After all, collecting books - gathering, organizing, and publicly presenting the intellectual content of our culture - is what libraries do. So all you should have to do is swing by the library, drop off your book (they might even buy it from you), and the next thing you know, the public will be clamoring for more copies.
Wouldn't it be nice if things worked like that?
The job of the library: a history
Because, of course, they don't. But before I get into how you should approach your local library, let me give you a little history.
When public libraries first caught on (at the end of the 19th century), they were cast by civic leaders as serious sanctuaries of learning, places where intelligent laypeople could sit quietly, contemplate Great Literature, and stay abreast of the important political issues of the day.
Early librarianship reflected that bias. The American Library Association promulgated lists of titles all good libraries should own, a sort of canon of approved content. Over time, things started to loosen up. Libraries opened children's areas, trying to instill a love of reading in ever-younger boys and girls. And it turned out that most library users didn't actually come to improve themselves or sharpen up their citizenship skills. They came for popular stories and ideas. As publicly-funded institutions, we naturally enough responded to that. We give 'em what they want.
So that focus on what's popular means that today's public library tends to be far busier than it used to. People still mostly use us to check things out, but that includes books, magazines, newspapers, movies, and music now, too. Our collections are demand-driven. Never particularly well-funded, libraries have worked hard to streamline their processes, and manage their facilities. We've gotten good at meeting public demand, but there's never quite enough money or space to house it all. Meanwhile, just over the past three years, the rise of electronic publishing has lowered the barrier to publication. Freed from the costs and logistics of printing, binding, and distribution of bound volumes, small and independent publishers have geared up their production. Today, these publishers have just about caught up to mainstream commercial publishing activity, generating close to 300,000 new titles a year.
A second, and perhaps more significant trend is that of self-publishing. In 2004, there were about 29,000 new self-published titles. By 2010, that had grown to a staggering 2.7 million a year. [Correction. No, it turns out that number includes all "non-traditional publishing -- including a lot of books that had fallen into public domain. A better number appears to be about 300,000 self-published.]
The good news? It's far cheaper to store an electronic file than to find space on a shelf. Barring the works of the so-called Big Six publishers (about which more below), ebooks tend to cost a little less than print, too, so we should be able to buy more of them.
The bad news? All of our usual systems of procurement are breaking down. We don't have a way to stay on top of such a stupendous increase in the sheer number of works produced now. This is a time of profoundly disruptive change in the worlds of publishing and public libraries.
How we get things
In general, libraries buy:
- Mainly commercially produced content. Those Big Six publishers (Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, Macmillan, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster) account for more than half of what public libraries buy, and for some libraries, 70-80 percent of what goes out the door.
- What is positively reviewed. Library expenditures tend to be justified by the purchase of materials that other librarians (reviewers) speak well of in Booklist, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.
- What is carried by our distributors. In America today, the distribution chain typically doesn't go from publisher to library. It goes from publisher to distributor to library. The business reasons make sense on both ends: publishers work out distribution deals with just one or two companies (Ingrams, Baker and Taylor, and of course Amazon), which is simple for them. Libraries find it easier to do their ordering and paying with one aggregator than to maintain their own vendor files for the thousands of publishers operating today. We also get hefty discounts. Larger libraries typically negotiate up to a 45% reduction off the retail price. We earn that; US libraries buy about 10% of all the mainstream publications, and 40% of children's books. We're volume purchasers in both sense of the word.
But we don't get surprised very often. Why? Because public demand is largely created by the usual mass market advertising. We have waiting lists for James Patterson the instant the publisher announces the title, We don't need to read a review. Indeed, many of our books have been ordered long before they're written. We can even figure out how many copies to pre-order on the basis of the advertising dollars publishers assigned to it.
That covers the distribution channels: the source of most of our content, the way we typically find out about it, and how we get it. So the easy answer to the question posed by this article is straightforward: get published by one of the big houses, get a good review in PW, and make sure your book is carried by library distributors. And now you see the problem. That solution doesn't cover most of the small and independent presses in the United States, and doesn't even begin to address the self-published author.
