April 19, 2018

Market Powerhouse: A library sale is just the beginning | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerAs we approach this year’s BookExpo America (BEA), it’s useful, perhaps especially to publishers, to contemplate where libraries fit into the broad book market. It’s hard to ignore just how fundamentally important libraries have become to the potential success of a book—that is, if you pay attention to a few simple facts and are willing to question persistent myths.

Owing to smart advocacy over the years, librarians have become increasingly welcome at BEA, as publishers came to sense their purchasing power, their book savvy, and their uncanny ability to create buzz about books and authors. (For more on BEA’s offerings for librarians, see our preview.) Nonetheless, there may still be holdouts that don’t get that libraries are a vital part of the book ecosystem, and there is still an all too persistent misconception that surfaces from time to time: a library sale is a lost sale because possible buyers will borrow it from the library instead of buying a copy. This is a mistaken perception that represents lost opportunity for the publishers that don’t yet understand the power of libraries in the marketplace. And that power goes way beyond the initial collection purchase.

That’s not to say the buy for the collection isn’t impressive—and worth the attention of publishers in its own right. LJ estimates the total 2013 materials budget of U.S. public libraries at $1.55 billion. The bulk of that (59 percent) is spent on print books, but all formats are in the mix as the environment continues to evolve rapidly (see Barbara Hoffert’s coverage of the annual materials survey in “Materials Shift”). How the process works from library to library differs, but it’s fascinating to grasp the nitty-gritty of how Wendy Bartlett, collection development manager of Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Public Library, spends the $8.5 million a year budgeted to provide materials to 28 branches serving approximately 884,035 cardholders (see Meredith Schwartz’s “Big Spender”). Bartlett applies years of book retailing experience, and the results are tremendous.

Talk about spending power. But that’s just the top layer of the library market. Move beyond that first purchase, and see what happens. A library buy lands titles in the hands of library users, who are avid readers and investors in multiple formats. They are also book and media buyers, a pattern that remains true in digital formats. Doubt it? We at LJ didn’t, but a few years ago we decided to check our biases and conduct national research into the question. In case you missed it, LJ’s Patron Profiles connected the dots between patron behavior in the library and beyond the library, proving that active library users are also active buyers of books and media. And guess what? They later buy books or books by authors they first discovered in the library. We haven’t measured just how much yet, but I would bet they also talk about what they are reading, watching, and listening to with people who may not go to the library—they call that “word of mouth.”

Libraries are also everywhere, which should not be overlooked though it is often taken for granted. There are some 16,400 public library buildings in the United States, and they touch almost every community. Compare that to the 7,300 brick-and-mortar bookstores estimated to be currently in operation, including specialty bookshops. I wish there were many more bookstores, but I am very glad there are still many, many libraries. Libraries, even the smallest ones, attempt to offer it all, and they are getting better at merchandising their physical and virtual collections, just as they foster a culture around books and media.

Libraries are perhaps the single best place to get up close and personal with books and other materials, to find new reads to borrow and perhaps to buy. For patrons, libraries are places of endless discovery. For publishers, libraries are an unmatched outlet—for marketing, word of mouth, and sales. Libraries mean business.

This article was published in Library Journal's May 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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