Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bookshops and Romance

When I was in London last week, I checked out a couple of branches of Waterstones (Piccadilly and Oxford Street) to see whether they were promoting romantic fiction. My previous experience with the chain has not been encouraging. Most branches don’t stock my books since I’m published by Mills & Boon. When I ask why Waterstones don’t stock them, I get varying answers but they mostly equate to the same thing. Mills & Boon is…er…not the kind of thing Waterstones sells.

However, I don’t hold grudges. I’m prepared to give the chain every chance to do its bit for romantic fiction and improve its own sales in the process. After all, romance sells millions of books every year in the UK. There’s profit in it. Real profit. So why isn’t it being promoted? What are bookshops so ashamed of?

On the ground floor of Waterstones in Piccadilly, I discovered several bays of romantic fiction. Some was American, some was British, and they even had Mills & Boon contemporaries on the shelves. I was pleasantly surprised. It was sad that the Mills & Boon historicals didn’t have any shelf space but there were a couple sitting on a table, so they were stocked. What a coup, I thought. Progress! And then I looked around, and thought a bit more. The romance section is hidden at the back of the store, round a corner. It’s totally invisible until you stumble on to it. There is no mention of romance on the store directory. There are ceiling-hung indicators to every other category—crime, erotic fiction, gay/lesbian and so on—but there’s no mention of romance anywhere, except on the bays themselves. So how is any passing romance buyer going to know where to look?

There was a big display of romance right next to the door in the Oxford Street branch. It was in two chest-high bays with Valentine-pink labels screaming Romance on top of them. Sadly, I didn’t find any Mills & Boon books there. Certainly no historicals. As far as I could see, it was a display of American books only, mostly in bright poster colours. The books were crammed in, spine-out, with not a single front cover on view. It looked as if someone had thrown handfuls of Smarties at the shelves. I thought it was one of the worst book displays I had ever seen. I can’t imagine it would have encouraged anyone to browse.

When Maxim Jakubowski spoke to the RNA in January, he said that American authors were confident and proud of writing romantic fiction but British authors lacked confidence. There’s something in what he says, I think, but our confidence certainly isn’t helped by some of our major booksellers. I shall keep asking, in Waterstones and elsewhere, why they don’t stock romance properly and why their promotion of it is so lame. I hope you will, too.

Joanna Maitland
getting off her soapbox now (grin)


Michelle Styles said...

Can I just say that you have to be pretty quick to get M&B Hisotrical Romance either at my local Tesco's or WHS. Although other series tend to linger, these are often sold out within two weeks. The special releases go within a few days. Both stores order the same amounts of each line btw.

Anonymous said...

My 2 local Tescos have stopped selling M&B altogether, the Waterstones doesn't sell them or have a romance section and they're set to take over the Ottakars (which does stock M&B). It's all rather sad. It probably means that I'll buy books by authors I already know from Amazon, but I'm less likely to try new authors (I like to read a bit of the book before I spend my money). I did suggest to M&B that they could put excerpts on their website, because that's what the US Harlequin website does, but I didn't get a reply.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a great shame that M&B readers cannot find their favourite books in major bookshops. It's unfair that readers and writers of the genre are treated in such a manner - especially when the books are well written and sell in large quantities! Don't bookshops realise that because of their treatment they are missing out?