June 18, 2018

Everything in Its Place | Self-Publishing & Libraries

robinbradfordSometimes you don’t realize how things are interconnected because you aren’t seeing all parts of the process. That recently happened to me when I started asking catalogers about working with indie titles. The answers I got were surprising.

Judging a book by its blurb

Upon discovering a new self-published title, I take the initial step of deciding if it would be of interest to my community. The book blurb helps, because not only does it give some inkling of what the book is about, but I can also see a bit of the writing style. Do I purchase books with no blurbs? Sure, mostly in cases of patron requests, in a genre that gets a lot of use or a genre in which new books are not as common, if it’s by a local author, or has a well-known author behind it. Have I ever bought a book with a bad blurb? That’s far rarer, and I need a lot more convincing.

After wanted self-published titles have been identified and purchased, they need to be added to the catalog. I talked to a couple of catalogers about adding indie books to see if they caused any hiccups to a usually routine task. The biggest thing that I thought might be problem—lack of an ISBN—turned out not to be an issue. After all, people catalog all sorts of materials these days. As Pam Swaidner, manager of cataloging and metadata at Indianapolis Public Library, put it, “There are many ways to find an OCLC record or information about an item on the Internet without an ISBN. We cataloged protractors for our shared system members once upon a time.”

Cataloging self-publishing

Okay, so if missing ISBNs aren’t a setback, then what is? One of the hardest things to determine is where to put the title in the collection. Swaidner explained, “I’ve seen books that include multiple subjects, which makes them difficult to classify. I’ve even had some I didn’t know if they were fiction or nonfiction!” Cindy Harkness, cataloger at the Seattle Public Library, told a similar story. “There was a book I cataloged that had simply no information at all. I had to read big chunks to figure it out. It was really well written, which was a mercy, but authors can help themselves by imitating the way publishers [market].”

This brings us back to a book’s introduction to the world: the mighty blurb. In addition to answering questions on the collection development side, the blurb can also help catalogers determine where the book should be placed. Sometimes the line between obscurity and finding readers depends on where a book is shelved. If the people cataloging don’t know where a title best belongs, then the road to developing an audience becomes tougher. As Harkness said, “With [traditionally] published books, I can look at the book cover, go to the publisher’s web site, read about it on Amazon or Goodreads, and get the information I need. Oftentimes, with a self-published book, all I have to go by is the author’s web site, which may or may not tell me much of anything. The lack of contextualizing [data] can make things difficult.”

The blurb allows librarians to understand what authors are selling and how to categorize it once it’s purchased. It assists with readers’ advisory, letting us know on which lists to place the title, in which displays it will fit, and what other authors’ books we should compare it to when describing it to patrons. It could make all the difference when finding the ideal spot for the book’s success in the library.

Robin Bradford is the Collection Development Librarian, Timberland Regional Library, WA, and the Romance Writers of America’s 2016 Librarian of the Year

This article was published in Library Journal's November 1, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.