How to Break into a Library

How to Break into a Library

by Dale Ivan Smith

Today, we are honored to have one of our TKZ community, Dale Ivan Smith, as a guest contributor. Dale has worked as a librarian in Portland, Oregon, for over thirty-two years, so he brings us years of experience and some great advice for authors who want to work with libraries and librarians. Thanks for your post, Dale.

No, I’m not talking about how to break into a public library. Okay, I am, but not in the criminal sense. I’m here to talk about how to get into the library as an author. Not just the physical public library, but the digital one, too. I spent over thirty years working in Oregon’s largest public library system, Multnomah County Library, which, at least prior to the pandemic, was one of the busiest libraries in the United States.

Though I worked in public libraries, including managing the science fiction and fantasy collection at my regional branch, I’ll also share a couple of tips for getting into schools and school libraries as an author. I retired in December 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. That said, in conversations with my former boss and others still working at the library, there’s every reason to expect that libraries will still operate after the pandemic much like they did before, which means they’ll need programming and new books.

The modern public library is a dynamic place—people (“patrons” in library speak) come in order to borrow all sorts of physical media, books, DVDs, CDs, etc.; and to use computers and Wi-Fi; meeting room space for book clubs, neighborhood committees, job seekers, chess clubs, etc. Especially important are programs, ranging from story times for children and families, to puppet shows, art and craft events, local history presentations, computer classes, etc.

Meanwhile, the digital side of the library is open 24/7 via the Internet. eBooks have become very popular with patrons, as have digital audiobooks, which can be downloaded directly to your tablet or smart phone.

During the pandemic, Multnomah County Library has continued to offer story times and other programs via Zoom, including the library sponsored Pageturners Book discussion groups.

What is in it for you, the author?

Libraries have avid readers, and thus are always on the lookout for great reads, and informative non-fiction, so this is a chance to reach another audience, and make some new avid fans. Libraries give you the opportunity to meet readers, too.

Local author love

Libraries love local authors. Lead with that when you introduce yourself. If your book is about a true crime based on a local incident, or a mystery novel set in the area, mention that. It’s an important connection to the community, and libraries really value that connection. However, simply being a local author is important, because you are part of the community the library values, and the librarian will be interested in you as an author because of that local connection.

Incidentally, chances are the first staff member you encounter will not be an official “librarian.” People naturally consider anyone who works at a library a “librarian.” However, in library-land librarians are a professional job class requiring a master’s degree in library sciences. I was a para-librarian, called a library assistant in my system, because I had a degree in history but not an MLS. I could do most of the things a librarian did, except for cataloging books and other materials, and I wasn’t considered the last word in information service (just close to it). The staff who might check out your books are probably library clerks, access service assistants, etc. ASAs and “pages” do much of the shelving, helped by volunteers and other staff, including often para-librarians. So, when you drop by for a visit, that first staff person you encounter will take you to the librarian, unless it’s a really small library, in which case that person very likely is the professional librarian.

Calling to speak to a librarian about your book or a possible speaking opportunity is a better option than “cold emailing” out of the blue. My last boss told me he was regularly barraged by emails from authors from other parts of the country, who composed generic emails which they sent to libraries nationwide. A much better approach is to start with your local library and work outward to other neighboring libraries, and then libraries in nearby cities, and eventually in neighboring states. You establish contacts with librarians and begin to build a track record of presentations and as well as being able to point to other libraries that already have your books in their collections. It also helps emphasize you being a local author.

If you end up having to email, it’s worth taking the time to visit the library’s website and learn more about them. But, in my experience, a visit or a phone call is preferable.

Giving a program at the library

Speaking of speaking opportunities, giving a reading by itself can be a tough sell for librarians. A better approach is to look at leveraging an aspect of your book or writing and offer that topic as a program event to your library. Are you a former homicide detective? Then giving a presentation or program on forensics would appeal to librarians. Write about true crime topics? That would be a draw. Write culinary cozies? A cooking program or culinary presentation might make a great program for the library. If there’s a local history or local culture aspect to your book, that works too. Many readers dream of writing, so a writing program is another angle. Almost any area of knowledge from your books can be turned into a potential program item, running an hour, an hour and a half, or even two hours. That could include a reading from your novel, non-fiction or true crime, perhaps at the end of your presentation.

