Contact me

These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Monday, January 21, 2013

How to get your book in a library

You've written a book. You want it to be in your local public library. Why? Because you want to be read, and libraries are where the readers are.

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.
Again, being demand-driven - making our books justify through use our costs of acquisition and handling - means that libraries will also buy books that the public asks for directly.

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.

Surf's up

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.]

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The importance of backups

After fiddling around for a bit today with some more virtual machines (Xubuntu and Kubuntu) then booting back to regular Ubuntu, I noticed an error message. I realized that I'd gotten out of the habit of making regular backups.

So I fired up Backintime, and ... it failed. Finally, I realized there must have been too much in the home folder (some config files may have tripped it up), so I just set it to copy my Documents and a few things I do want to save (email). Then it worked fine.

Remember, boys and girls, better to save before the crash than wish you had afterward.

Oh, and Xubuntu and Kubuntu are both very good looking, although KDE just seems to have more overhead than it's worth. Ubuntu with Unity is fine.

P.S. Later I booted the Linux Format disk and tried out Lubuntu, based on LXDE. Once again, this particular front end to a Linux distribution is both snappy and soothing. It is both familiar (bottom row with start menu and little panels to show running apps) and minimalist. These days, that sounds and feels good.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

500 books in the home

This study -- "Family scholarly culture and educational success: books and schooling in 27 nations" -- has lots of citations (here's a good example). This 20 year study of 27 nations (itself impressive) was authored by MDR Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora and Donald J. Treiman, and it comes from a journal called Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 28 (2010) 171-197.
We should be doing a lot more with this. The "sticky" fact for me: if a child (between the ages of 0-5) of any socioeconomic level and despite the education attainment of the parents has 500 books in the home, it's as good as having two parents with Master's degrees.
How do people get 500 books in the home, especially if they don't have a lot of money? Can you spell "library?"

Forbes on why libraries matter

Here's David Vinjamuri's 2nd article for Forbes, "Why Public Libraries Matter: And How They Can Do More." While I'm not sure I agree with all his conclusions (for instance, there was never a time when we could buy everything, I don't think we should stop buying popular titles now, and I don't think we steal sales from publishers), I'm impressed by a lot of things in it. He did his homework. He sees the rise of a library that is far more of a community center, and a bridge across the digital divide. He write, "Libraries support three core missions: promoting reading, offering access to information and anchoring communities." He hints at a role I think will be key for libraries in the future, as important to society as our children's department today (he doesn't talk about the role of libraries in aiding and abetting early childhood literacy): finding, improving, and marketing the work of local authors.

On balance, the piece is one of the best I've seen in the popular media, and captures a lot of the deep changes happening not just in publishing, but in libraries.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Being Wrong

Last Sunday, I was invited to speak at the Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church in Parker. My topic was the wise and extraordinarily well-written book Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz.

My "sermon" (you may call me Reverend LaRue) doesn't quite follow her own fascinating structure. But here's the talk.

How does it feel to be wrong?

  • You say you feel sinful, lazy, stupid, foolish, inadequate.
  • But you're wrong.
  • It feels just like being right -- or (as Schulz says in her Ted talk), it's like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff in pursuit of the Roadrunner. At that moment, he does not feel wrong. It's only when the clouds of dust disappear and he realizes he's standing in space that he realizes he's wrong. And only then does he fall.

Being Wrong and Childhood: The Sally Ann test
  • Sally and Ann are in a room.
  • Sally puts a candy bar in a basket, closes the lid, and leaves the room.
  • Ann takes the candy bar out of the basket, and hides it in the cupboard.
  • Now ask a child (4 or 5 years old): when Sally returns, where will she look for it?
  • Before a certain age, the child says "in the cupboard." Why? Because it reveals a fundamental human orientation. We think if it is true, we believe it; if we believe it, it's true. There is a correspondence between our opinions and reality.
  • But at some point (around 5), children spontaneously realize that they are wrong (the candy bar isn't where it should be) and that Sally just has no way to know where it is. This is the "theory of mind" -- understanding that not only are limits to both your knowledge and that of others, but that you may not see things the same way as someone else.
Another change: the introduction of the hypothetical or conditional
  • In language acquisition, there is an age when the child goes from the binary Yes or No, to "Maybe."
  • From black or white to shades of gray.
  • To a world where you're far more likely to be wrong.
A third childhood change: remembering your error
  • Give a child box with a picture of candy on it. Ask what's inside.
  • Most will say "Candy!"
  • But it's pencils.
  • 20 seconds later, ask what they thought was in the box.
  • Before that magic age: they say "pencils." Again, adjusting beliefs (and self-image) to facts.
This is almost everything you need to know about people in three anecdotes.

