look thin and sophisticated on a shelf. The fact that it's harder to toss into a bag, or harder to read one-handed, those are not priorities for the printing industry.

Who is this Laurell K. Hamilton chick? I don't know, but I'm thinking I'm going to have to find out, if only because her books have a whole row all of a sudden. These are the novels with the monochromatic covers featuring disembodied female nudes--never a face, just a torso or a set of legs. The cover blurbs read "romantic thrills and erotic chills," which leads me to believe that these are some kind of Harlequin romance fused with World of Darkness fanfiction. The user pics on various Amazon pages for them show both the nudes and bland oil paintings of the generic horror type, so maybe they've shown up in force after a rebranding and fresh marketing push. I shouldn't complain, honestly. At least the books are fairly honest about their contents, and they're still more tasteful than the average dreadful fantasy cover. Sex has always been the awkward, fumbling Achilles Heel of speculative fiction.

But there's a whole series of these. There's a series of StarDoc books. Eric Flint and David Drake write their military scifi series. Everywhere you look, there's a half a shelf being used for potboilers and their sequels. Again, from a marketing point of view, this makes sense. Sequels have established characters and reliable settings. They create repeat buyers. They can be written quickly at a suitable but not excessive level of quality. From a marketing view, spam makes a lot of sense, too. I hate series, or trilogies, or whatever you want to call them. Endings are sublime. Don't stretch it out.

I've never been completely comfortable browsing the science fiction stacks anyway--call it the literary equivalent of a puritan upbringing. So maybe I'm not the best person to be discussing its trends and shifts. I do find it interesting to watch the drama played out on the shelves, as they move and change over time. It's a whole different world from the used bookstores that I usually frequent.

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