Biography and memoir

A genuinely innocent (and hopefully uncontroversial) question today - concerning the organisation of biography and memoir on the shelf. Should it be by subject or author? And is there a hard and fast rule? Some examples should give you an idea of the problem we face: The Invisible Woman, Samuel Pepys and Jane Austen are all by Claire Tomalin - so we've placed them all together under 'T' (we have Tomalin fans who look for other biographies). However, there are two John Betjeman autobiographies by Bevis Hillier and AN Wilson - currently placed side-by-side under 'B', but does Hillier deserve his own section? So...some challenges: "A Woman In Berlin" by anonymous, but with an introduction by Anthony Beevor - A, B or W? Or next to "Berlin" in the history section? "Bruce Chatwin" by Nicholas Shakespeare - C or S "Gilbert White" by Richard Mabey - W or M Alistair Cooke by Nick Clarke allows us to fudge the issue of course... Any suggestions gratefully received.


  1. Have two copies of each and place one in each section... but that's the expensive solution. Otherwise, just have nice friendly staff who don't mind trawling the shelves (as I'm sure you already do!)

  2. By subject is traditional.

    When in doubt, booksellers shelve based on how their customers shop. Put the book where that book's customer will be most likely to find it. Customers like to compare the various biographies on a given person.

  3. I've hit on the same puzzle Mark, but in the end decided to shelve by subject and yet still allow myself a bit of play. So I have my Claire Tomalin books together, and next to the tribute to William Maxwell book I've stuck in a copy of his collected short stories.

    Here's an interesting thing - I've got a Gay & Lesbian section, and at this time happen to have 2 copies of a good mystery written by a Gay author. So I've got one copy in the G&L section, and one in the Thrillers/Mysteries section. Well a gay customer came in and was very upset upon finding that particular book with the Mysteries rather than in the G&L section. When I pointed out that it's to be found in both sections he just kept sputtering "but he's a GAY author! He should only be in the GAY section!".

    So everyone has an opinion : )

  4. Paul J2:16 pm

    As a librarian I would say the rule of thumb is always by subject. Finding by author should be sorted by a good catalogue.

  5. Thanks for this - I think there will always be some books which are difficult to categorise (some books, ostensibly written for children, but read by adults - such as Meg Rosoff) and then our friendly staff step in.

    Sometimes memoir/biography stray into areas of popular science (Richard Feynman) or history (Woman In Berlin).

    The Lesbian & Gay thing is a bit weird. If you use your customer's logic, there would be quite a few 'classic' authors consigned to the L&B section!

    In any case Andy, one of the things very clear in Rebel Bookseller is a small bookshop does well with those books that *can't* easily be categorised, because these get lost in a big bookshop, or misfiled. In a small bookshop, they can always be located in response to a customer query.

  6. Seems like we all had a bad shelf day yesterday Mark!
    Mine was filling new shelves and then moving everything else around and how to and where to just took all day.
    I sometimes think the QI themed approach is quite a good one and do a bit of it here but oh to remember what I've put where.

  7. I was astonished on going into Borders for the first time to be told that they had no biography section - everything was shelved where the subject would be. I found that very off-putting and not conducive to a good browse!