Spinner Racks

December 7th, 2007

Tom Doherty’s blog on the vanishing mass market paperback should be required reading for anyone who is serious about writing genre fiction (or fiction generally, or anything generally, actually). Disclaimer: Tom is the Publisher and President of Tor Books, and I was his assistant for nearly five years. Tom knows mass market publishing better than just about anyone, and more to the point, he is passionate about publishing and books. Not book-shaped salable widgets, not product, but books.

For years Tom has talked about the diminishment of the mass market in places like supermarkets and drug stores. We used to swap stories about the allure of the spinner racks. When I was a teenager and we’d moved out of New York City and into rural Massachusetts, the drug store was my life line to genre fiction. The local libraries didn’t have much by way of SF or fantasy–lots of historical fiction, Regencies, romances of every stripe, but SF and fantasy were still a sort of untouchable literary caste. But in the drugstore there were spinner racks, and every month I’d go (I got so I knew when the stock would be refreshed, and show up that afternoon) and pick up as many new paperbacks as my allowance would permit (in the days when books were fifty cents to a dollar and a quarter you could actually do that). I encountered Suzette Haden Elgin, Damon Knight, Philip K. Dick, Donald Barr, Robert Silverberg, Terry Carr’s wonderful Years’ Best anthologies, as well as Asimov and Heinlein and Herbert and other Usual Suspects. I found writers I would not necessarily notice today because of the sheer volume of SF and fantasy books that are out there. When there are four genre books a month on the racks it’s easier to buy all four; I didn’t worry about whether a book was my kind of SF because I was so happy to have any SF at all. I was forced by circumstance to read whatever there was, and I was the richer for it.

I love bookstores. I loved bookstores when I was a teenager but even then I bought differently at Barnes and Noble or B. Dalton than I did at the drugstore. I’d encounter a new writer at the drugstore, and after that seek that writer’s work at the bookstore. The books from the spinner racks were the doorway drug that led to the harder stuff. Nowadays when I buy a book it’s most likely on a recommendation from a friend, or it’s by a writer I already know, or something I’ve seen reviewed. What I don’t get too often is surprises, that great feeling of opening a book with no idea of what I’d get. Of course some of it was lousy, but a lot of it was at least entertaining, and some of it was really good.

How do you find new books? Do you get any surprises? I think Tom’s right, that the demise of the spinner rack has a lot of impact on my career, on the sorts of people who might once have picked up a book of mine from the spinner rack but now don’t get a chance to do so. There are other ways to get in touch with potential readers (this blog, after all, is one of them). But that surprise is rarer and rarer, and I, for one, don’t know how to replace it.

10 Responses to “Spinner Racks”

  1. Lois Tiltonon 07 Dec 2007 at 11:30 pm

    Between my first published novel and my second, all the racks disappeared from the drugstore.

    As did I

  2. Brendan Podgeron 09 Dec 2007 at 6:36 am

    One of the places I pick up new authors these days is the remainders bin out the front of news agents and book stores. There is always a risk with these since there is often a reason the books are selling 3 for $15, but I have picked up works that have treasured places in my shelves.

  3. Madeleine Robinson 09 Dec 2007 at 1:37 pm

    I have to apologize for the lack of paragraph breaks in this post, BTW: Safari and Word Press are having a power struggle. Will attempt to rectify.

    later: Aha! Got it!

  4. Carol Bergon 11 Dec 2007 at 12:09 pm

    As one who bought her first books from drugstore racks, I lament with you (and Tom). Truly we are overwhelmed with easy access to entertainment media – much of it mediocre, yet undeniably good stuff buried in there, hard to find. And books are not cheap. I suppose it’s no wonder many people go for “safe” in reading as they do in chain-produced food. Time and dollars are tough to risk. But it’s a sad thing for readers, and new writers, and those of us in the murky lands of “not quite a sensation”-dom.


  5. Stacyon 11 Dec 2007 at 12:11 pm

    I think today’s consumer doesn’t want to be surprised. They want what they want, and only buy what they want, and use the Internet to find it. The new spinner rack is your amazon.com recommendations.
    I had a lot of good luck at the library when I was young. If you squint and look at the “young adult” section it’s all fantasy and science fiction, and my local library had a decent adult scifi/fantasy section as well (it helps if Nancy Kress is a local writer.)

  6. Charleson 11 Dec 2007 at 5:08 pm

    The drugstore was my introduction to books and LPs. The main drugstore near our apartment when I was a kid had an entire separate section devoted to albums, comics and spinner racks of genre books.

    Afterwards, when I was back in the Bronx I could hop on the bus on Jerome Ave and take it up to Cross Country Mall, go to the book store, buy an Andre Norton book and head back to the Bronx, stop and eat a slice and head home, all for under $10.00.

