Are some genres more equal than others?

I love bookshops. I love bookstalls at charity dos and the second-hand paperback club. I love the book table at conferences. The second and third are informal; the offer is either serendipity or confined to the books written by speakers (and certainly in the case of the RNA) attendees. Running my hands over the spines of books, opening the cover and reading the first paragraphs really is like opening a box of chocolates.

But bookshops give you a glimpse of all-round heaven.

On a recent trip, I noticed how strangely books are offered. I’m not talking the tables or the bestsellers’ or new racks, just the standard shelves of novels for adults. In the London, Tunbridge Wells and Birkenhead branches of a well-known book chainstore, the system was  identical: crime; sci-fi, horror & fantasy; young adult; and authors A-Z. Even a delightful independent, Linghams Books in Heswall, Wirral, followed the same classification.

I often find SF/fantasy next to horror and dark fantasy. Timeslip/time travel and alternate history are jumbled in with steampunk, space opera, the classics like Asimov and Dick and the more literary end of SF e.g. China Miéville. But some speculative fiction such as Margaret Attwood’s dystopias  Oryx & Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale is in the A-Z . That in itself is an interesting decision.

Now, I may hallucinating, but I remember as a kid that bookshops used to subdivide the A-Z section and I could find romance, historicals and thrillers grouped together. Now I have to dig around the A-Z for Katie Fforde,  Ian Fleming, Simon Scarrow and Howard Jacobson.

Maybe it’s because genres are blurring; where does Diana Gabaldon fit? History, romance or SF/timeslip? Maybe it’s because space is limited in retail outlets? The bestseller and new displays attract a lot of interest – I go there myself when I step through the door.  But say you’ve read all the books by your favourite historical writer and you want to find something similar, but by a different author, then you’ll have to search through the entire A-Z.

And if you’re a writer, researching where your book will be placed in the shop once it’s published (and it’s an absolute requirement by agents and publishers that you nail your genre and sub-genre in your submission), if it’s not in crime, sci-fi, horror & fantasy or  young adult then you’re going to be lumped in with A-Z.


Updated 2024: Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

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