What New Authors Need to Know About Library Systems

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?

Filed Under: Marketing
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13 comments

  • Sally Stone says:

    I brought my book to my local library for shelving when it came out in November of 2015. At first the reference librarian was standoffish because I wasn’t a famous author (yet 🙂 and didn’t have any journal reviews. A few days later, the President of our local Historical Society, who loves my work and who’d bought a stack of my books as holiday gifts, told the librarian about my book and how much she loved it. Her testimonial was completely unsolicited. Then the librarian found that my book had been picked up by a hub library and had several holds. At this point, she sent me a lovely email notifying me that my book was shelved. This also led to my book being featured at a Tedx event and being invited to an up and coming author event. I thoroughly enjoyed this synchronistic good luck, but would also like to learn the ropes of getting into libraries nationwide.

    • Karen McCoy says:

      Wonderful to hear, Sally! I’m not as sure how it works in international libraries, but it’s worth exploring. Just like anything, it’s a matter of timing, I think. Or, synchronicity, as you said.

  • SarahGilbertWriter says:

    I just got done reading this page. While most informative, I kept having the thought all the way through that the underlying fact bottom line is money. Those that control the purse strings don’t want to let go for things that would overall, help the library. Frankly, they are thinking more about pleasing the higher ups than making the library The place to go. Have what the writers need and others. A big part in the summer is reading for the children. The little people love this and it stimulates their thinking processes.

    Sarah

    • Karen McCoy says:

      Unfortunately, in technical services, you are right, Sarah–there’s a lot of quantification. And pleasing the higher-ups can also be synonymous with fear of job loss–something that is rampant in libraries. I agree that it’s unfortunate. Summer reading is a great thing, though–and the programs keep expanding to different demographics every year.

  • My first two novels are available in the local library and in the town’s book seller. I went outside the county after receiving an interested email from another county’s library. With bravado I visited this library. You tend to imagine a national library service, but each county is like another state, where they have individual criteria and of course I was no longer local. I showed the librarian my two novels and an anthology recently published.
    ‘We can’t guarantee these will be listed, but you can leave them with us.’ I have a picture of these being thrown into the trash can as I left the library!! I’ve received a number of views and interest on an American website for both these novels. There has also been renewed interest in my first novel, funnily enough or- Not!-since the Brexit vote. It was first published in 2014. The novel is about life in Britain in the nineteen sixties. Definitely believe library author registration is the way to go, but ultimately “you” the author need backing from promoters-unless of course every novel you publish is a best seller.

    • Karen McCoy says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your experience, Sam. It’s one that is unfortunately all too common. If you are self-published, you can also see if there might be opportunities during Indie Author Day on October 8.

  • I’ve been in IT at our university library for 15+ years, but before then did put in my time at our circulation desk. We had one guy who would occasionally bring in his vanity press books (this was long before self-publishing was a thing). He’d drop the books off and then come back in a few days irate that they were not cataloged and on the shelf.

    Now that I’ve been out of the check in / check out business for a while, I wonder if stuff like that still happens. If so, your post is definitely worth sharing.

    I also wonder if it’s easier to get book placement in smaller, local libraries near one’s home town?

    On an unrelated note, you have to feel really bad for all of the people who have fallen for vanity press schemes over the years.

    • Karen McCoy says:

      Yes, that is indeed the danger of vanity presses–I’m surprised they’re still around (and that they’re legal).

      Sometimes it’s a case of whether the author’s book will gain traction in a place other than a library. And writing more than one book is key to this process too.

  • Renita D Terry says:

    I’m glad to read this article. I’m still at the beginning of my journey as an author. However, I’ve wondered about the process for getting my books into libraries.

    I really want to rally behind the “patron request system” part of this conversation, as Karen mentioned. Consider having this as part of your book launch and on-going marketing campaign. That is, ask your audience or readership to go into their local library and request your title. The more demand for your book, the more attention the acquisitions department will pay.

    As a patron, I have requested titles locally in Central Arkansas ( and I did the same when I was in college. Both titles were ordered with no problem and placed on hold for me to pick-up.

    Success does not happen in all situations. However, ask yourself “What is it worth to me?” and “Who do I believe would want to read this book (and where are they)?”. If (again as a part of your marketing) you can strategically target even 20 geographic areas and ask readers in that area to use the patron request system, maybe magical things will happen. If you get 3-5 lifetime readers out of that process, is it worth it? It would be for me.

    Just food for thought. I’m a newbie. It’s just my 2 cents.

  • Very interesting! Good luck to you for upcoming post and I look forward to reading more about your work in future.

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