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More on Getting Your Books into Libraries

July 13th, 2008 5 comments

I got to thinking about the library-related advice in my last post and realized that it was inevitably going to be incomplete because I’m not a librarian.

So, I thought I would do a short interview with Greg Fisher of the The Cleveland Heights/University Heights Public Library; Greg also runs …With Intent to Commit Horror, which provides readers with horror reading lists by author, series and subject.

My questions are in bold; his answers are below, and as you can see, he has a lot of good advice for us writers.

Why do authors want their books in libraries?

For an author, having her book in a library means increased exposure to an audience that might otherwise never hear about her or have an opportunity to read her work.

A few authors have claimed libraries cost working writers money because they allow readers to consume books without paying for them — how do you respond to this type of thinking?

When I first came across that claim over a decade ago, I was astonished that someone would think such a thing. Then I became concerned because when you look at it on the surface, it seems like an accurate picture. This bothered me for years because the last thing I wanted to do was cheat an author out of a living wage.

But I’ve come to realize a few things:

  1. The library always buys its copy of an author’s book (gift donations aside).
  2. Most books don’t circulate as often as people think.
  3. Many people won’t buy a new author unless they have the chance to try his work first.

Before I pulled all the horror books together in their own section at one of the libraries where I work, most mass market horror paperbacks went out once or twice before being canceled. Many, like Simon Clark and Jack Ketchum, never left the turnstile. Laurell K. Hamilton circulated well — 3 or 4 times a year. So it was much like someone buying a copy of a book and lending it to a friend or two to read.

After I created the horror section, circulation rose. Simon Clark is checked out a couple times a year. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door circulated 18 times. I had to buy a replacement copy because it fell apart. Laurell K. Hamilton’s book Guilty Pleasures has circulated about 50 times through three copies in paperback and one hardback.

There is something else to add to this equation. Many of my patrons tend to have little to no disposable income. Single mothers, teenagers, and college students who really need to not read any more Shakespeare for a while are the people I see most at the horror shelves. Most of them would not take a chance on a new author without the library.

I hear anecdotes all the time of readers who have made authors “autobuys” after having been introduced to the author in the library. I’m one of those people. Without the library to introduce me to Simon Clark, Jack Ketchum and Laurell K. Hamilton I would never have bought copies of their work for my personal library — and not just mass market editions. I bought my own copy of Vampyrrhic in the Leisure edition, but when the gorgeous Cemetery Dance hardcover editions came out, I had to pick up both Vampyrrhic and Vampyrrhic Rites which won’t be stocked by many libraries. And now I’m saving my money for three Jack Ketchum novellas because he hit home so hard with The Girl Next Door.

Ummm … okay, I stopped reading and buying Laurell K. Hamilton a few years ago. I still love the early Anita Blake books, though.

The people who probably lose some sales to libraries are writers like Stephen King, Danielle Steel and J. K. Rowling. Even though we’ll get 10-15 copies for the system, those books circulate 25-50 times.

The point I want to make is that if you took away all the library sales in the nation, you wouldn’t see a significant rise in sales over all. You would probably see a drop, especially of new authors.

As an aside, ten years ago, the guilt over possibly taking money out of a writer’s pocket was part of the impetus to create the original version of my website — I saw it as a possible way to put money back in authors’ pockets.

How do authors convince libraries to buy copies of their books?

The single most important thing you can do to get your book selected by libraries is to get it reviewed/listed in the following publications: Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Ingram’s Advance and Kirkus. These publications are thought of as buying tools, and often the only source of information a librarian has or uses to make his selections. The buyers for my library system use all of those except Kirkus. Other libraries will use their own combination of those tools.

Read these magazines (ask to see back issues at your local library) and find out what their requirements for review/listing are. Many have websites which lay out exactly what they want, how many copies they want, and how much lead time you need to give them. They aren’t kidding about the lead time.

