Why Do Stores Still Practice Segregation?

An enjoyable read, but good luck finding it in the romance section!

An enjoyable read, but good luck finding it in the romance section!

Back in the late 90s, when I was still in school, I remember one of my friends raving about a book by science-fiction author Octavia Butler. I wanted to give her a try, so the next time I was in Borders, I went looking in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section for one of her books. To my surprise, I could find no books by this award-winning author on the shelf. I knew Butler had won Hugo and Nebula awards as well as receiving a MacArthur genius grant, so I decided that perhaps the store now classified her as “literary”, and I went looking in general fiction.

I must have looked lost because at that point, a clerk asked me what I was trying to find. When I told her, she smiled and said, “Oh yes. We’ve got several of her books.” To my surprise, she led me back through the store to a small alcove by the bathrooms – and a single bookcase labeled “African-American Literature.” Sure enough, Octavia Butler’s books resided there, shelved in with everything from The Color Purple to the works of Maya Angelou to Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It made little sense, and one reason I remember the incident so clearly is because of how much it bothered me. The store grouped all of the other books in the store by genre and/or subject matter. All these books had in common was the race of their authors, and that grouping made no sense. If a fantasy book by any other author is fantasy first and foremost, why should a fantasy novel by an African-American author suddenly become a work that is first about the author’s race and only secondarily about the type of story written?

While I think we still have a very long way to go, romance and other genres are thankfully seeing more inclusion of characters from a variety of races and ethnicities. I’ve noticed it in eBooks, and in recent years, I’ve seen more from the major print publishers as well. I used to see non-white leads in primarily books from imprints specifically targeted to African-American readers such as Kimani, Arabesque or Dafina, or in Beverly Jenkins’ historicals. However, we have in recent memory had books such as My Nora from Crimson Romance or Selena Montgomery’s romantic suspense novels from Avon, both of which feature African-American leads. Vicki Essex’s novel Back to the Good Fortune Diner was published by Harlequin Superromance and features an interracial romance with an Asian heroine. Not suprisingly, Jeannie Lin’s Tang Dynasty novels also feature Asian leads, and Harlequin has also been publishing novels by Indian author Shoma Narayanan as part of its Harlequin Romance and KISS lines.

While diversity of characters has slowly started to creep into romance publishing(which could still stand to pick up the pace, but that’s a column for another day), stores and libraries still fall behind in their response. Books published in the various Harlequin lines because many stores have dedicated shelving for those particular series lines and libraries will often have a separate area for series romance paperbacks. However, if I want to read a Beverly Jenkins historical or something from the Kimani line or which has been published by Dafina, I still need to head over to the African-American literature shelf.

And it’s not just African-American romance that gets the segregation treatment. I got curious recently, and checked out 10 bookstores that I happened to pass in my travels(4 Barnes & Noble, 3 Books a Million, 1 UBS and 2 Indies). All of them had romances by African-American authors shelved away from the romance section – as did my local library. And I noticed something else as well. While m/m and f/f romances are still most widely available as eBooks, the few out in paperback were all shelved in LGBT literaure sections (or as one store so charmingly called their shelf, “Homosexual Literature”) rather than with romance. When I asked a few store managers why they shelved their books this way, the answers showed disappointingly little reasoning as they ranged from “I just shelve where corporate tells us to” to “That’s the way I’ve always done it.”

I have to say that I just don’t agree with the segregation. Authors who are not white or who write about gay characters are no less romance authors. By segregating their books from other romance, stores send a message that these authors are somehow Other and that they don’t fit in with the romance genre. This hurts readers as well. After all, it’s hard to have that moment of chance discovery with an author like Farrah Rochon or J.L. Langley on the romance shelves when stores won’t even put their books there.

Some authors take a dim view of bookstore segregation as well. In 2010, fantasy author N.k. Jemisin wrote a piece entitled, “Don’t Put My Book in the African American Section.” You can probably hazard a guess at her view on the subject. In her blog, Jemisin makes it clear that she does not like the African-American fiction section in stores and libraries and she sees it as a racist creation.

