In my last post, I specifically wanted to find out why people would self-publish novels when the vast majority of self-published works are likely buried in the avalanche of self-published books. Fortunately, a lot of authors did comment, and I learned a lot. So, I’d like to thank the authors for that.
However, there were also comments from authors expressing surprise, anger, even resentment at the way many librarians view self-published works. The initial thrust seems to have been my comment that traditional publishers act as a gateway with some assurance of editorial quality.
Perhaps that’s not true anymore, as publishers cut down editorial services to make money. Perhaps it was never true. I think the jury’s still out, but I can concede the point. Maybe I was wrong on that one.
Another thread in the comments was trying to teach librarians that traditional publishers are businesses, not guardians of literary culture. Trust me, librarians definitely know publishers are businesses. If they didn’t know before, the ebook debacle of the last few years has taught them well.
Publishing is an industry, and libraries are a part of that industry. Since so many self-published authors took the time to share their thoughts about motives, I wanted to consolidate thoughts in the discussion about libraries and try to explain more succinctly why they’re resistant to self-published works.
This has nothing to do with quality, and in the last post I specifically said I thought plenty of great work was being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of publication. Thus, I wasn’t “bashing” such books, as some claimed.
Some authors don’t care if libraries buy their books. They’ve avoided traditional models for a reason. If it works for you, that’s great.
But for those of you who might want to market to libraries, here’s a few points about how libraries work, because their traditional model is still going pretty strong.
Selection is always relatively small compared to availability.
Some comments wondered why librarians aren’t evaluating every book published for its literary quality, and select the good self-published books over the bad traditionally published books.
But that’s a statement coming from people who don’t know what it’s like to buy hundreds or thousands of books a year from the several hundred thousand published. Libraries are always going to buy a very small subset of the total published work, because there’s too much to choose from. They don’t have time to look for other books on the chance their patrons will like them.
This is important because:
One comment suggested the libraries vs. self-publishing battle, such as it is, has been decided, because readers have made the choice.
But readers make the choice in libraries as well. Most public libraries aren’t buying books because they want to improve the tastes of readers or provide them with literary gems. They’re buying books that people want, based on best-seller lists, reviews, requests, etc.
Libraries are lowest common denominator suppliers of books, and most people don’t want niche self-published books. They want John Grisham and company. That’s what sells the best, that’s what most people want and request, and that’s what libraries typically supply, for better or worse.
Librarians buy relatively few books out of the overwhelming number of books chosen, but they still buy a lot of books, far more than any single librarian can read. That’s one reason they rely on traditional reviewing sources like Choice, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, etc. There’s no way to read even all the good books, so they try to buy books that have been well reviewed.
One librarian suggested that self-published authors would do well to get their books reviewed in those sources or even set up alternative review sources that librarians could depend on. At least one author balked at that, because librarians don’t need reviews when they can just click “see more” on Amazon or whatever and read the books for themselves, as if they were readers trying to discover the next good book to read instead of librarians buying en masse.
That’s not going to happen, because there’s no incentive for librarians to do that. Why, might you ask?
There are already too many books published for libraries to deal with.
I’ve yet to hear of a library that had problems spending its acquisitions budget. Just buying reviewed books from the Big 5 publishers that people definitely want is more than enough to break the budgets of most libraries. Even within that subset, careful selection is necessary, so there’s no incentive to explore the unknown and unrequested.
If there’s a librarian out there with unlimited funds and unlimited time to explore the 400,000 self-published works out there, then please let me know and I’ll revise that comment.
Libraries are the establishment.
This one is likely to rile some librarians. They like to think of themselves as countercultural. After all, they provide free access to books and have tattoos and everything!
But libraries are part of the publishing establishment, along with the Big 5 publishers and the traditional review sources, and because of the sheer number of books published, the limited funds libraries have to buy books, and the reading tastes of the majority of people, that’s not changing anytime soon.
People can protest this isn’t fair to self-published authors. I agree. However, that’s not an argument that libraries that will convince librarians because there’s no reasonable alternative yet.
Maybe you don’t care if libraries buy your book. After all, if every public library location in the country purchased your book, that would still be only about 16,000 sales. That’s not a tiny amount, but it’s not going to make you rich.
But if for some reason you do want to market to libraries, you have to realize the time and budget restraints that librarians are under. Book publishing isn’t an ideal world, and there are very good reasons why librarians don’t just stop buying traditionally published books and embrace the self-publishing model.
If libraries had unlimited budgets, unlimited time to explore less popular works, patrons who demanded those works, or if for some reason the Big 5 publishers all went out of business and self-published works were the only ones available, then the market for self-published works in libraries would increase.
Until then, librarians will overlook the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of books published every year, traditionally or self-published, and spend their limited budgets on best selling books they know people want to read, books that are well reviewed, and books requested by patrons. When that changes, libraries will change.
There’s clearly an alternative publishing model that works well for lots of authors, but it’s not one that can work for public libraries. Maybe there will be a change, and maybe librarians and independent authors can work together to make that change, but librarians have no incentive to change a model that still works for them and their patrons.