Do not assume your publishing company is going to take care of this for you. Find out. If they say they will get the copies to those magazines, do what you can to make sure it happens. Make sure the books and promotional packs are sent out on time. If you have doubt that the publisher is getting this part of the job done then you need to do it yourself. If your publisher doesn’t send out review copies then you most certainly must do it yourself. Be aware that many magazines demand a long lead time — several months — and will not publish anything about your book if you’re late. Do not procrastinate on this.

Jo Ann Vicarel, my supervisor and the fiction buyer for the Cleveland Heights/University Heights Public Library, told me “For libraries, a review is almost everything.”

Also helpful are reviews and advertisements in magazines like Locus Magazine, Romantic Times Book Review Magazine, and Mystery Scene Magazine. If you write for a genre, then there is probably a magazine devoted to that genre with professional caliber reviews. Find that magazine and get your book in it.

If a library lacks funds, should an author offer to donate a book? How should he/she approach the library?

First, walk around the library where you want to donate your book to determine if it’s the right library. Locate the adult section (not all libraries separate the adult section from the kids section) and check out the fiction section. Are all fiction works lumped together or is your genre separate from the rest? Is there a special section or display of new fiction books? Is there a special section or display for new books in your genre? Are hardcover and paperback books mixed or segregated? If the books are all lumped together, without any attention drawn to genres or new books, they may not be the right library for your book.

If they are the right library for your book, either because they make a point to draw readers’ attention to new books and various genres, or because they’re your local library, look in their catalogue. Do they already own your book? Do they have it on order? Get a librarian to help you if you can’t make heads or tails out of the information. Even I get confused working in a catalog system that’s not my own.

If they don’t own your book, then ask any adult reference librarian for the name of the person who buys fiction for the library. If that librarian is present, ask if you could speak with her for a few minutes about a book you’ve written. If she isn’t working that day, leave a business card with your phone number and a piece of promotional material for your book and ask that she call you.

Many libraries will allow any librarian to accept donations but be pleasant yet firm in you wanting to meet the person who buys the fiction. Why? Because you want her to have a face and personality to put with your name for your next title. The whole point is to get the library to start buying your books.

For your meeting make sure you have one or more copies of your book on hand. Offer to sign it if she’d like. Give her a one minute pitch about the book — mention the genre, briefly describe what it’s about without giving any spoilers, describe the tone and atmosphere, and end with a list of 2-4 authors who write like your book: “people who enjoy the way Dean Koontz or Joe Schreiber blend genres seamlessly in a supernatural story would love my book.” This will help her pitch the book even if she never reads it.

Give the librarian a printed list of your books with the titles and ISBN numbers (use both ISBN-10 and ISBN-13). If you have promotional material, like bookmarks, ask if you can leave some with her. If you’d be interested in doing some programming with the library (like a meet the author program) then mention your willingness and ask if there’s someone you can talk to about programming. Don’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes unless she actively prolongs the conversation.

If the author also lacks funds and/or available books, how should he or she choose which library to approach with a donation?

At the bare minimum, an author wants his/her book in two libraries. He/she wants it in his home library and he wants it in the nearest library that actively participates in Worldcat and will lend out their materials to other libraries.

Donating a copy to your home library, or library where you did most of your research, is a nice gesture, like a thank-you. However, that nice gesture also helps you win over the librarians who in turn will take extra opportunities to promote your book to their patrons — “Try this book. It’s by Mary Doria Russell who lives here. She used this library to do her research, you know. And look here, part of it takes place at John Carroll University.”

Most big city libraries participate in inter-library loans through Worldcat. Lots of suburban libraries do too. Ask the adult reference supervisor (or nearest equivalent) if your library participates. If they don’t, could she recommend a nearby library that does?

By getting into a library that will lend out their collection through Worldcat, you can increase the potential range of circulation to a nationwide level. That’s how I was able to read The Book of A Thousand Sins, a short story collection by Wrath James White. I enjoyed it so much I bought my own copy a couple of months later. Which is, of course, the point of getting your book into the library.


Lucy A. Snyder is the author of the forthcoming Del Rey novel Spellbent and the collections Sparks and Shadows and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger (And Other Oddities).