What New Authors Need to Know About Library Systems

Imagine this scenario: A librarian is sitting behind a desk, typing away, when an author comes in, book in hand, and asks the librarian if they can buy the book and put it on the shelf.

(Cue immediate awkward pause.)

Unfortunately, librarians’ hands are often tied in ways that might not be obvious from the patron’s perspective.

First, not all people who work on the front lines get a say in what gets bought. Second, librarians are always looking for a return on investment, which in this case translates into number of times books are checked out.

Thus, the above scenario usually plays out like this:

The librarian smiles, nods, takes the book, says thank you, and immediately puts it in one of two places: the donation bin or the trash.

(Cue massive cringing from all of you.)

How can authors avoid this and other tenuous scenarios in getting their books onto library shelves?

In my eight years as a librarian and writer, I’ve gotten a bit of a lens into this, and I hope some of what I’ve gleaned can help you in collaborating with librarians to find a wider variety of readers.

Selective acquisitions

The acquisitions department usually consists of one to five selectors, depending on the size of the library and what kind of budget it has. In many libraries, overworked and underpaid selectors (saints!) have to make a lot of decisions in a short amount of time.

As a result, selectors often choose authors they are familiar with, because they want to ensure the library can get a return on its investment. As I mentioned above, librarians are often concerned with how much use a book gets, and whether it can justify its place on a shelf.

This is also why libraries, like bookstores, tend to carry more bestsellers than mid-listers (non-bestselling authors who still make enough money to continue publishing). The good news is if a book gets checked out a lot, libraries have to buy titles in multiple formats.

Librarians often base their selections on review journals, which is one way mid-listers can gain traction. Booklist is a publication that librarians pay attention to a lot, in addition to Library Journal (School Library Journal for titles aimed at the 0-18 crowd), Horn Book, and Kirkus.

In library land, Publisher’s Weekly is often an afterthought, with selectors choosing starred reviews only.

Confused categories

The next stage involves making online records to ensure books can be found within the library’s catalog.

This can get sticky when it comes to genre, especially if the bulk of the cataloging is done by an off-site vendor.

In our library, genre stickers had to be included in the online order — which was fine until a genre was marked incorrectly.

Someone once decided that everything with supernatural elements needed a science fiction sticker, and, as a result, there are still Game of Thrones books in the system with aliens on their spines. This also affects romance stories with science fiction elements, and any other genre blending that goes on. Finding the correct age group can also be an issue.

If a librarian knows you and your book, you have a better chance of getting correctly categorized. Just keep in mind that they may have their hands tied with existing cataloging procedures, especially if they’re within a multi-branch library system.

Shelf realities

Another real-estate factor involves shelf space, and how a library system distributes books between branches. My library system had a “floating” collection, in which instead of distributing the same title to all libraries, I had to select one for the main library, while the other five would “float” to other branches. There was no way for me to know which branches had what, especially since patrons could check a book out from one branch and return it to another.

Sometimes branches would end up with three copies of the third book in a series without a copy of the first. First books are hardly ever on the shelf, both due to demand and because libraries don’t always have the budget to repair the ones that get damaged.

One way around this is the patron request. Libraries, by their nature, have a mission of serving their communities, so anything a library user asks for (provided it’s still in print) can usually be purchased.  Many libraries have online patron-request forms for this.

Another (more elusive) way is to place enough holds on a title. The hold ratio in our system was 1:7 — one title purchased for every seven holds placed by patrons.

New opportunities

Despite some of the above institutional limitations, librarians are eager to offer discoverability for new books, and want to ensure lesser known authors can get more opportunities to reach readers.

One example is Indie Author Day, which makes its debut on October 8, 2016. According to its website, “…Libraries from all across North America will host their own local author events with the support of the Indie Author Day team … featuring Q&A with writers, agents and other industry leaders.”

Hopefully, with this and other efforts, more collaboration take place, and libraries can continue to offer opportunities for authors to get the support they need.

Overall tips

To sum up, here are some overall tips to help ensure your book gets traction within a library system.

Get to know review journals

If you can get a positive review in Booklist, Library Journal or School Library Journal, it can go a long way toward getting a librarian’s attention.  

Get to know the patron request system

See if your local library has a patron request system, and find out how they tally their holds.

Get to know your local librarian

When approaching librarians about your books, it’s always good to have something to bring to the table. In addition to mentioning that you are a local author, you can inquire as to whether they have a local-author shelf (many libraries do).

Author events can be a bit harder to organize, and attendance for an unknown author isn’t always guaranteed. Talk with the librarian about their community needs, and see if there are ways you might help.

Is your book available at your local library? What did you do to connect with your librarian?