Another speaking opportunity is to see if your book might fit a book club or discussion group held at your local library branch. Once again, being a local author will increase potential interest. Book discussion groups in my library system typically select the books they are going to read for the coming year in late spring or summer. Check with your local librarians about this, since one of them is probably the library contact for the group and let them know you would d be interested in having your book considered. You could then “guest star” at the book discussion and give a short reading. The same if your library has a kids or teens reading group, and your book fits either of those ages.

The Power of Suggestion

Libraries heavily favor patron requests and recommendations when it comes to purchasing books. They want to build a collection that will be used. They keep abreast of trends, and current reader interests. Incidentally, libraries need their physical books to be checked out. Around half of our books were checked out at any time. There isn’t typically enough shelf-space to hold all the books in a library collection. Which means owning books which will be borrowed, and discarding books that aren’t being used, to make room for other books. The digital library side is a different matter, of course, since physical space isn’t an issue.

Patrons can fill out online “suggestion for purchase” forms, usually by first logging in with their individual library card and tell the library about a book they want the library to add to its collection. Pro tip: put a call out to your newsletter to let your readers know that they can request that their local library purchase your books. This is a great service to your readers, because it gives them the opportunity to read your books for free.

Availability

If you are an indie author, making your books available in print via Ingram Spark will make it much easier for the library to add them to their collections. I have had print editions of my novels purchased by libraries via Kindle Direct Publishing’s print on demand option, but librarians are much more comfortable with the options provided by IS, which also lists with Baker and Taylor, one of the bigger book distributors for libraries.

As for eBooks, library systems in many countries use Overdrive as their eBook platform. Bibliotheca and Hoopla are two others. As long as you are not exclusive with Amazon for your eBooks (i.e., they aren’t enrolled in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program), you can make them available to public libraries.

Kobo Writing Life, Draft2Digital, and Smashwords all let you put your books in the Overdrive catalog. D2D also lets you list with Hoopla, which is a streaming service for libraries which can include eBooks, as well as Baker and Taylor, and both D2D and Smashwords let you include your books in Bibliotecha.

Another way for your self-published book to get into the library

Another option is to check if your library has a library writers project, a program which lets self-published authors submit one of their books to be considered for the library collection. These writer’s projects are for local authors (there’s that local connection again), but in the case of my library system, “local” is a pretty broad area.

The book trifecta: Content, presentation and format

Not only do librarians want books that readers will enjoy—engrossing thrillers, fun cozy mysteries, gripping true crime stories, for instance—they want books that are edited and proofread, with professional covers, well-written back matter copy, and proper formatting. Formatting matters, both eBook and print. We saw a number of self-published print titles that had small fonts, or odd line-spacing to pad out the book, as well as covers that didn’t effectively convey the genre. Professional-looking presentation and formatting signal that this is a title worth adding to the library’s collection.

Librarians also rely on reviews for making many of their book purchasing decisions. Library Journal, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and others are important for both making librarians aware of new titles and giving them a sense of quality and who the audience for the book might be. These mainly review trad-published books. However, if your indie-published novel was reviewed on a website or in a publication, by all means mention that in your conversation or email.

Tips for School libraries

Again, start local. Visit your local library and chat with the youth librarian and see if they can refer you to their local school counterpart. You’ll likely have to call or email the school librarian. Personalize your email. Emphasize being a local author, see if they would be interested in an author visit, and mention any program ideas you have, for example, a presentation on medicine aimed at kids.

You can also check the website of your local school district. It will probably list individual schools. Locate an age-appropriate-to-your-books school and look for the school librarian. Some districts have district librarians, so that could be a great person to begin with.

Like public libraries, schools also rely on professional journals and publications, including Hornbook, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly. They do the bulk of their purchasing through “book jobbers” that provide cataloging and processing services, and which include reviews in their ordering interfaces.

Another resource

An Author’s Guide to Working with Libraries and Bookstores, by Mark Leslie Lefebvre

An excellent, in depth looking at working with librarians and libraries. A deep dive into the details, including a plan for starting locally and then expanding outward. The author does a terrific job of laying out what libraries and librarians want, as well as discussing pricing strategies, further advice on connecting with librarians, etc.

Q&A with Steve Hooley

Do you think most librarians will prefer physical or zoom meetings as we move into 2021? I think once libraries open up again, librarians would love to have authors drop by to introduce themselves. Programming in building will eventually resume, too, though it’s certainly possibly that programs and book discussion groups may also continue via Zoom.

Is it a good idea to offer a free book? Would a librarian hope for or expect a free book? You can certainly ask if they’d like a copy of your book to look at, but very likely they won’t be able to add the book to their collection, unless they are a small, single building library. My library has acquisitions librarians who order books and multimedia. Distributors would already have done some of the cataloging work and labeling before the book reached the library, which really helped, since my system was processing as many as fifty thousand new items each month.