Similarly, in 2011 blogger Robin Bradford (aka @Tuphlos in the Twittersphere) wrote about frustrations with the AA section in libraries as well. As Bradford points out, ” I’ve never had anyone come in for Victoria Christopher Murray and leave with Zane because they’re both black. I’ve never had anyone come in for Jan Karon and leave with Laurell K. Hamilton because they’re both white.” In her piece, Bradford goes on to interview romance author Farrah Rochon, and it’s an interview well worth reading. Rochon makes a number of very good points from observing that she and many other readers like to read books featuring a wide variety of characters and cultures to the fact that segregating authors away from the romance section limits those authors’ exposure and by extension, their sales.

Over the years as I’ve been reviewing and blogging, I’ve met a lot of romance readers and I know for a fact that they come in all ages, sexual orientations and from all races and ethnicities. We live in a diverse world of readers, so the idea that bookstores and libraries would still judge books and authors by race or sexual orientation first, marking some as Other rather then including them with rest of the romance genre goes over like a lead balloon with me. We can do so much better.

- Lynn Spencer

25 thoughts on “Why Do Stores Still Practice Segregation?

  1. I’ll have to check the local B&N next time I visit, as well as my library to see if the same thing is going on.

  2. It never occurred to me there would be a separate section. I’d never think to look for one so it would decrease sales for people just browsing their favorite genre.

    • Exactly! I’ve run across this more than once and it really blows my mind that this kind of thing persists. I remember the first time I reviewed a Beverly Jenkins historical, I liked the book and wanted to try another and it took me forever to track down her backlist because Borders and B&N would not shelve her in romance. I checked recently, and the local B&N still doesn’t.

  3. I don’t see African-American or LGBT sections as segregation per se; I see them in the light of a service to help find the few of these books that are being published and/or shelved, instead of being forced to search all throughout the various kinds of fiction sections to find them, especially when you’re looking to find a new author to try. The segregation IMO is in how relatively few of these books are published/shelved in the first place– IOW, the lack of proportion. But, I do indeed understand the other POV.

    About review sites and blogs: It’s still a major annoyance that boards with an obvious style for capping titles continue to lowercase verbs, as in “Do” in the title here. Or the verb “Is” in too many places to count. The pronoun “It” is often incorrectly lowercased too. Since it’s fairly consistent, we’re not talking about just typos either, especially with titles that you’d think the writer would give a second look or get an informed second opinion.

    On the up side, however, many have trouble telling when a preposition is acting as an adverb, so I was happy to see Wendy’s recent review capped just right: “All Out of Love.”

    Sorry, but I just expect more from those who spend the time to compose an article directed at readers yet who continue to “…often lowercase all two- or three-letter words in a title because they’re short, and many articles, prepositions, and conjunctions—most of which should be lowercased—are short, as well. However, short words can be nouns, pronouns, and verbs, etc., which should be capitalized. Part of speech is more important than length when it comes to determining capitalization in titles.”

  4. I used to be a bookseller at B&N. They did not shelve African-American fiction separately from other fiction, in any of the genres. However, there usually was a table labelled Urban Romance, which contained a lot of the most popular African-American romances.

    On the other side of the spectrum, many of the customers came in looking for the African-American fiction section, and were unhappy that we did NOT segregate our authors. We directed them to the table, but stressed that most of the books would be in the correct section, regardless of race.

    • That’s good to hear. I wonder if that is something which differs by region because I definitely haven’t encountered it in my area. Hopefully it will be coming our way soon.

  5. I’m a Reader’s Advisory Librarian, which means that I’m responsible for (among other things) the fiction section, setting up diplays, booklists, etc.

    In the over three decades I have been a librarian, I have never, EVER, had a separate “African American” or “LGBT” section or genre designation. N.K. Jemisin gets a “Fantasy” label; Mark Zubro gets a “Mystery” label; and Terry McMillan and J. L. Langley get “Romance” labels.

    Now I have done *displays* and *booklists* of African-American and LGBT (and female and Latino and Asian-American and…) authors, because I do get asked for them; usually in the respective “Whatever Heritage Month”, when the poor students are assigned to “read a book by Whatever kind of author.”

    But I always start with asking, “Well, what sort of book do you usually like to read?” and the answer is almost always “science fiction” or “historical” or some other genre, and then I work from there.

  6. Just had another thought: I wish there were more time/space for stores to sub-categorize, for instance historical, contemporary, paranormal, and so on. Which then led me to think about Amazon, so I visited to remind myself what was done there.

