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April 2012 - Interview with Marlene Harris : Getting Your Self-Published Books into the Library

Reprinted with permission. Original interview from Lindsay Buroker

Let's start with the question on every self-published author's mind: Can we donate copies of our books to local libraries and get them on the shelves? If so, what's the process? I imagine just dumping them into the donations bin might not be a good idea.
This is a terrific question, and it's one every library gets asked. Sometimes after the fact. Let's say you are talking about self-published fiction and popular-type nonfiction books, and you want to get them into your local public library. That isn't the only case, but it's the easiest one to describe! Please don't put them into the donations bin. Anything in the donations bin, (or handed across the checkout desk) will probably end up in the book sale. Not always, but this is the way to bet. Check the library's website, or call to find out who the person in charge of Collection Development or Acquisitions is. (If your book is a children's book, get the name of the head of the Children's or Youth Services Department) That's the person you want. Call or email that person and say you want to donate a copy of your book. And a lot of libraries would prefer two copies. There is a significant labor cost to cataloging even a fiction book, and many libraries find it makes more economic sense to just start with two copies. Most libraries have a collection development policy that gives a broad outline of what they collect, whether they buy it or have it donated. Local authors usually fall neatly into the "we'd love to get pretty much everything if we could afford it, so if it's donated, we'll happily take it" category. There are always exceptions. Textbooks are the biggest known exception for a public library. Fill-in-the-blank books are the second. Spiral and/or comb bindings are probably number three on the list.

If our books do get into the library, is there a limited length of time they'll be kept on the shelves? I've heard that how often a book is circulated plays into whether it's kept.
Shelf space in a library is real estate. Some libraries have limited amounts of it. Some have a lot. If a library looks cluttered, just like your own house, it can be difficult for people to find what they are looking for. In a library's case, they go elsewhere, and usually that elsewhere is Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Libraries want to keep their patrons using their libraries, so they keep them looking fresh. If your book is popular non-fiction, the information may get dated. Books on "flipping" houses from before the current housing crisis are all, well, not a good idea right now. Pluto used to be a planet. How long a book stays on the shelf depends on the library's available space, and how well the book gets used. And also the condition of the book itself. If it looks like the book got dropped in something noxious, most libraries will throw that copy out and replace it. I once saw a library book that had been put into the library's book drop after it had been used to stop a bullet. The bullet was still in it. It was a very thick book. The book was withdrawn.
At my last library, fiction would be weeded from branch libraries if it did not circulate after a year or 18 months, depending on the size of the branch. But things lasted at the main library a lot longer, because there was more room, and the mission of a main library is usually to have a larger collection and to be more comprehensive. Branches are smaller buildings and are supposed to be popular collections. It's their purpose.

Is there anything authors can do to improve the chances that our books will be found and checked out more often? I imagine cover art plays a big role here.
You absolutely can judge a book by its cover. Paperbacks circulate better than hardcovers, and hardcovers with dust jackets circulate better than hardcovers without dust jackets. Good descriptions on the sides of the dust jacket, or the front and back of the paperback help a lot. If you can get the librarians on board, they can also help you tremendously. People forget that librarians also hand-sell books, just like bookstores do. Libraries host book groups, libraries do author events. If your library has any kind of book blog or book feature on their website, they can help promote your book locally, or even just post a review. At my last place of work, one of our most popular features was the list of what the librarians were reading each month. And the books we read definitely circulated more, whether they were old books or new books or audiobooks or whatever.

I had a nice SF/F acquisitions librarian stumble across my books and say she was going to order copies for her library. Do self-published authors need to get lucky like that to see their works added to non-local libraries? Or is there something they can try if they're hoping to get in elsewhere? I imagine it'd be cool to be able to say your books are available at the New York Public Library, for example.
Any author who wants to see which libraries have their books should check out worldcat.org. Worldcat is the public face of the librarian's cataloging tool. It tells which libraries have which books. 105 libraries have Lauren Dane's Heart of Darkness, and the nearest one to me (I'm in the Atlanta suburbs) appears to be in Jacksonville, FL. I think when I hit that point in my TBR list, I'll just buy it! The trick to getting libraries to find out about your books if you're self-published or just getting started is to get reviewed. Libraries don't always rely on reviews (Stephen King doesn't need good reviews!) but for a relatively unknown quantity, it's just hard for libraries to find out an author exists. And when money is tight like it is now, if there's a choice between a book that is reviewed and a book that is unknown and not reviewed, the choice is to go with the review. Librarians look for reviews in a few specific places; Library Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews. Except for PW, they are all library trade specific. And they all review everything from children's material to adult. School Library Journal is an offshoot of Library Journal that reviews just children's stuff. There are also review magazines, online plus print, that are specific to genres, like RT Book Review (romance) and Locus Magazine (science fiction and fantasy) that some libraries get. RT Book Review has pretty broad distribution in bigger libraries and does sometimes review self-pub and indie-pub romances. Kirkus also reviews indie and self-pub books. Kirkus also has a way for self-pub authors to expedite (meaning pay) for a review. This doesn't guarantee a good review, but it does guarantee a review. It's not cheap, but it will get seen. Library Journal began reviewing ebook-only romances in August 2011. They have reviewed at least a couple of self-published books, regardless of whether they were available to libraries or not.

I've been thinking of paperbacks thus far, but a lot of self-published authors are going the eBook route these days. Are there any special rules for authors who'd like to get their eBooks into the library? Can they send gift copies to the librarian (I obviously haven't tried this and don't know what I'm talking about!), or... what's the process?
It's not so much a special route as a special name. The name is OverDrive. The only two individual libraries who have worked out a way to manage DRM and simply storing the contents of all their eBooks are the Kansas State Library and Douglas County Libraries in Colorado. Everyone else licenses their eBooks from a company called OverDrive and simply doesn't have a way to manage eBook gifts. Because authors only want to donate a copy, not the rights for lots of copies, and libraries generally don't have a way to handle that. OverDrive handles it for them. There are other companies now entering this same market, but this is pretty much a work in progress. That doesn't mean there isn't a way for a self-published author to work something out with OverDrive and then offer their books to libraries. There are a lot of "publishers" in the OverDrive catalog that publish the works of a single author only. For romance authors in particular, finding a way to work this out might be worthwhile. Romances are the hottest circulating category of eBooks for public libraries. And this is a case where the authors do not have to be known quantities to get circulated. Every romance circulated like the proverbial hotcakes. Or hot sheets. E-Books in libraries are one of the biggest issues looming on the horizon. The "Big 6" publishers are see-sawing about how and if and whether they want to let public libraries loan eBooks to patrons. They are afraid that eBook lending will cost them sales. Publishers forget that people who read, read a lot. People who read also buy. And now that there is data about eBook buying, people who buy eBooks buy more eBooks than people who buy print books. People who borrow library books who could afford to always also bought print books. They would get introduced to an author at the library, then buy their books. The library provided the "gateway drug". EBook lending can be the same thing. But if the big publishers get out of the library market, and library patrons still want eBooks, then there will be a LOT of room for small publishers and independent publishers and self-published authors to get in. The demand for people to read ebBoks from their library is big and growing. We all just need to find a way to meet it.


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