If there is one thing I learned about being a bookseller, it’s that there is nothing more difficult than getting people to branch outside of their preferred genre. And dear reader, let me preface this post by saying that I empathize, I really do; whenever I pick up a biography or a romance novel (it happens, believe it or not), there’s this moment where I have to brace myself for a new kind of story, a new type of content. However, even when you breach genres, you’re likely to choose a read that’s still relevant to your interests, right? If you dislike historical fiction but consider yourself a buff on 1920 women’s fashion, you’d probably decide on something tangentially related to that.
But what happens when we gleam over books with low marketability? When the genre marries the topic in a way that will fail to appeal to tons of people? As someone who worked in the fray of selling new releases, it was (and still is) disheartening to see so many good titles cast aside on the fly simply because the reader assumes they won’t connect with the story.
On a whim last year, I picked up Waiting for Augusta, a middle grade novel by Jessica Lawson. It’s a story where one of the large themes… is golf.
Do I like golf? No.
Do I know absolutely anything about golf? Also no. (I know that people yell “fore” sometimes.)
Did I really and truly enjoy that book, and was I surprised to find themes about diversity that resonated with me? Absolutely.
Yet, as a bookseller, this pleasant surprise meant nothing to anyone but myself since it did not translate into sales.
When you pitch a book to a customer, there are only so many ways to wrap it before they find out the hard details like a bullet list of condemnation. Despite being a wonderful book, the fact that Waiting for Augusta wasn’t just a middle grade historical fiction novel, but a middle grade historical fiction novel involving golf seemed to be a magical combination of words that evaporated people’s interest in the title before I was even done telling them about the supernatural elements, the mysteries woven through the story, or the sense of freedom and adventure that would resonate with young readers. After going through this process repeatedly, it’s discouraging when a book you’re excited about gets tossed aside with such flippancy over and over.
And so, I have a confession, dear reader.
I was never able to handsell a copy of Waiting for Augusta. Not one. I pitched it daily, I carried it around the store with me, I made it my staff pick, but not a single person would take a chance on this book.
Now, I know that the people reading this aren’t the people who wouldn’t be risk-takers in the first place; you’re not your Aunt Molly shopping for a birthday book for your princess-loving niece (aside: we loved those customers, too). But if you’re reading this right now, you probably have interest in books and writing, in which case there’s a chance–a tiny chance–that I could convince you to pick up something that was a marketing flop. Because those authors deserve love and recognition for misfit stories, too.
Just because something is hard to excite others about doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
Here are a few hard-to-sell books from my bookseller days. All of these titles are tried and true Good Books. Give one of them a chance, for yourself or a family member. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson (check it out!)
Fish Girl by Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner (classic-style illustrated fantasy MG GN)
My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter (YA historical fiction focused on slavery)
Mister Monkey by Francine Prose (absurdist dark comedy about a failing theater production)
The Green Bicycle by Haifaa al Mansour (MG about a young girl in Saudi Arabia who wants things the circumstances of her birth can’t give her)
Demon Dentist by David Walliams (absurdist humor MG novel, very Roald Dahl-esque)
Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley (MG novel about a fifth grader trying to win her estranged mother’s love)
Frogkisser! by Garth Nix (a classic Nix fantasy novel geared for a MG audience)
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan (MG historical fiction about Hispanic labor camps in the US)