Would most librarians prefer to hear from writers occasionally, or are they so busy that they would be happy to hear from writers only when they have a new book out? Librarians tend to be pretty busy, so when touching base when you have a new book out would be appreciated.

Is it appropriate to offer librarians the opportunity to sign up for a newsletter? I don’t think it would hurt to mention that you have a newsletter, but unless the librarian is personally interested, they may pass, given how busy they are.

Is there any etiquette for an appropriate gift to a librarian after a speaking engagement arranged by the library? Chocolate is almost always appreciated. But a gift isn’t necessary, after all, if you give a presentation, or program, or guest star at a book discussion group, you have already given the library the gift of your time!

What do librarians want most from writers? To keep in mind that libraries aren’t bookstores, but places where librarians love connecting readers with books they’ll enjoy, as well as community meeting places, where programs offer patrons a variety of interests.

***

I want to thank Steve for inviting me to guest blog today, and to the entire TKZ community for all the inspiring and informative posts and comments and interactions over many years, it’s truly made a difference for me as a writer and author.

***

Thanks, Dale, for a wonderful post. I’m certain we’ve all learned some new ideas.  And now, TKZ community, here’s your chance to ask our resident librarian questions about libraries and librarians:

Dale Ivan Smith is a lifelong resident of the beautiful Pacific Northwest. He got into trouble in grade school for sneaking off to the library during math class, so naturally he wound up working as a librarian for Oregon’s largest library system, Multnomah County Library, in Portland, Oregon, where he worked at four different branches. After thirty-two years, he retired in December 2019 to write full time.

Dale’s published novels include the contemporary fantasy series THE EMPOWERED, which begins with EMPOWERED:AGENT, the urban fantasy GREMLIN NIGHT, and the space opera SPICE CRIMES. After wanting to combine his love of mysteries and libraries for years, at long last Dale is now working on a library mystery series. His website is https://daleivansmith.com. He’s on Twitter as @daleivan.

Who says librarians can’t be pirates?

26 thoughts on “How to Break into a Library

  1. Dale – Para-librarian made me picture you parachuting in behind enemy lines with an armload of books.

    Hubby and I got new phones this weekend and I panicked when I couldn’t find my library books on my new phone. I called the IT elf at our library and he told me where to find them (if this happens to anyone else, they’re probably on your bookshelf, you just have to download them again). He also told me our library has switched from Overdrive to Libby (also from Overdrive). I’m using it now. It’s a good upgrade (still free).

    Best of luck on your series!

    • Hi, Cynthia, I love that image, though you’d be hard-pressed to get me to parachute 🙂

      Libby is a great app–I helped a lot of patrons move from Overdrive to it, myself. Thanks for mentioning it. IT elf is definitely in the librarian job description these days.

      Thanks for your good wishes, and for reading!

  2. Thank you, Steve and Dale, for a terrific post. I don’t think I have ever come across any sort of article advising authors about getting their work into their local libraries. Good luck, Dale, on that library mystery series. Here is a joke you can have, if you are so inclined. I wrote it just for you, but there’s no obligation on your part to use it:

    What does a pirate librarian call the stacks?
    The Rrrrrchives!

    Have a great weekend, Gentlemen!

    • Hi, Joe

      Shiver me books, but you made me chuckle with that joke. There was definitely no dust on our Rrrrrchives, to be sure 🙂

      Thanks for the encouragement on the mystery series–nothing like moving into a new-to-me-as-writer genre to make me feel like I’ve been keel-hauled, but it’s all good. Actually, it’s great. As long as I’m learning, I know I’m still alive, and I plan on living for a good while yet.

      You have a wonderful weekend as well!

  3. Thanks, Dale, for writing this wonderful post. There are a lot of great ideas here for breaking into the library scene. I think this is a great place for beginning writers to get started, get their books noticed, get their name out there, and begin finding opportunities to speak about their books.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and expertise!

    • You are very welcome, Steve! Thanks so much for inviting me. I really appreciate the opportunity to share this information with our follower KZBers. I agree that libraries are a great place to get started, and also a great place to share your books via the various library collections (print, ebook, and audio if you can swing the latter.)

  4. Dale the Pirate, what a treasure chest of information you shared. Bookmarking this post. Thank you so much for the insider’s peek at libraries.

