Assessing and Developing Genre Collections

by Robert Perret, adapted from the presentation Beyond
Bestsellers (Perret, 2013)

Genre fiction is a large part of our library collections and a great tool for building reader interest and sustaining patron loyalty.  Yet collection development and reader advisory for genre collections is often glossed over in library school (Adkins et al., 2008).  There is also a dearth of published research in this area of librarianship, certainly not enough to qualify as a sustained dialogue within the profession (Thompson, 2010).  Yet research has revealed that readers identify with and desire genre fiction (Iyengar et al, 2009).  Further, voluntary reading is significantly correlated with other positive behaviors like being twice as likely to exercise, play sports and engage in outdoor activities and three times more likely to volunteer and to engage in creative activities (National Endowment for the Arts, 2006).  Research has also revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that voluntary readers are better readers, better writers, and better test takers who are less likely to drop out of school and more than twice as likely to earn at least the median income in the United States (National Endowment for the Arts, 2007).  Researchers have also found that the type of reading material doesn’t matter; as long as one is an engaged reader these ancillary benefits follow (Applebee et al, 2003).

So what is genre fiction?  The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Baldick and Baldick, 2008) defines it as:

The broad class of fiction that is easily identifiable as belonging within any of the recognized genres, especially of popular novel or romance, such as science fiction, detective story, thriller, western, historical romance, or love story. Genre fiction, then, is the kind of story that offers readers more or less what they would expect upon the basis of having read similar books before, whereas its presumed opposite, now increasingly referred to as ‘literary fiction’, is expected to go beyond generic boundaries and offer more original imaginative exploration.

This narrow (and arguably snobbish) view of genre fiction is rooted in traditional genre materials, where the author hews to a standard plotline, keeping it fresh by changing the window dressing.  For example, in a traditional Western we expect an innocent party to be menaced by a black hat-clad evil-doer, and then rescued by a gold-hearted do-gooder who is passing through town.  The details (is our innocent party a school marm or a town of embattled peasants?  Will our romantic leads look at each other with stoic longing or engage in a barn-shaking roll in the hay?  Will our villain meet his end at the bottom of his own mine shaft or on Main Street at high noon?)  provide just enough novelty to keep the same plot interesting.  This underlying uniformity, say both proponents and critics, makes beloved genres seem like mental comfort food.  However, thinkers as diverse as Aristotle (et al, 1997), Georges Polti (and Ray, 1977), and your humble author are quick to point out that even the most painstakingly wrought prose or avant-garde narrative is really beholden to a relatively small number of ur-plots.  So the difference between genre and literature may be more style than substance.

Beyond that, in the post-Internet age of mashup culture the definition in the Oxford Dictionary is simply starting to look dated.  Our patrons aren’t viewing genre through your grandfather’s classification system anymore.  Thanks to the constant search for novelty in a postmodern world, remix culture has made it difficult to determine if the traditional genres have split into thousands or merged into one.

Our cowboys are just as likely to rely on steampunk gadgetry as gumption.  Our heroines are less likely to swoon than to slay zombies while romancing a werewolf and serving as the commander of an alternate reality moon base.  “Serious” authors like Cormac McCarthy and Umberto Eco are borrowing genre tropes for their literary works while genre writers like Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon utilize advanced literary techniques to convey traditional genre fare.  (The fact that many of you just balked at which side of the line I placed some of these authors on just proves how blurry the line is getting.)  In the 21st century our patrons are fiction connoisseurs who demand ever more complicated combinations of tropes, themes and styles.  Their engagement with genre, rather than the simple-minded passivity suggested by Oxford now overflows into garage workshops, sewing rooms, and the parallel universe of the Internet, where average Janes and Joes can reinvent themselves as airship pirates and mistresses of dragons.  Genre fiction is where is lot of reader engagement is happening right now.  Why not leverage the transitive properties of fan passion and make the library the place for that engagement to blossom?

The traditional sources for books reviews, Library Journal, School Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, etc. do a great job of covering mainstream best sellers.  What they are often not as good at is moving into the midlist and the niche titles, the deep collections that keep active readers of genre fiction coming back.