If you don't have an agent, haven't got a big contract, and aren't on the talk show circuit, then what?
Tips for print
Let me start with the obvious: write a good book.
Then make sure that it has been professionally copy-edited. Pay a good designer to work up the format. Get an eye-catching cover. Price it within the market. The competition for library dollars is stiff, and you're playing with the pros. Substandard production values are a turn-off.
Form a relationship with a reviewer. Take a librarian to lunch, find out which review journals she reads, and see if she knows any of the reviewers personally. Borrow a copy of the magazine, and find a reviewer who specializes in your kind of title. Send her a copy with a note saying that you admire her work.
Hook up with a distributor. Anybody can get into Amazon, it seems, but try Ingrams and Bakers and Taylor, too.
Make the local author pitch. Local authors do have an advantage. Libraries will often accept a donated copy - again assuming that it meets minimum production standards - as simple good community relations, and sometimes, as part of a local history collection. Note: libraries do buy additional copies of things based on demand (as determined by the number of people waiting for it on the hold list). So talk up your book locally to get it moving.
But be prepared for the flip side: our inventory has to earn its keep. Even if you give us a book for free, we aren't going to keep it if nobody checks it out. We simply don't have the room. If you see your title in our used book sale, don't take it personally.
A better tip: go digital
As noted above, things are changing fast. Once people buy an e-reader device (Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc.), they tend to prefer the ebook to print. And we don't have quite the same space pressures for ebooks. Moreover, those Big Six publishers have really been making things tough on libraries. At this writing, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster, and Penguin won't sell new ebooks to libraries at all. Not at any price. HarperCollins will, but requires us to buy them again once they're checked out 26 times. Random House bumped the price of ebooks from 3 to 5 times its consumer price. Here too, there's a lock: the digital content distributors include the print player Baker and Taylor, but OverDrive, 3M, and newcomer Bilbiotecha are in the game, too. So far, they're all adding on their own price hikes and restrictions. Right now, libraries are being asked to spend more for ebooks than does a consumer.
Remember that we're used to 45% discounts.
All of this means that libraries are looking around for a better deal. Here's one: sign up with the Colorado Independent Publishers Association, with whom the Douglas County Libraries has already formed a partnership. We buy every EVVY Award winner they've got, and we're interested in more. Here's another: put your ebook (in EPUB format, please!) on Smashwords.com. It doesn't cost you anything, and we have a relationship with them, too. They're emerging as one of the nation's first ebook sales distributors to libraries. We also have a recommendation engine in our catalog. Books that are highly rated (out of 5 stars) or well-reviewed by our patrons get suggested automatically to other patrons.
Incidentally, although you might want to put your ebook on Amazon, that won't do any good for the library. Amazon won't sell ebooks to us, either.
Frankly, that's not very bright. A recent couple of studies has shown that "power library users" (folks who come to see us once a week or more) buy one ebook for every two they borrow. Usually, they buy what we helped them find. Libraries not only help authors get read, we also boost their sales. But it's clear that a number of publishers and distributors are looking for exclusive distribution channels. It's a short-sighted strategy.
The biggest problem faced by every author is how to get his or her book noticed. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, libraries are where readers hang out. The rise of digital publishing is a fantastic opportunity for libraries to become publishing and marketing partners.
I should mention that Douglas County Libraries is a little ahead of the curve on this one. We are among the first libraries in the world to develop our own e-content acquisition and delivery system (see our catalog at DouglasCountyLibraries.org). Under that system, we limit use to one copy at a time, pay for additional copies based on demand, add Digital Rights Management to the file to prevent theft, and even add a “click through to buy” option. But a lot of other libraries are lining up behind us.
I am convinced that these, the early days of the 21st century, mark the beginning of a Renaissance of writing. Libraries will be a part of it. We're looking for publishing partners. If you're interested in that, also check out our Evoke site (evoke.cvlsites.org). And come join the revolution!
[Note: versions of the above have been published in a couple of author and independent publishing magazines. The copyright is mine, but you may distribute it with attribution.]