Monday, June 9, 2014

Categorically Crazy

If you are one of my subscribers, you will have noticed that the lists I send you are sorted by category, then author, then title. Those subject categories are supplied by Gale (my wife) and I before I send you the lists. 

We are obsessed with categories. Maybe I could be a better salesman if only I would be a little less obsessed with categories. Of course I don't believe that. I believe that if I have a list as close to perfection as possible it will sell itself. Yes, we are category nuts. 

Subject categories are not as important to the book buying public as they used to be. Before anything could be looked up online by simply entering an ISBN or title in a search field, lists and catalogs were often, if not always, sorted by and presented in categories. Subcategories multiplied and all was easy to find, on paper, on the shelves, or in a sales kit.

For those of us still peddling books the old fashioned way (you know... on web sites, in spreadsheets dropped in file sharing sites, or emailed), categories are still important. We (Gale and I) probably spend over a quarter of our time categorizing lists. The wholesalers that categorize them often make so many mistakes (as we see it) or use nearly useless (we think) categories, such as nonfiction (a non-subject), or a format as category, such as "mass market" or "coffeetable." 

I should not say useless. Lists that indicate "coffeetable" or mass market or nonfiction as subject categories when they are actually formats or otherwise non-subjects, are from wholesalers who have major customers in the big box arena, such as T.J. Maxx, Burlington Coat Factory, Costco, or Walmart. For those customers, subject categories are much less important than the look and feel of a book. Those customers probably never see lists at all and the designations are for the benefit of the sales force who need to select samples to present. 

There are some real gems among the errors. One of my favorites is a list that consistently places sex books in the humor category. And I don't want to forget the history of Serbia in crafts & hobbies, where one could also find a book of recipes for mixed drinks and a test-prep manual for passing an EMS exam. While employing a defibrillator to save is apparently a hobby in some circles, it doesn't pay to try to figure out which categories are right or wrong, so we delete them all and categorize everything ourselves. Besides, we just like ours better, including our own errors. 

We make plenty (and if you see any please feel free to say so). One area that we redo over and over is young adult. If the proclaimed intended audience is 10 years old, but the book is a novel about an autistic boy and how his autism impacts his family and what they do to overcome their challenges, is it children's or young adult? Or, maybe, parenting? I see some great history titles targeted to children's or young adult, which would clearly sell better in the history category. A few years ago I figured out that some publishers were all children's or all young adult. I was so proud of myself until, about a year later, I figured out that I was wrong. I'm still cleaning up the results of that bit of cleverness.

Does a biography of an historical figure belong in biography or history? As a buyer for your bookstore, pressed for time and bombarded by offerings from all sources, are you more likely to ignore the biography section or the history section on my lists? Please tell me because I really don't know.

It's a long term ongoing project and we are constantly finding old mistakes and making new ones, but we think we're making some good progress. We recently started adding serious subcategories to some of the more difficult categories, which will start showing up on some of the lists I send you over the coming months and years. Fiction, for example, can be a lot of different things, and there is so much fiction in some of our lists that it becomes daunting just to make it from Isabel Allende to Virginia Woolf, even if you just focus on the new arrivals and bestsellers. 

Categories on our lists are different than categories on the major book retail web sites. Those are meant to help their customers drill down to the exact sub-subcategory they are looking for, while ours are meant more to help buyers at bookstores find what they need to fill their sections or tables with books that will sell and keep their customers interested and keep them coming back for more. Your customers might or might not know it, but they buy by category, and you know what those categories are.

I hear from some of you that I have too many columns in my lists already, so adding another one for subcategories might mean having to delete one. The link? Many of you asked for it, but I never hear from you so I don't know if it's helping. The awards column? Some of you asked for it, but it is labor intensive and the results seem small. Let me know. 

Less than 48 hours after publishing this post, I've had more feedback than most of my posts have generated in years. And here I thought this was going to be a dud. Who cares about categories? Lots of you, apparently.