Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Guerrilla marketing: Authors behaving badly in bookstores

Few things are as thrilling for an author as seeing a stack of her very own books on a store shelf. If that shelf happens to be at floor level, however, she'll worry that the store's customers will never see her books--and she'll be tempted to scoop them up and relocate them to a spot where they will be more visible to casual browsers.

I understand the impulse. I've felt it myself. But acting on it is wrong.

My friends occasionally report having spotted my books in stores and moved them to better locations. Thinking they've done me a favor, they cheerfully announce that they put all of my books on eye-level shelves. Naturally, they first had to remove the books occupying those prime spots and stick them somewhere else. Although in one instance, a friend who seemed very pleased with herself told me that she had placed several of my books in front of books with "sleazy" covers.

I see two ethical problems with book-moving by authors and their friends: First, retailers own both the books and the display spaces. They shelve books where they think best (and often, where publishers have suggested or even contractually required). What right has anyone else to move them? Yes, it's possible that the retailers won't mind, but it's shockingly arrogant to assume that they won't--and nobody ever asks. The retailers might want or need to have the books shelved in a particular way, which means somebody will have to rearrange the books after the self-deputized helpers leave.

I mentioned two ethical problems, so here's the second: Placing a book in front of another or swapping books on a shelf is unfair to the authors and publishers of the displaced books. For every book that is "promoted" by these tactics, another book is shoved into obscurity. Anyone who tries to live by the Golden Rule must see the injustice of that. Yet it is authors who do most of the book-moving. I can't tell you how often this subject comes up when my writer friends get together at conferences or online. "I found six of your books at WalMart and moved them to the top shelf," one writer will tell another, and she will be warmly thanked for her consideration.

I have never heard any romance author deplore the practice. Everyone appears to view it as a legitimate form of book marketing. I am sorry to say that even my Christian author friends don't seem to have a problem with it. Everyone does it.

But as my mother used to say, that doesn't make it right.

I'd love to see some dialogue on this subject from the community of romance authors, but I'm not holding my breath. If anyone is aware of an article or a blog post on the ethics of interfering with the placement of books in stores, please drop a link in the Comments. And if anyone cares to copy this post to a writers' e-mail loop to spark some discussion, please go right ahead.


Anonymous said...

As one of those well-meaning-guerillas, I guess I should step up and confess. However, in my defense, I must say that only RARELY do I move your books to a better position--usually I BUY them all.
Consider me duly chastised--I shan't do it again.


Marianne Arkins said...

One of my complaints when that happens is this: if I'm in a store looking for a particular book... I'll look where it belongs- -in the correct genre, and by last name. If I can't find it, I can't buy it. Now, turning them face out, but leaving them where they belong? I'm good with that.

Douglas Cootey said...

You bring up some interesting points. As a reader, I am irritated by books not being where they are supposed to be. I am irritated, as well, by people slipping business cards into books I might buy.

However, stacks of books on the floor is very annoying. When I'm in B&N, I do not crouch down to move heavy piles of books around to see if there's something there that I want. Who has time for that?

My questions are: If a reader of yours spotted your books on the floor in a stack - a very poor place for them to be - what should they do to help you?

If they email you with a heads up, what can you as an author do about it?

It seems to me that unless a better solution is suggested, people will continue "helping" you by strategically putting your books where they may or may not do any good.


Anonymous said...

I hadn't heard of this, but I see where you're coming from.

I get frustrated when I can't find books in the correct space, maybe this is why, someone's moved them.

Hmmmm, perplexing. Good intentions, bad......yes, I see your point.

Jacob said...

I have used guerrilla marketing to try to promote an online writing group I put together with some friends. We have found that honesty is paramount in it being effective. Every attempt to deceive with underhanded tactics has had bad results which ultimately hurt the company.

If it is not honest we should not participate in it.

Sun Singer said...

It's tempting to move the books, but it probably generates bad karma of some kind.


Ella said...

So what about putting something back in its proper spot if you find it out of place? Say, shoved in backwards, or on top of the shelf?

Brenda Coulter said...

[YFS wrote] I must say that only RARELY do I move your books to a better position--usually I BUY them all.

I know you do. And I'm convinced that I have the most loyal and supportive sister in the world.

Douglas, I apologize for not being clearer. By "on the floor," I meant on bottom shelves, especially at stores like WalMart. Most people are aware that any product placed at eye level is going to sell better because more people will see it. I'm talking about people moving books from bottom shelves (or very high shelves) to eye level ones.

If a reader of yours spotted your books on the floor in a stack - a very poor place for them to be - what should they do to help you?

If readers want to encourage me, they can buy my books and share them and talk about them. They can point out my books to sales clerks and customers and say, "I really enjoy that author's work." But as far as moving books or even complaining to stores about how my books are displayed, I can only reiterate that those copies do not belong to me, but to the retailers. And it's really not my business how they choose to display the merchandise they are offering for sale.

[Ella wrote] So what about putting something back in its proper spot if you find it out of place? Say, shoved in backwards, or on top of the shelf?

I don't recall ever having done that kind of thing at a bookstore, but I know I've done it without a second thought at greeting card displays and in department stores and so on. Surely that is merely a small kindness to the retailer, and completely different from rearranging products on a shelf.

Thanks to you all (you, too, Marianne, Lynn, Jacob, and Malcom) for taking the time to comment.

Anthony James Barnett -author said...

I think your moral ground is to be congratulated.

I must say I've never attempted to move books, maybe I'm afraid someone will be spying on me with a camera....

Julie Carobini said...

Methinks there's an overabundance of silence/agreement in here ;) I'd venture to say that many would disagree with you, but not one wants to say it out loud. Just an opinion...

Honestly, though, I turned one of my books out the other day, right in front of the salesman at B&N. We both laughed, and it gave me a chance to tell him about my work.

Anonymous said...


When I see a book that I love hidden - I move it to a better position - not out of range of where it belongs, but visible.

Some of those books will end up in the 'seconds' pile and it would pain me for that to happen to a GOOD book.

So I've been one of those gorillas (ha) too. Shamelessly, until now.

Still to me it's like leaving a comment! THIS BOOK IS WORTH READING!!!

-Chris (sorry don't blog much anymore)

CatMom said...

Hello Brenda: I hope you're okay....just noticing that you haven't posted in quite a while and I was a little praying everything is well at the Coulter household!
Patti Jo :)

Brenda Coulter said...

Patti Jo, thanks for asking. We had a sudden illness and death in the family, and it threw me off blogging for a while. I started posting again this past weekend.

Anthony, you're very kind. Julie, you're probably right that nobody's going to take the other side--especially after I proclaimed that book-moving is morally reprehensible!

Chris, how nice to "see" you again.