Tools to evaluate your collection

Genreflecting (Ore, Wiegund and Herald, 2013) is the unflagging stalwart of genre collection development.  Sometimes the old tricks truly are the best tricks.  A 7th Edition just came out this year, so if it has been awhile now is the time to take a look.  If you are unfamiliar with this resource, Genreflecting is a reference work originated by Library Science instructor Betty Rosenberg in 1982.  Rosenberg was known to promote the motto “Never apologize for your reading taste.”  Her guide was meant to address the gaps in readers advisory and collection development prevalent in her time.  Indeed 30 years later those gaps remain prevalent and the reference work she began remains the key work.  It is an excellent resource for looking historically at genres to see what key works and authors should be in your collection, as well as what trends have shaped each genre.  In addition to the primary, multi-genre tome, there are volumes specifically dedicated to YA fiction, romance, historical fiction, Westerns, graphic novels, LGBTQ, mystery, suspense, horror, fantasy and more.  The Genreflecting books are also a great way to quickly glean enough to provide knowledgeable reader’s advisory, book talks, or displays.

Another great tool for evaluating your collection are genre writer’s association awards.  Genre writers, more so than critics, publishers, and the general public, are much more likely to have read deeply and with an aficionado’s pallet.  They are more likely to look beyond simply reaffirming the best seller lists and delve into midlist or even niche titles.  The traditional genres each have an established, respected award to refer to. For example, the Spur Award for Westerns, the Edgar Award for mysteries, the RITA Award for romance, the Bram Stoker Award for horror, and the Hugo Award for science fiction.  The award winner each year should be a minimal and obvious investment for libraries.  Collecting all of the nominees for best novel shouldn’t be much more of a stretch.  These lists are available online going back decades, so it is not too late to backfill your collection.

Tools for developing your collection

One of the best, but sometimes least obvious, tools for developing your collections is our patrons.  Look for trends in requests.  This may seem obvious, but sometime we need to cultivate an attitude of mindfulness.  Is Game of Thrones and the Hobbit creating a spike in fantasy requests?
Why not get out ahead of the trend by looking for other hot fantasy items before you patrons ask for them?  Also pay attention to long hold lists to see where the pent up demand is.  One alternative to buying 10 copies of a given trendy work is to supplement with similar works, which gives those on the hold list something to scratch the itch with, and those who finish reading blockbuster X something else to move on to.  If the person who processes the hold lists and the person who purchases fiction aren’t the same person, ensure that conversation is taking place.  Notice the early adopters who always seem to be ahead of the trend – they are doing some of the heavy lifting for you.  Find genre experts and trust them.  Those teens who are always hanging out by the manga?  Get their recommendations for new manga.  That guy with the top-hat and the monocle?  He probably knows a lot about steampunk.  Librarians have justifiable concerns about patron-driven acquisitions and letting the inmates run the asylum, but if you can find the right inmate and set some expectations, on both sides, they can be an invaluable trove of deep genre knowledge that you have neither the time nor the inclination to develop yourself.

Other options for genre collection development lay in non-traditional spots online.  GoodReads (goodreads.com) is a resource that is probably familiar to most librarians, but have you used their listopia lists for collection development?  The lists, created by, added to, and voted upon by GoodReads members are basically open popularity contests in very specific areas.  For instance, I recently looked at a list of “YA Books Far Better than Twilight”.  There were the obvious suspects, like the Hunger Games and Mortal Instrument trilogies.  But there were also books series like Vampire Academy, the Graceling Realm, the Uglies and others that I have never heard of.  But they each have hundreds of votes and positive comments and look like the type of books I should perhaps be collecting if I wanted to expand a YA paranormal section.

Reddit (reddit.com) is another great option.  Reddit, in the most general sense[1], is a giant multi-topic bulletin board where anyone can create a topic, or “subreddit”, and then anyone can post regarding that topic, and anyone can respond to those posts.  For our purposes what matters is that anyone can create a subreddit for any genre and other interested readers can have public discussions on that genre.  For instance, if I go to the subreddit for steampunk (www.reddit.com/r/steampunk, which you can find by using the searchbox on reddit.  Often you can also just make an educated guess, i.e. …/r/scifi.) and then search for “book” within that subreddit on the provided search box, just on the first page of results I find 11 lists of recommended steampunk titles as well as one request from a librarian with informational help for a steampunk booktalk.  The book-oriented subreddits tend to attract smart, knowledgeable, interesting people, including librarians, so it is a great place to look for recommendations.  Perhaps even more important is that you can also ask questions and interact with other users who are interested in the topic.  This is a great way to find those genre experts online.