    Under the general “Books” tab, one can find “Gay and Lesbian,” and under the “Books/Romance” tab, one can find “Multicultural.” I for one appreciate the extra sub-categorization help since I’m currently in a western reading phase, which Amazon makes so much easier with its “Western” category.

    And if Multicultural is a problem, why isn’t Inspiration considered a religious problem, or Erotica a sexual problem?

    Goodreads goes a little further with its categories on African-American, Interracial, Lesbian, M/M and so on.

    And isn’t that done here in a different area in Special Titles such as Medieval Romances, Regency Romances, European Historical Romances, American Historical/Frontier Romances? Don’t readers want extra help?

    If sub-categorization is a problem for stores, why not for online too? Who decides? I’m just curious and thinking the whole topic through.

    • I think they are all a problem to some extent if the segregation is exclusive. I don’t go to bookstores much anymore because I buy ebooks almost exclusively now. However, so many of the new-to-me authors that I tried were in the genre section I was perusing at the time, not in a separate section. I understand the sub-genre idea as far as separate sections go. Some people do exclusively read LGBT or AA or Inspirational. So in a way, it does make sense to segregate them for customer ease. However, having a separate section does not preclude also having these sub-genre books included in the sections of the major genres as well. So an Inspirational Romance can be in the Religious Literature section AND the Romance section (if the stores have more than one copy). I actually got back into Romance because I was looking for a Pride and Prejudice sequel (Amanda Grange I believe). It was shelved in the Romance section and it was near Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. If the P&P sequel had not been placed there, I never would have discovered Gabaldon.

      Amazon’s recommendations serves the same purpose I think. My reading history generates suggestions and this can lead to different sub-genres. So I may get an LGBT, AA or Inspirational romance suggestion just because my reading history is heavy with romance.

  7. In colleges we teach women’s literature as a separate course, and we teach gay and lesbian studies courses separately, as well as African-American literature, etc. Why? Because minorities still feel the need for distinct courses that can respond to unique problems and issues in our society. When those programs get dismantled, as recently happened in Arizona, they get subsumed into general studies where they are perhaps allocated one week of a semester in a general education course, which is hardly enough time to examine these important problems sufficiently. If one wants to examine minority issues in more depth, programs such as African-American studies provides for that. Minority groups have been conflicted too over the separation of their literary works in bookstores as this comes up in classes frequently. Even when they are categorized separately, where in the store should they be located? Should they bushed to the back or right up in front or somewhere in the middle? I think that as long as we have polarization, we have to have separate categories, especially if the “segregation” is serving a beneficial purpose, which I think it actually is in the bookstore case.

  8. I am a librarian in a very large municipal library system. I can share that in our system, fiction is organized by author, period, on the fiction shelves. On occasion a special display will be put up along a theme, such as culinary fiction, environmental fiction, romance, etc. The only “segregation” we have in our library is the uncatalogued paperback section, from which donated paperbacks can be borrowed on the “honor” system.

    That being said, some libraries in our system – not all – choose to ‘help’ their customers find genre books in the fiction section by stickering the spines with a label. My current library, which is 70,000 sq. feet, does not. At a former work location, books in basic genres such as fantasy or mystery were stickered as such. This was helpful for some customers who wanted to try a new book in a genre they liked, and exposed them to new authors they wouldn’t have found otherwise. “Urban fiction” was a sticker we ended up having to add based on customer demand – but that certainly does not mean that authors like Zora Neale Huston or N. K. Jemisin received the Urban Fic sticker. We used Library of Congress MARC tags and our best judgement to decide what, and what did not, get stickered. I think it was a decent system, although I prefer not having any stickers at all. (Less messy!)

    • I think that makes sense. That’s basically what the library back in my childhood hometown would do. It was only later as I moved away and spent time in other places that I began to see some of the other ways of organizing, including sectioning books off by genre or other designations (I was once in a small library where everything from Margaret Mitchell to Pat Conroy was shelved in a “Southern Fiction” section.) I see what you mean on the stickers, though. I’ve read many a book where the genre sticker on the spine had migrated with age and made the spine sticky.

