So, if you can see what I did to that shelf of books in the photo, you know what this post is going to be about.
One of the things writers talk about is the contract we make with our readers. We say that the contract starts on page one, and it goes something like this:
AUTHOR: This is what this book is about.
READER: YES! I want to read a book about this!
AUTHOR: There is a question that this book will answer, and this is the question. By the last page, you will have your answer.
READER: I want the answer to that question!
And so they keep reading.
But the thing is, the contract doesn't actually start on page one. Before that, someone has to pick up the book, which means they have to be drawn to something that the cover offers, which means it really starts with the cover. (I talk more about covers in my Cover Collection series, here.) But before THAT, they have to get to the shelf. They're wandering around in the bookstore, lost in a sea of random words and images, feeling their bodies deteriorate from lack of sunlight and thinking, "Which of these shelves has the books I want?"
The contract with the reader starts with shelving, folks.
I've come across a few books lately -- books that will remain unnamed, because I don't want to be That Jerk Who Slams Other People's Books -- that have broken that contract. I ended up feeling really disappointed and let down by those books. Actually, that's not quite true -- I was disappointed, but I also realized immediately that these were chapter books masquerading as middle grade, or young adult books masquerading as middle grade (seriously, everybody wants to be middle grade, WHAT IS IT ABOUT MIDDLE GRADE, DO YOU THINK THOSE BOOKS ARE MADE OF UNICORNS?).
And I thought to myself, "Why are they marketing this book to these kids when it is SO OBVIOUSLY WRITTEN FOR THOSE ONES?" And then I put down the books and never picked them up again.
It frustrates the heck out of me.
Why? Because the shelf a book sits on sets up an expectation that a book will meet certain criteria. A book on a middle-grade shelf should have characters who are or who appeal to 8-12 year old kids. They should explore themes in the book that kids in that age bracket are exploring. The same applies to a YA, except you change the age bracket to 13-18 year old kids. (Which is a ridiculously huge bracket that should be broken up, but that is a post for another time.)
Why does this matter? Because 6-8 year olds, and the parents of 6-8 year olds, aren't going to go to the 9-12 section looking for books. Bookstores are super clear with signage. They want their customers to find the books they want, so that those customers will buy those books. Books for 6-8 year olds shelved in middle-grade are going to be picked up, leafed through, deemed "too young", and put down, because 9-12 year olds are the ones looking at that shelf. Graphic novel readers don't go to the Long Novels With No Pictures shelf looking for a graphic novel, and vice versa. If your book is mis-categorized, the people who are most likely to enjoy it are not going to find it.
At first, I thought this was a bookstore error, and I politely and tactfully suggested to the bookstore people that perhaps they had maybe accidentally placed this book or that one on the wrong shelf? This happens sometimes -- a young adult author comes out with a middle grade book, and the bookstore people haven't read the book yet so they stick it with that author's other books.
But usually, the bookstore people tell me that actually, the publisher sets the shelving.
So, authors: please know where your book belongs. I mean, REALLY KNOW WHERE YOUR BOOK BELONGS. Don't assume that the marketing people will figure it out, because that might usually be true, but sometimes they mess up. You have to know. Do your research. Read a lot, in, above, and below your book's intended age bracket. Understand where your book fits into the bigger picture. Understand what is already on those shelves. Be honest with yourself. I mean it: BE BRUTALLY HONEST WITH YOURSELF. Maybe you always wanted to write a middle grade novel, but is this really it? Open yourself to the truth.
And also? If you think your publisher is making a poor marketing choice with your book? Talk to them about it. Because shelf placement is absolutely a marketing choice. Be polite, and tactful, and respectful, obviously. But talk to them about it! Ask them why they are making the choice they're making, if it's a choice you don't agree with. Fight for your book. It deserves the best chance you can give it, and it isn't going to get that chance sitting on the wrong shelf pretending to be something it isn't.