Discovering you're wrong

  • First, it's total denial. I'm NOT wrong. YOU are.
  • Then it's, "well I was almost right" (except for that one part where, you know, I was wrong).
  • Then, "I was misled."
  • Finally, "I never really believed that."
  • And so we edit our memories to make life a little more ... bearable. I always thought it was pencils in that box. Or I never really believed in a literal hell, or despite the fact that no one ever marries thinking that it won't last, somehow I knew....
When other people are wrong
  • You start with generosity: "you just don't know the facts that convinced me. Once I explain, you'll agree with me."
  • But when they remain unconvinced, you turn a little judgmental: "you must not be very bright."
  • And when they persist in their folly, and exhibit signs of intelligence in other ways, you feel threatened: "you must be evil."
  • That arc of argument encapsulates much of what passes for religious and political debate in our culture.
  • Even though under Theory of Mind we should just admit that we don't actually know half of the things we're sure of. To put it another way, certainty is not correlated with knowledge, and may in fact get in the way.
What's actually going on here?
  • We're just trying to figure out what is real. To survive, to predict events.
  • As a consequence, we reason from too little evidence.
  • But sometimes perform real miracles of insight and judgment on that basis: research into a card game with a "poison" deck. The galvanic skin responses know something is wrong long before the statistics support it. We may not be entirely rational, but we're not unreasonable.
  • Nonetheless, we do make mistakes in our gut-judgments and blink responses pretty much every day.
What's right about being wrong?
  • Being wrong is the foundation of science. Test and disprove, adopt a new theory. That's what took us from believing the world is flat to landing smart SUVs on Mars.
  • Nothing concentrates the mind like public error. Such a motivation to improve!
  • At what time of life are you most wrong? When you're a toddler. You can't talk, can't control your bowels, you literally fall over.
  • And yet the average 4 year old laughs some 300 times a day. Adults only laugh 15-20.
  • Isn't that funny? And in fact, being wrong is both the root of comedy and of compassion.
So remember....
  • Human beings are amazing.
  • We extrapolate so much from so little.
  • Eventually, we can learn to imagine ourselves inside the lives of almost anyone - hence our incredible response to the power of story.
  • We can change our story - getting smarter with every error, and looking better with every edit.
  • Mostly, finally, remember to laugh. Really, would that be so wrong?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Snapshot: DCL's digital branch

First, see this useful and insightful Digital Shift piece about Douglas County Libraries' most recent purchase, featuring our very articulate and astute Collection Manager, Sharon Nemechek.

We were instructed by our board to develop a "digital branch." As of the beginning of 2013, our collection of digital content looks like this:

* Library owned and hosted content – 21,000 items (10,000 from Smashwords, 11,000 from midlist and independents)
* OverDrive – 9,748 items
* 3M – 6,200 items
* Project Gutenberg – 500 items
* Zinio - 160

Total: 37,608

Over the course of 2012, DCL spent almost $700,000 on digital content -- on top of what we already spend for print.

Bottom line: I'm pleased to say that we now own more ebooks than we lease (through OverDrive). We may be the only public library in the world that can make that claim.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Peter Brantley on Smashwords and agreements

Brantley's latest Publisher Weekly blog highlights the important points of our recent deal with Smashwords (buying 10,000 self-published titles for $40,000). First, the price per copy, $4, is quite a ways away from the $84 Random House charges libraries for a single copy of an ebook. Second, our Statement of Common Understanding -- a brief, clear, 2 page document crafted by lawyer/librarian Mary Minow -- is just a much, much simpler way for publishers and librarians to do business than a host of weirdly restrictive terms set out by corporations that must then be managed by the institutions most injured by them -- public libraries.

The adoption of these terms by so many authors and both traditional and emerging publishers is a very good sign of the times. And I like seeing what I call positive market pressure: good news about people who see clear advantages of working with, not against us. At some point, surely authors and publishers will just find this an easier and more PR-friendly approach.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

VMware and me

It's not a complete waste of a day, but it's close: I installed VMware on my Windows laptop, then set up a couple of virtual machines to test: Bodhi Linux and the latest Peppermint OS. Both are lightweight distributions based on Ubuntu. Both are minimal installations, that then take a little while to customize.

Live CDs used to be the way I would take a look at a new distribution. But that process uses up CDs (and now DVDs), most of which I never look at again -- and Linux distributions change rapidly. The other problem with the Live CD is that you don't really know how easy it is to work with it until you've installed it. But nobody really wants to partition, install, and wipe out something that doesn't work.

I played around with USB distro installs for awhile, but they didn't always work, and still require rebooting.

Virtualization is the answer. You set up a software-only machine, just a file within your regular or "host" operating system. With VMware, which is a free download, you "install" the distribution into a file, instead of the hardware.

