Bible teaches Costco a lesson: genre matters

Booksellers need to be careful when they assign a book a genre – as Costco learned when it categorized the Bible as 'fiction.'

Some customers moved to organize a boycott when a pastor tweeted a picture of a Bible for sale at a Costco labeled “fiction.”

Forget about subject matter. In the controversial world of publishing and retail, even genre can stir a storm of biblical proportions.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the incident in Southern California, where a pastor tweeted a picture of a Bible for sale at a Costco labeled “fiction.”

‘Costco has Bibles for sale under the genre of FICTION,” Caleb Kaltenbach, pastor at the non-denominational Discovery Church, wrote. “Hmmm….”

Reaction was swift, strong – and mixed.

Some tweeters vowed to boycott Costco, setting up the hashtag #BoycottCostco.

Others said they saw nothing wrong with the label and applauded Costco’s labeling.

In the end, Costco apologized  and said it fixed the problem, which it said was an accident. End of story?

Not quite. The incident got us to wondering about the seemingly straightforward science of genre labeling. Sometimes there’s a very fine line that divides fact from fiction, or more specifically, memoir from fiction, or science fiction from fantasy, or historical fiction from fiction. And while that may not appear to be a significant problem at first glance, genre labeling can convey a strong message – as when the Bible, or a memoir, is labeled fiction.

It can also make or break an author’s livelihood. That’s because certain genres are very popular and are more likely to be sought out and discovered at a library or bookstore. In fiction, for example, some 48 percent of readers read mystery/thriller/crime books in the past year, according to a poll by Harris Interactive, as compared with, say, Westerns, which only 5 percent of readers read. Also high on the list was science fiction (26 percent), literature (24 percent), and romance (21 percent). Chick-lit (8 percent) and graphic novels (11 percent) were relatively low interest genres.

In non-fiction, history (31 percent) and biography (29 percent) take top spots, with true crime (12 percent) and business (10 percent) titles drawing far less interest.

In some cases, a poorly labeled book could cost an author in readers and sales – or lead a writer or publisher to pursue lucrative genres. (From Bubble Cow, see “What is the best genre to write if you want to get published.”

Frustrations with genre labeling novelist Sylvia Engdahl to write an article on “The Trouble with Genre Labeling,” in which she complains about how the categorization of some of her novels as “science fiction” has cost her in readership.

The LA Review of Books hosted a fascinating discussion of the topic, “Why Genre Matters,” this fall in which one writer Scott Nadelson noted, “I worry that we as a literary culture have become obsessed with labels. I worry that as readers we have come to rely on labels – a product of the marketplace – to teach us how to read.  I worry, too, as that as writers we have allowed our self-imposed labels to keep us from understanding and appreciating the choices of writers who work in other modes.”

One Globe and Mail writer’s take? Writers should leave book-genre debates to marketers.

Genre labeling, as Costco recently learned, is no small matter.

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