March 26th, 2019

Snoopy

Bounding Into Comics vs. Fonda Lee

I got to meet and hang out with author Fonda Lee at the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop a few years back. Recently, Lee was at Barnes and Noble and observed:

“This is what modern fantasy writers are up against. In my local B&N, most authors are lucky to find a copy of their book, super lucky if it’s face out. There are 3.5 shelves for Tolkien. 1.5 for Jordan. Here’s who we compete against for shelf space: not each other, but dead guys.” (Source)

Her Tweets got a lot of attention, leading to an article by John Trent at Bounding Into Comics that derides Lee and accuses her, among other things, of criticizing Tolkien. Not that Lee ever did this. Her second Tweet in that thread said, “Before you @ me about the importance of classics, I love LOTR too, okay?” One might almost suspect Trent’s comment, “Lee isn’t the first person to criticize Tolkien,” of being an attempt to stir up shit.

An effective attempt, it seems. Lee has been barraged by Tolkien Defenders over on Twitter.

Trent opens his article with the claim, “Science Fiction and Fantasy author Fonda Lee, the writer of the Green Bone Saga, decried Barnes & Noble for stocking popular fantasy authors J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan.”

Nowhere does Lee say B&N shouldn’t stock Tolkien and Jordan. She’s complaining that these two authors get 4-6 shelves in the B&N SF/F section, which means other authors are left with little or no space at all.

Back to Trent:

“Fonda then explains the business that Barnes & Noble is in. She describes it as as ‘a place of discovery.'”

Lee’s actual Tweet:

“If you think a bookstore should be a place of discovery, who goes into B&N and ‘discovers’ Tolkien? Do they figure people want another 5 copies of LOTR and aren’t interested in all the other work out there?”

Lee isn’t booksplaining the business Barnes & Noble is in. She’s talking about one aspect of bookstores — discoverability. Nowhere does she say that’s the sole purpose of B&N.

And she’s not wrong. For readers looking to discover new books and new authors, 4-6 shelves of two dead fantasy authors is a hindrance. It also makes things harder for other authors trying to get their own work out there.

All in all, Trent’s article seems less about accurate reporting and more about distorting someone’s comments to sic the trolls on her and stir up a game of, “Let’s you and her fight.”

Numerous commenters are happy to take his bait, attacking Lee as an author, claiming she doesn’t write well and she should try “not to suck.”

Let’s see here… Fonda Lee won the World Fantasy Award, the Aurora Award (twice), had her work named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, SyFy Wire, and — oh yes — Barnes & Noble. She’s been a finalist for the Andre Norton Award, the Nebula Award, and the Oregon Book Award. She won the Oregon Spirit Book Award, and was a YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant YA Readers.

Reader, I wish my writing could “suck” as well as Lee’s!

Now, there is a valid point buried in the article and comments. Bookstores are a business, just like publishers and all the rest. Their goal is to make money, and that means stocking books they believe will sell the best. Tolkien and Jordan sell a lot of books.

But there’s also some chicken-and-egg logic to untangle here. All other factors being equal, an author with a three-shelf display is going to sell a hell of a lot better than an author with one or two books squeezed spine-out on the shelf. Bookstores and publishers choose which books to promote, which books to put face-out, which books to put on table or end cap displays, and so on. All those things help to sell books.

Writing a good book helps a lot too, but let’s not pretend that’s the only factor in a book’s commercial success.

The emphasis on these books also sends a message about what kind of customer B&N is targeting. Lee notes that her store had:

  • 18 copies of Lord of the Rings
  • Only 1 copy of the Nebula- and Hugo-award winning The Fifth Season
  • Only 1 copy of Lee’s own World Fantasy Award-winning Jade City

Three titles isn’t enough to make any statistically sound conclusions. But this doesn’t suggest that B&N is interested in a broader, more diverse range of customers, or that they want customers who are looking to discover newer, exciting authors. It feels like “more of the same” marketing. “If you liked this dead white guy’s fiction, you might also like this other dead white guy’s fiction.”

Barnes & Noble knows books by Tolkien and Jordan are reliable sellers. They’re safe.

It’s a choice. B&N has the right to make whatever choice they want about who to feature and how to fill their shelves. Lee’s comments simply point out that this choice hurts discoverability for both authors and readers. She also thanks independent bookstores, which are often more willing to take risks, to customize their selection for their local readers, and to focus on more than just the safe same-old.

I wonder if that’s one of the reasons for the resurgence in independent bookstores

In the meantime, Lee’s book Jade City has been sitting in my TBR pile for a while. I may need to bump it to the top.