Though independent bookstores aren’t known for stocking a wide assortment of genre fiction titles, booksellers are finding that genre fiction can have a large payoff. By developing genre sections, they are able to boost sales and increase their customer base. As McKenzie Workman at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., asked, “If somebody is looking for something to read, isn’t it your job to put it in their hands?”
Workman, who buys romance for all five Powell’s locations, said the biggest change she has seen in her seven years on the job is a different attitude and tone around romance books: “When people used to talk about romance, the picture in their mind was their grandmother or spinster aunt, but that’s not true anymore.” With new interest among readers, Powell’s had to change its approach, adding books and events to meet their needs.
“We have a million books,” Workman said. “But if we can’t tell you where to find romance books in the store, we can’t ask you to stay or come back.”
L.A.’s Ripped Bodice, the only dedicated romance bookstore in the U.S., has been one source of inspiration for Workman as she explores new ways to reach romance readers. Following a pilgrimage to the store, she helped Powell’s host an Avon Kiss-Con with readings and a happy hour, and she added more titles. Though romance remains one of the smallest sections in the downtown Portland store in terms of shelf space, sales are proportionally higher than any area other than children’s books.
As at many indies, mysteries have been the source of most genre sales at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Mont. “We’ve had a rabid mystery readership for years,” said events coordinator Jessica Hahl, who joked that the section’s success is due to the fact that “it gets dark early, and it’s cold all the time.”
After attending a session on selling romance books at last year’s Winter Institute, Hahl realized that she was missing out on sales in other genres. This past year, she added a dedicated romance spinner rack in the fiction section, for which, every three months, local romance writer Jennifer Ryan curates a rotating set of four picks as part of a program supported by Avon.
Hahl also added a new case of sci-fi/fantasy books to the two the store already had. She stocked the extra shelf space with books for women ages 25–35, who had been raised on YA novels and were looking for a range of sci-fi/fantasy titles for older readers. “You know, there are books that have been published since Dune,” said Hahl, who also fits that profile. “We started reading genre fiction because we were looking for women who did things, had agency, had more than five words in a book. They speak themselves instead of being spoken to.”
Hahl uses the same approaches for selling sci-fi/fantasy books as she does when selling YA. “With YA, a lot of times I’ll describe a book without mentioning that the main character is a teenager,” she said. “With sci-fi/fantasy, I won’t mention that the character has webbed feet or is green or lives in a magical world with unicorns.”
For the team of booksellers at Savoy Bookshop and Café in Westerly, R.I., the goal is to get non–genre readers to read genre fiction. Science fiction and fantasy books are given prime placement near the front windows, along with a new and growing horror section. Bookseller Jess Wick said the store attracts new readers by having a balance of old standbys and crossover titles to ease people into the section.
Manager Kelsey April uses Edelweiss Plus Analytics to study which titles move and which don’t. She emphasizes that straightforward dedication to hand-selling has the biggest impact on sales. For
booksellers, she said, “the obvious big thing is, read genre fiction and make it a thing.” She added, “Then, when we’re hand-selling, we’re not saying, ‘I know this may not be your cup of tea…’ You just have to dive into it. We say, ‘This is a really amazing book.’ ”
Manager Meg Wasmer and bookseller Julie Karaganis’s preference for genre fiction has influenced the inventory at Cabot Street Books Cards in Beverly, Mass., part of HugoBookStores. Their reading taste, which tends toward fantasy, science fiction, and romance (especially the subgenre of paranormal romance), has strengthened their confidence that other readers will trust their choices.
Wasmer said, “I’ve had adults ask when I’m going to start reading grown-up books.” But those readers miss a crucial point, she noted: that there are many people who come to the store specifically for genre books. She’s unwilling to lose those customers to other retailers such as Amazon by not stocking the books they want.