    • Our library uses the Urban Fiction stickers as well, at patron request. One library was having so many complaints about not having an Urban Fiction section that it had to be created. However, it is not an African American section, it is Urban Fiction. We had to write out a definition of what constitutes that genre and then select books accordingly. So, Girls From Da Hood 4 goes in Urban Fiction, while Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, etc stay with Fiction.
      I like the stickers, although they can get out of hand. Our patrons have grown to expect stickers for everything under the sun. If they had their way, every book would have a sticker – romance, inspirational, urban, paranormal, etc.

  9. I have to look at our bookshops in Spain in order to see what sections they have. I think that novels are usually stored in no more than four-five categories: Literature (general)/Historical/Romance/Black (mysteries, suspense, thrillers). Literature is shelved by the author’s family names.
    As you can imagine, we don’t have an AA section. Or a section dedicated to any minority (I think a ‘Gypsy’ section, for instance, would be considered offensive). And I don’t remember any ‘LGBT section’ either. Ann Banon books for instance, are usually included in the Romance section.
    So I’m used to see books stored just by genre.

  10. I’m reading this with interest because I actually work in one of those bookstores that still has an AA fiction section. I’m in a pretty diverse area and I have mixed feelings about it. Some AA customers come in and go right to that section but they’re pretty much the only ones who go there. Seems like other readers are missing out by having those books separated since I have readers of pretty much all races hitting the ROM section. I don’t totally hate having an AA section but I wouldn’t fight too hard to keep it separate either.

  11. I worked in Waldenbooks for many years, and we also had an AA fiction section. Our customers would ask where it was, and we actually created it because they seemed upset when we said we *didn’t* have a separate section and they would have to look by genre.

  12. Is the term “afro” still used as an adjective regarding literature? I used to work at a UBS back in the mid nineties, and I learned the term there from an African American customer. I know I must have looked like an idiot at first, because before I realized what she meant I was thinking she was asking for something like 70s blaxploitation.

    That store chain didn’t segregate by race, unless for maybe an occasional display – except for romances and erotica. They still do this today. I don’t know why. Courtesy or racism? Its an interesting question.

  13. I was militantly opposed to the AA section until a friend argued with me that it was the place where she went to find books that directly spoke to her needs. She got tired of wading through tons of books whose characters were predominately white to find one that was ‘of color’ and liked the fact that our local Walmart had an “Urban” section where all the books were ‘of color’, (her phrase, btw.)

    After that I thought about having to wade through the library looking for my favorite romance or mystery, since they have all their fiction books shelved together in alphabetical order by last name, and I came to the conclusion that there is some truth to her argument: having a particular minority “segregated” does serve some purpose for those who are actually looking of it. Too bad it keeps the rest of us from finding them.

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  15. We do get a lot of people asking for the African-American fiction section at our library. We don’t have a separate section (neither do we have a section for romance or mystery, though we have spine stickers). However, one of the librarians makes a list of all the African-American authors in the library system, divides it by genre and marks the authors for whom we don’t have a genre label but have a specific interest (inspirational fiction and urban fiction). That list is a Godsend and seems a good compromise.

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  17. What’s interesting is that mystery novels tend to already have included diverse characters and leads.Take James Patterson for instance with Alex Cross and P.J. Parish for Louis Kincaid – both white authors with leading characters who are black or half black as Kincaid appears to be. Wasn’t Charlaine Harris called out for not having enough or any blacks in her books set in a small town in Louisiana? How realistic was that? I think I did read that somewhere but Alan Ball more than made up for that in his adaptation of her series in HBO’s True Blood. When I started shopping in bookstores, it did throw me for a loop that they would put all the AA literature, romance, etc on one shelf. Nowadays though, I’ve seen the AA romances shelved with the rest at B&N. Still, there’s a lot that needs to be done.

  18. I work in a branch library and I shelve all my African-American Authors together, just as I shelve YA together. The reason is my African American readers like being able to find the authors they like in one place! Not to say that all AA people read only AA authors, they don’t. I just consider this a courtesy to my readers. Since I’ve been shelving this way, my readership of AA titles has gone way up.

  19. The whole issue I have with being able to find authors with the same ethnicity that you are, is the fact that if you know how books are shelved you would know to look for the authors last name. So in truth, the same way someone is able to repeatedly find their European author, would be the same way you would find your POC author.
    I understand labeling genre, but when it comes to race I sincerely think it’s a cope out to have separated races. I personally like to see a slew of races, not cherry picked ones with POC shoved somewhere in the back into utter obscurity.

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