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The Waterstone’s Challenge, Part Two

Can consumers be enticed to buy ‘lab lit’ fiction? All is revealed!

Jennifer Rohn 5 February 2006

Marketing experiment: highlighting lab lit may help it sell

I took to skulking in the branch during my lunch hour

Editor’s note: Last year, asked a major bookseller to consider profiling ‘lab lit’ novels as an experiment in selling a new genre – and they were up for it. You can read The Waterstone’s Challenge Part I for the first part of the story; I also briefly described this literary experiment in a recent essay in Nature, a pdf of which can be downloaded for free here.

Although science fiction thrives, lab lit is a relatively rare genre – why? It could be that not many authors feel qualified to write about science, so not many such novels get written. On the other hand, there may be no perceived consumer demand for stories based on a discipline that is generally loathed at school and poorly understood by most in adulthood, and in which the characters might be assumed to conform to dreary boffin stereotypes. The net result? Agents and publishers don’t exactly clamor for scientists in books.

To explore these questions, we performed a literary experiment with the kind cooperation of the Gower Street branch of Waterstone’s in London to determine whether readers could be enticed to purchase lab lit fiction if it were actually brought to their attention – heartfelt thanks to Mick Moore and the entire staff of the ground floor for their unearthly patience with me and my pesky questions.

For several months, a rotating series of such novels was displayed prominently under an explanatory poster (pictured at the top of this article) in a display entitled ‘Beyond boffins and geeks, madmen and freaks’. Most of the books sported handwritten reviews penned by members of the London science community on cards headed with ‘Scientists recommend…” instead of the usual “Waterstone’s recommends…”

The books we displayed included Paper by John McCabe, Periodic Table by Primo Levi, Thinks… by David Lodge, Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd, Zodiac by Neal Stephenson, As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem, and Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson.

Pure lab lit books I desperately wanted to include but turned out not to be available included Cantor’s Dilemma by Carl Djerassi (and all his other science-in-fiction novels), Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, The Struggles of Albert Wood by William Cooper and Mendel’s Dwarf by Simon Mawer.

In fact, so few books were in print that we had to make up the numbers with ‘crossover’ novels: science fiction featuring particularly realistic scientists – which in the end was also fun. For example, below are two of our favorite ‘Scientists recommend’ puffs for ‘crossover’ novels, from Dr. Armand Leroi, reader of Evolutionary Development at Imperial College London, author of the Guardian First Book Award-winning Mutants and presenter of the companion Channel 4 TV series Human Mutants:

Darwin's Radio: Retroviruses long-dormant in the human genome are waking up. What will they bring? New plagues? Monsters? Or an angelic new variety of human? The fascination of Greg Bear's dystopian novel lies not only in the portrayal of just-over-the-horizon lab-tech, but the subtle and sophisticated blend of heretical evolutionary ideas that drive the novel forward. Goldschmitian Hopeful Monsters; Directed Mutation; Lamarckian inheritance; Phenotypic Capacitors – they're all here. And, creepily, you almost believe in them.

Darwin's Children: Greg Bear's post-neo-Darwinian evolutionary saga continues. A new species of human walks the earth. They are beautiful, preternaturally intelligent and communicate with each other using melanophores and pheromones that smell of chocolate. They are also terribly nice in a way that H. sapiens sapiens is not. But they are a threat – and we're fighting back. The scientists are running the show now, and America has become a biomedical dictatorship. So why can't we all just get along? (Because we don't want to be evolutionary toast, Greg.)

I took to skulking in the branch during my lunch hour, getting a little thrill every time a browser picked up one of the lab lit books or squinted at the recommendation cards. Hiding in a nearby stack, I willed them with ardent telepathy: go on, buy it…you know you want to. The display migrated around the shop as other displays came and went in the prominent main-entrance location, competing for precious reader attention: beach reads, Booker nominees. But in the end, the lab lit display was so successful that Waterstone’s kept it running for five months, much longer than originally intended; when I asked the floor manager how he thought it had gone, his response was effusive.

Sales figures were monitored before and after the display, and my heart was beating a bit faster as I opened the envelope containing the previous year's hard numbers on each book. While the raw data were given to me in confidence, I can convey a flavor of the display's quantitative success by highlighting a few general examples: sales of Brazzaville Beach more than quadrupled; Darwin’s Radio trebled; and Periodic Table and As She Climbed Across the Table doubled; some books that had not sold a single copy in the preceding half year, when buried in the stacks, began to sell at the display.

Was this experiment significant in the scientific sense? Clearly not. The sample size was small, both in terms of number of books as well as overall sales – one would need to be shifting books on a Amazonian scale to see reliable trends (now there’s an idea – we should give Amazon a call for the follow-up experiment!). What’s more, we only tried it at one branch, and that one happened to be next to University College London and well known for its splendid science textbook collection. And Mick told me that any book with a handwritten recommendation will sell better – but hastened to add that even given that, the lab lit display still outperformed expectations.

Significant or not, three key results stood out: (1) it was surprisingly difficult to find realistic novels about science still in print, or at least corporately available to the buying department of Waterstone’s. This distinction seemed rather arcane; they simply told me they were "not able" to supply some books even when I pointed out that Amazon, at least, was flogging new copies of them; perhaps there is a ‘preferred list’ beyond which they are not allowed to stray? (Part I of this article describes my adventures in trying to find a threshold number of titles); (2) nearly all of the few lab lit books that Waterstone’s stocked before the experiment were selling poorly at that time, imbedded amidst general fiction; (3) but when books in the lab lit genre were named and brought to people's attention, readers were indeed enthusiastic about buying them.

Of course we can only draw qualitative conclusions from such a pilot experiment, but the results suggest that there is a market for such fare, even if this market is not exploited by publishers. Some of the novelists I've interviewed have indicated that their agents or publishers viewed science in literary fiction as too 'risky', primarily because they weren’t sure how to classify it. I believe that the idea that the general public doesn't care about science is over-exaggerated; instead, I submit that science novels just need better marketing – and publishers willing to take a chance on an untried formula.