Another option is to follow popular culture news in your local paper or online.  There are literally hundreds of sites you could follow online.  Buzzfeed (www.buzzfeed.com) is a good example of a major social news site, but it produces a lot of material all the time with a pretty wide net.  The Pop Candy column in USA Today (www.usatoday.com/blog/popcandy/) is a favorite of mine that produces a manageable amount of reading and manages to be slightly ahead of the trend without being too avant-garde.  You could narrow in even more specifically by looking for blogs that cover the specific topics you are interested in.  io9 (io9.com) is an example of a site that pretty thoroughly covers science fiction.  Even if you are not particularly interested in a given genre, or in pop culture in general, just scanning the headlines quickly as you do the rest of your daily news routine can be an easy way to spot trends and keep abreast of the topics your patrons will be interested in.   Pinterest (www.pinterest.com) can be another low-impact way of following a particular subject or genre if you can find a good board to follow.  Nearly all web news sources, including those I specifically mentioned, have RSS and twitter feeds, making keep up with them completely automatic, if you are already using one of these services.

Conclusion

Collecting genre fiction is a great way to engage readers and create library lovers.  With the tools and techniques above it is easier than you might think to assess and develop your genre collection – even in genres you aren’t personally interested in.  Team up with your patrons to create vibrant, active collections.  Once your genre collection starts to flourish consider engaging with your patrons in other ways.  Cosplay, creating costumes and dressing like favorite characters, has become a big trend with fiction fans.  Why not have a cosplay contest?  Fanfic is original fiction written by fans using existing characters and settings.  How about a fanfic reading night?  New opportunities for outreach and programming abound if you embrace genre fiction.  Finally, I encourage you not to fear fads.  I suggest to you that a zombie novel seeing 10 circulations this year is as valid as a classic novel seeing 10 circulations in the next decade.  In some ways, the zombie novel is even better because it is bringing in readers right now and giving them a reason to interact with the library today.  Voluntary reading benefits our communities and active patrons benefit libraries.

Robert Perret is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at the University of Idaho.

Works referenced

Adkins, D., Esser, L., Velasquez, D., & Hill, H. L. (October 09, 2008). Romance novels in American public libraries: A study of collection development practices. Library Collections, Acquisition and Technical Services, 32, 2, 59-67.

Applebee, A. N., Langer, J. A., Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A. (January 01, 2003). Discussion-Based Approaches to Developing Understanding: Classroom Instruction and Student Performance in Middle and High School English. American Educational Research Journal, 40, 3, 685-730.

Aristotle, ., Whalley, G., Baxter, J., & Atherton, P. (1997). Aristotle’s Poetics. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Baldick, C., & Baldick, C. (2008). The Oxford dictionary of literary terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Iyengar, S., Bradshaw, T., Nichols, B., & National Endowment for the Arts. (2009). 2008 survey of public participation in the arts. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2006). The arts and civic engagement: Involved in arts, involved in life. Washington, D.C: National Endowment for the Arts.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2007). To read or not to read: A question of national consequence : executive summary. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

Orr, C., Wiegand, W. A., & Herald, D. T. (2013). Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests (Genreflecting Advisory Series). Westport, USA: Libraries Unlimited.

Perret, Robert. (2013). Beyond Bestsellers: Tools for Assessing and Developing Deeper Genre Collections. Presented at the Pacific Northwest Library Association annual conference.  https://docs.google.com/file/d/0Bx9wpHAr5tcFZUNRNnlqbzBFd2M/edit?pli=1

Polti, G., & Ray, L. (1977). The thirty-six dramatic situations. Boston: Writer, Inc.

Thompson, J.K. (2010).  Romance in the stacks: the prevalence of romance fiction in academic libraries.  Unpublished master’s thesis, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.


[1] There is a fascinating subreddit where reddit ponders itself and it is a rabbit hole you can probably follow forever if you are so inclined.  http://www.reddit.com/r/TheoryOfReddit/top/?sort=top&t=all

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