So that piece worked great. Easy to do, fast. But then the distribution was in a little window on the big Windows screen. I eventually puzzled through the process of downloading vmware tools, extracting them, running the embedded files, then clicked the "full screen" button to actually get a full screen. If you haven't played with Linux before, this kind of thing is completely mysterious, and without it, playing with virtual machines is kind of a pain. The box is just too small to get a real feel for the operating system. VMware needs better documentation for this.

But once I did install the tools, and expanded the screen to fill in all the screen real estate, it was exactly like running the new operating system, except that I could toggle back out to Windows at any time. I didn't have to reboot. And when I was done, I just exited from the software. It's still there, if I want to mess around with it again, and just the matter of a click or two when I want to get rid of it.

So what were they like? Bodhi uses the Enlightenment window manager. It's speedy, pretty good looking, and not all that different from Windows, KDE, Gnome, or the Mac. While the download itself is really stripped down - not much more than a browser, a terminal, a file manager, and a text editor - the documents point you to a web-based software center. From there, I could do a one-click download of what passes for a full package for most distros. Enlightenment is a little different in feel and look from other things I've used, which was why I wanted to play with it. On the whole, pleasant enough.

Peppermint I liked even better, with one exception. Instead of an office program (like LibreOffice), it uses GWOffice -- basically, a web app that links to Google Docs, but with some synchronization built in between the cloud and your computer. I have come to really dislike Google Docs. Its interface is unpredictable on different devices, it doesn't use space well on screen, and I have no idea what its file format is. I tried to use GWOffice with Peppermint, but it kept telling me that my fresh new download was an outdaed version of Chrome. So I downloaded the latest version right from Google -- and got the same message. Linux uses Chromium, not Chrome -- maybe that's the difference? But I found it slow and unresponsive.

Finally, because both distributions are based on Ubuntu, both make it easy to download things from the vast Ubuntu repositories. So I just installed LibreOffice. All of this stuff is free, so one may as well use what works.

Bottom line? Here is yet another way one might install Linux on top of a locked down Windows 8 machine. Virtual machines are also easy to back up, which is why so many server farms use them.

Right now, I feel like I can use just about anything anybody puts in front of me. (I haven't tried Windows 8 yet, and haven't really lived with a KDE distro.) It's good to play around and keep the old brain cells lubricated, though. Both distributions take a little fiddling to get everything you want, but when you're done, they just have that, not all the bloat, adware, crippled demos and programs you'll never touch.

Like I say, it's not a complete waste of a day. At least I did push ups and situps whenever I was waiting for something to complete installing. And maybe I learned something.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Software reflections

As usual, the end of the year makes me thoughtful not only about what I do, but also the tools I use to do it. Much of my life is spent with computers, and so it makes sense to take a step back and look at the larger picture of that from time to time.

I now use four operating systems: Windows 7 at work, Ubuntu 12.04 at home, iOS on iPad in many locations, and my Android smartphone.

A great deal of my work has moved to the cloud, where I can gain access to it from all these devices. Google has my Calendar, Tasks, and Contacts. the calendar syncs to my Exchange server at work (although I understand that Google doesn't offer that program anymore).

Many of my working files are on Dropbox, where I work with them from Office suites on all the individual platforms (Microsoft Office, LibreOffice, Polaris Office, QuickOffice). There are difference between them, but all of them do the modest work I need from them (mostly editing small word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation files). I keep a lot of little files on Evernote, mostly haiku.

I use a fair number of cross-platform tools: Notecase Pro for Windows, Linux, and even Android (although it's a little clunky on the phone). It doesn't exist on iOS, although Plaintext is kind of a workalike. Notecase Pro remains my primary work/task management tool, a combination outliner, text database, and journal. I use the Xmind mindmapping program for Windows and Linux, with work-alikes on iOS (iThoughts HD) and Android (Mindjet). I see that SimpleMind, another mind mapper, is now on Windows, iOS (where I use it a lot for talks), and Android (although it's really too small on my phone's screen). I use Kompozer to edit my web page on both Windows and Linux, but not iOS or phone.

I have clients for my email on all platforms. I have eBook reader clients on all platforms (Kindle, Adobe, 3M, DCL).

I have Twitter clients on all platforms, sometimes through a browser, sometimes not. Mostly, I use Chrome, but the browser doesn't really matter that much.

The only other tool I seem to reach for is a single pane outliner. They're just wonderful tools for thinking. I've got tkOutline on Windows and Linux, the marvelous CarbonFin Outliner on iOS, and the Android Outliner. Moving things from one to the other - importing and exporting, synching - gets to be more important all the time.

Bottom line: I'm using more software than I used to, and by preference, it's open source, or cheap. But the focus is more on the file than the tool. Most of the work I do is ephemeral (browsing, email). The few things that aren't need to be stored and backed up where I can access them from anywhere, and in a file format that permits the easiest portability.