Monday, December 06, 2010

Silence of the Mid-List

You are in a grocery store. Your cart is piled high with food and supplies. You walk up to the cash register and have to wait in line. While you’re waiting you have a look around you, at the items on display. Chocolate bars, individual size bags of chips, gum, magazines. Maybe some batteries.

Your child is cranky and starting to whine, so you grab a chocolate bar and hand it to him to keep him quiet.

Ever wonder why there aren’t any apples stacked up close to the cash to temp you at the last minute? Why chocolate bars but no small bags of almonds or cashews? Gum or candy but not grapes?

Next you go to a big chain bookstore. You walk in the door and see racks with labels like “Hot New Fiction” “Everyone’s Talking About” “CEO’s pick”. Hey if the CEO of this company likes these books they are probably pretty good. So you look at a couple see one that looks appealing and buy it.

You bought the chocolate bar and the latest bestseller because of product placement.

In bookstores as well as grocery stores companies play for their goods to be placed in the most prominent positions. Thus chocolate bar manufacturers who have huge advertising budgets buy space to attract last minute purchases. And big publishing houses who have huge promotional budgets buy space in the front of the store to attract book shoppers. Think that CEO has read those books? Unlikely, at least not until the cheque was cashed.

In his book Food Rules, one of Michael Pollen’s guidelines to (re)learning to eat property is to never eat any food product that makes a health claim. He calls this the Silence of the Yams.

The healthiest food in the supermarket -- the fresh produce -- doesn't boast about its healthfulness, because the growers don't have the budget or the packaging. Don't take the silence of the yams as a sign they have nothing valuable to say about your health.

Real food, Pollen argues is healthy. Unlike “edible foodlike substances” it doesn’t need (nor can it afford) expensive packaging or paid-for health-claim logos or desirable product placement.

Now when it comes to books, there are lots of books in the front of the store that are very good. Some bestsellers deserve to be bestsellers. But a lot don’t. A lot of the big-budget books in the front of the store are, I’ll coin a phrase, “Readable booklike substances.”

What brought this all to mind is a recent discovery that a lot of people aren’t aware of this. A friend said to me recently that she thought ALL new books were placed in the front of the store and then rotated towards the shelves at the back as newer books came in.

And this is the problem with the big chain bookstores. Your local independent bookseller (probably now out of business) used to advise you to read such and such a book because they’d read it and liked it. Books and Company in Picton, Ontario near where I live places my books at the front of the store. Not because my publisher has paid them to do so, but because they (I hope) like them and because they believe in supporting local authors. The local big box has my books waaaaaay in the back. Sleuth of Baker Street in Toronto sends out a newsletter in which they discuss the books they liked. Maybe a mega-bestseller. But it might also be from a two-person publishing house.

Next time you’re in a big book store venture into the stacks behind the big display. The ones with signs saying Fiction and Literature or Mystery or Cooking, rather than Books with Buzz or CEOs picks. And choose a book based on your reading preferences. Not what anyone else has been paid to tell you.

Bottom line: Don't take the silence of the mid-list as a sign they have nothing valuable to say about your reading health.


Rick Blechta said...

You hit the nail right on the head. Thanks.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Awesome post, Vicki! And many of us, crunched for time and bombarded by choices, don't take the time to choose for ourselves. Read the back cover, author bio and maybe first page or two. That's the only way to hear past the silence.

Donis Casey said...

Amen, Sister.

Hannah Dennison said...

This post struck a real chord with me. B & N in Los Angeles is a typical example of product placement. What's more, I talked to the CRM about hosting a panel of mystery authors - and he (very apologetically) said "we only cater to celebrity authors." I came away disheartened - especially when the only prominent books by cash registers were either celebrity endorsed or "written" by X. But hey! I live in Lalaland. Great post Vicki.

Linda Leszczuk said...

I guess I'm in the minority as a book buyer. I always walk past the big displays at the front of the store and head to the back to hunt for books I know I'll enjoy.

Vicki Delany said...

Good for you, Linda! Thanks for letting us know.

peter_may said...

A sad reflection of the world we live in, Vicki, but well observed. Personally, I am sick of the "front of house" offerings from "best- selling" authors turning out tired and unoriginal material which publishers know will sell because of the writer's name. The advantage of living in a remote part of rural France, as I do, is that I have to shop for all my books on the Internet. And although there is still a degree of "placement" there, too, I find it easy to ignore and go on to spend happy hours browsing for something that catches my attention.