Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bookstore Review: Whitcoulls Queen Street (Auckland)

I was thinking the other day about how many things, other than the quality of a book, can play a big part in how successful it, or its author, may be in terms of sales, readership, mainstream media coverage, and potentially interested readers even becoming aware of it/them.

Wandering through a couple of bookstores, I thought of the myriad of ways I'd 'come across' authors for the first time - and how several who later became "I'll read everything they write" favourites had been initially discovered through quirks of fate; noticing a news story or review, or the book itself displayed on a featured end, or in a bargain bin/table, or with a nice eye-catching front-facing, or even just because they happened to be near another author I was particularly looking for (e.g. several years ago I stumbled upon Mark Billingham's excellent debut, Sleepyhead, thanks to the fact I'd been browsing James Lee Burke's titles nearby).

There are so many books out there, and so many good and great authors and titles amongst them, that many haven't received the success or attention they deserve.

And while many things can't be controlled, some can - so as part of an irregular series on this blog, I will be 'mystery shopper-ing' some New Zealand bookstores, examining how well (if at all) they highlight, display, or otherwise offer NZ crime fiction to their customers. After all, if our own bookstores don't support local crime writing, how can we expect overseas ones to? To kick-start this series, I visited Whitcoulls' flagship store on Auckland's Queen Street (the one that has the giant sifty Santa outside at Xmas). Here are some of my findings:

  • Whitcoulls has a dedicated crime section, as well as a dedicated NZ fiction section - both on the ground floor behind the bargain bins.
  • Dorothy Fowler's debut, WHAT REMAINS BEHIND, as well as several Joan Druett titles, including her latest-ish Wiki Coffin mystery, DEADLY SHOALS, were prominently displayed with multiple front facings in the New Zealand section (GOOD/GREAT);
  • Alix Bosco's recent debut, CUT & RUN, had two front-facings (multiple copies) on an eye-level shelf in the crime section (GOOD/GREAT);
  • Vanda Symon's THE RINGMASTER had two copies (spine-facing) on a bottom shelf (thanks to her surname) in the crime section - if I hadn't been specifically looking for these, I wouldn't have noticed them (OKAY);
  • There were no copies of any of Paul Cleave's books (international bestsellers), or Lindy Kelly's BOLD BLOOD (#1 NZ fiction bestseller in March), to be found anywhere (POOR);
  • When I asked the assistant about Paul Cleave's books, she seemed a little surprised they didn't have any, and then when she looked up on the computer, found that very few Whitcoulls around the country had any at all (e.g. the smash-hit THE CLEANER only had 1 copy in 1 Chch store, nationwide) (VERY POOR)
So overall, Whitcoulls Queen Street wasn't that great at supporting NZ crime fiction. While there was some nice prominence for the more literary mystery fiction (Fowler and Druett), it fell rather flat elsewhere. And with two bestselling writers, you couldn't even get their titles without a transfer from another store, or special order from the publisher - clearly Whitcoulls had sold the stock they had, so why not get more in the stores, especially when they were bestsellers?? At least a few copies, surely. They do that for plenty of the international crime writers.
I also can't see any reason why NZ crime fiction couldn't be featured more - put on an end, or in the 'Recommended' sections etc. Or at least have a tag underneath with 'Local Writer', 'New Zealand crime' or something like that - or a copy of a small review, either in-house or from a magazine etc - that could catch a browsing customers attention. None of the NZ crime fiction even had had a "Whitcoulls Staff recommends" note, I think.

Little things could make a huge difference. So overall for Whitcoulls Queen St, I give them 2.25 out of 5. Shows a little promise, but needs a lot of improvement.


  1. What an excellent review of a bookstore. Big chain stores in Australia don't do much better at promoting local crime fiction authors - there are usually a few Peter Temples and the odd Kerry Greenwood but you often have to order other things. I've actually found it quicker and cheaper to order Australian authors from overseas (eg Book Depository in England) than to get them from local stores. And, sorry to say, it's almost impossible to find NZ authors on the shelves here. I had to order the Vanda Symon I read from overseas (after hearing about her on a different blog) and I haven't heard of most of the other authors you've mentioned (I am however trying to track them down now that I know they exist).

  2. I shouldn't have marries a bloke with a surname starting with S!

  3. I should have learned to spell too.

  4. LOL Vanda. I was thinking as I browsed a book store yesterday that the middle of the alphabet seems to be offer the best chance of discovery in a book store (ie by people browsing). The A-Fs are a bit high for some, while P-Z are often too low.

  5. Three of my very favourite international crime writers are Mark Billingham, James Lee Burke, and Michael Connelly - so any author in the Bs or Cs has a good chance of being 'stumbled across' by me...

    If I was ever going to be a writer with a pseudonym, then that might be the way to go, haha...hmmm... I wonder if "Alix Bosco" thought about that....

    Though the same goes true for authors in the "S" range now too - because I'm always checking out whether Vanda's books are in stock...

  6. Yes, it's good I'm in the middle of the alphabet. Will have to keep my maiden name if I ever marry...

    However, I must say that it doesn't seem to matter WHAT your surname is in New Zealand. If it's a new Kiwi crime book, unless Kerre Woodham has reviewed it, it's likely to end up spine-on tucked away in the middle of nowhere.

    Ironically I used to work for Whitcoulls (was still working there when my first novel was published), and most stores only got 2-3 copies with NO marketing materials despite my having been championed by the national book buyer at the time. (She had actually marketed my manuscript to HarperCollins). I was left to order 50 copies for my own store, and sell them by hand. Sad but true.