Geoffrey Long
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Death of physical bookstores = death of genre-ghettoization?

While reading this Mediabistro piece on Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Ford and why genre tags don't matter, I found myself reflecting on Borders' current struggles with solvency. I'd be devastated if Borders and Barnes and Noble went under due to Amazon, just as I've been deeply mournful of all the indie bookstores put under by Borders and Barnes and Noble, but there might be one upside to the disappearance of the physical bookstore: the possible death of genre-ghettoization of authors. As Chabon and Ford so eloquently explain:

Chabon pointed out that the idea that writers would only work within one genre is a relatively new one; look at the range of stories Edgar Allan Poe or Rudyard Kipling told, for example, or Isaac Bashevis Singer. "Singer is unquestionably recognized as a literary writer," Chabon explained, "but is also as much a part of the supernatural literary tradition as Poe." In this vein, Ford recommended that we both pick up Beneath the American Renaissance, a book by David S. Reynolds about the 19th-century popular culture that shaped what we now regard as American literary masterpieces.

"I don't know why it's such a big deal," Ford said of the genre-straddling, to which Chabon replied, "The people it matters the least to are the ones who are doing it. In so many other artistic mediums, it's not weird at all." He cites the career of filmmaker Robert Altman, who went from war comedy to private eye story to western (to take just one short segment) with ease. "The fact that he was working in all those genres--that's standard operating procedure in Hollywood."

Don't get me wrong – the idea of genre will continue to exist, but perhaps this idiotic categorization of authors into only one genre will finally disappear. Characters like Jonathan Carroll who write wonderfully difficult-to-categorize books will no longer be shunted off into just the sci-fi section or the literature section, since one of the most beautiful things about Amazon is that it's so easy to browse freely across books that are simply recommended through similar purchasing patterns.

As it is, the floundering of Borders is causing all kinds of consternation. Allow me to point you to Gregory Frost's recent essay in The Wild River Review, "Books Without Borders", wherein he laments Borders' recent decision to not stock his new novel. A bookstore opting to "skip" a new novel is unfortunately not at all that uncommon – as Andrew Wheeler notes, zero is the default order for any new book – but it's surprising in Frost's case because he's a well-established novelists whose novels are consistently solid-sellers, if not New York Times bestsellers. Frost's not alone – Borders has been slashing its orders on all kinds of authors in a mad struggle to stay afloat, including even Geoff Ryman, according to Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet / Small Beer Press. As Link and/or Grant puts it so perfectly:

[Borders] is sitting tight, not ordering books, trying not to go bust. So, best of luck on the not going bust, might be a bit hard if they're not actually carrying the books people are expecting to find.

I'm torn, myself. Honestly, I think the widespread advent of book-buying online is a great thing insofar as it blows the doors off the amount of great niche content that's made available relatively quickly, and provides access to such special editions as those offered by Subterranean Press and Payseur & Schmidt, as well as a business model for tons of great new up-and-comers in film, comics, books and games all over the world. However, I'm also well aware that there's a serious threat of increased difficulty in making a living at this when it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

What I honestly don't know is how much the new models of online promotion and distribution (including word-of-mouth on blogs, free content distribution and ebooks) will offset the loss of physical copies in bookstores being picked up by people browsing. It might, or it might not – I honestly don't know how long it will be before any kind of definitive answer ever appears. The biggest reason to go with one of the Seven Sisters now is the big rumbling engines of their publicity departments – but if physical bookstores go away, how much will that still matter? And will the CPM on online book sites go through the roof if suddenly physical browsing ceases to be a feasible method by which to find new stuff?

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