    These days, I find books by recommendation and from periodic trips to Amazon as well as the websites of some of my favorite publishers.

    I’m glad for all of the online sources. Where I currently live down south, I’m a 45 minute drive away from a mediocre book store and about an hour and a half away from a nice Borders.

  7. Christine Lorangon 14 Dec 2007 at 4:18 pm

    I’m 31 and theoretically old enough to be part of this golden age of spinner racks, but I’ve never bought an SF book at a grocery store or drugstore. When I was young enough to go the the store with my mother, I didn’t have any money of my own and the books were too long for me anyway. Later, I was too old to be shopping with Mom and too young to go by myself. This was a suburban environment where it was impossible to walk to the store, or even the nearest bus stop. By the time I had a driver’s license, my family had moved to Spokane, where the local tastes did not encourage sf on the spinner racks. I escaped Spokane in 1994, but I didn’t have a car. And the next year, although I didn’t know it at the time, Safeway decided to consolidate wholesalers.

    So how did I find books? My mother took us on regular trips to various bookstores, where she was forced to give me strict limits lest I buy everything in the place. We went to the public library a lot, and I had a particularly good school librarian in Junior High. My surprises mostly came from the library, then I would go buy more by the same author.

    Obviously there are problems with this system. A reliance on libraries, for example, could make it hard for new authors to get a toehold. But because of my personal experiences, I’m hopeful that the book industry can survive the demise of the mass market paperback.

  8. Daniel Woodson 14 Dec 2007 at 6:33 pm

    I think I’m quite lucky – my local bookshop always seems to have new authors on the shelves, as well as my old favourites. I think it’s the exception, rather than the rule – I’ve yet to find another that has such a good selection, even in much bigger stores (even ones of the same chain [Waterstones, much as I am annoyed at them for swallowing Ottakar’s]).

    Other than the occasional glance at my Amazon recommendations, I’ve never had to go anywhere else for a surprising new read.

    Then again, my bookshop staff don’t mind when I stand at the shelves for hours on end, opening and reading books at random to get a feel for them. In my experience, that isn’t always the case.

    Come to think of it, it’s also hard to keep up with what’s going on over in America, since some American authors don’t (as far as I know) get published over here. I never would’ve discovered Carol’s ‘Bridge of D’Arnath’ series, for example, if someone hadn’t said ‘oh, and the new Carol Berg’s almost out’ in a forum. I really enjoyed that series, and I suspect that there are many more books / authors out there that I would love, and may not ever discover. Hmm.

    (I have, of course, just shot myself in the foot if Carol is published over here too, but you get the idea :p)

  9. Gyp Orienson 03 Jan 2008 at 7:34 am

    I am not part of the spinner rack generation. New sf/f books always came to me through my grandmother, who has bought/buys almost all the sf/f genre books in existence, my father, who has grown attached to certain authors, or the library. From time to time I pick up a random book from the bookstore that looks good and read it, but as y’all have said, it costs to much money to do that nowadays. Even in paperback.

    So I stick to the classics. I’ll go off and buy only the kinds of books that I will read over and over again…

    I’m really picky when it comes to what I will read, and I guess that’s just part of today’s culture where we get to control our entertainment in very detailed ways. When I do find an author I like, though, I buy all I can from ’em.

    When I grew up, I never needed a bookstore. My parents have a library all their own, all the books they’ve amassed over the years. I was never in want for something to read, unless it was something specific we didn’t have.

  10. madeleine robinson 03 Jan 2008 at 1:19 pm

    So I stick to the classics. I’ll go off and buy only the kinds of books that I will read over and over again…

    See, that’s part of (from my perspective as a writer) the problem. If I only get read by people who’ve read my stuff, or who are reassured by some factor that this is a book that’s safe (in the sense of being something they’ll read over and over again) for them to read, it’s likely that my sales will dwindle. As a writer, I want my readership to grow, and that’s where spur of the moment, gee-didn’t-I-read-something-about-this book choice comes in.

    (My parents too had a huge library (at least by the standards of the town I spent my adolescence in), and I read much of it–classics, mysteries, historicals, potboilers. And I went to the library religiously. I wasn’t in want of something to read, but when I wanted something they didn’t have, I found it at the drugstore.)

    I think one of the things that has changed in my reading habits from age 14 to age 54 is that I no longer read an entire book if it loses me in the first 100 pages. When I was young, my time less fragmented and my brain more focused, I could read eight or nine books a week, rip through ’em like Sherman through Atlanta, and not care if some of them were crappy and some were brilliant. It was all grist for my particular mill. Now if I pick up a book and it fails to intrigue me, I put it down, return it to the library, sell it at a garage sale. (Garage sales may be the closest I currently have to the spinner racks, but they’re unreliable.)

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