    Question: in the past, libraries preferred hardbacks over trade paperbacks b/c hardback is more durable. Is this still the case? Can an indie author who publishes POD trade paperbacks overcome that resistance?

    • Debbie, since it’s only 5 am in Oregon (where Dale lives), I’ll jump in with a quick partial answer. Our local library (small town) takes a special interest in local authors, and they bought my POD trade paperback, even before I went in to talk to them. So, it’s possible.

      • My hyper-thyroid cat, monster cat, Mittens did wake me up shortly before 5AM here in Oregon, but I needed a strong cup of black tea to wake up (after giving him his pill treat medications 🙂

        You’re right, it’s definitely possible.

    • Hi Debbie,

      I’m so glad that you found the post useful, and that it might help you get your own books into the library.

      You’re right, libraries used to prefer hardbacks over trade and mass market paperbacks, because they were durable. Okay, supposedly more durable. I remember one brand new fantasy novel in hard cover (this would have been in the late 1980s) that fell apart practically out of the crate, but in general, that was true. We even purchased special “library editions” in hard cover of certain novels, that could last longer.

      But that’s no more the case. Now, the library will buy in trade. My own novels are in trade, and there was no problem having them purchased.

      So, you can definitely overcome that resistance, especially if, as is the case with your own thrillers, the books have genre-appropriate covers, are well formatted and edited. Your novels look great!

      I saw self-published and small press books that missed the mark, but still managed to wind up in the library, but better for self-published authors to do like you have done and put out professional-looking books.

      Definitely start with your local library and work outward. Thrillers are one of the most popular genres at libraries, I think you’ll find a ready audience.

  5. My first print publisher targeted libraries only. However, when I moved to my small town in Colorado and attended an author program, I spoke to the librarian about my books and offered to do a talk. She looked down her nose and said, “That author is here because she has a big book club following”.When I showed her my recent release, she said, “We only take books from popular authors. With reviews in Publishers Weekly.” Shortly thereafter, I brought a copy of my starred review from PW, and she begrudgingly accepted my donation and added it to the collection. Fortunately for me, she moved on, and the current librarian is very happy to take my books for their collection. Now, if they would buy them, I’d be happier. And in answer to Debbie, my local library is happy to take my indie trade paperbacks.
    Since then, I’ve done a couple of programs at our library branches (2), but those are for name recognition. Rarely (at least in my experience) do the people who frequent libraries buy books. They’re the “we come here because we can get them for free” types.
    Audiobooks are also available through libraries. I make a bit of gravy money from library checkouts of my audiobooks.

    • Hi Terry,

      Wow. That librarian was definitely missing a bet, but good on you for persisting and getting your book into that library’s collection. It sounds like you’re able to donate your books directly intointo your local library’s collection. That wasn’t the case with my library system, with very rare exception. However, that does give you the opportunity to move outward and toward larger libraries in your area or state, who will pay for your books.

      You’re right about library patrons. Typically, they prefer to read for free. Ironically, many librarians have decent sized personal libraries of books they’ve purchased. Certainly that’s true in my case.

      While there is a small subset of library readers who will buy books, it’s really a different audience and market for your books.

      Audiobooks are very popular with library patrons. I hope to have my mysteries available at some point as audiobooks. I would have done it with my Empowered novels, but the sales, though decent, weren’t enough to justify the cost of audio. I’m glad you were able to make yours available and that they are finding a ready audience.

      Thanks for sharing your experience! Have a wonderful weekend!

  6. Dale,

    Thanks for such good info. I’ve never worked in public libraries, so you’ve provided wonderful insight into their processes and author opportunities.

    My marketing to libraries has been measly. But here is the route I took to get my paperbacks into two libraries: first I donated one “gift from the author” copy to each, using an in-person approach, which was successful in part because these were all one-library organizations with individual rather than centralized ordering systems.

    I discovered, at least in Massachusetts, public libraries love to carry books by local authors.

    I had been in Salem, Massachusetts for 40 years when I published my first novel, so I identified the acquisition librarian and cold-called on her with a copy of my book in hand. As you suggested, I opened with the fact I was a long-time resident and a former librarian who had just published my first book. She accepted it on the spot for their new “local authors” section. Acquisition librarians usually have major, if not sole input into book purchases.

    For the second library, a good friend in a neighboring town walked in with a copy of my book and gave it to the first employee she saw, who happened to be the cataloguing librarian. A week later, it appeared in that local author section.

    Both libraries accepted and circulated gifts of my subsequent books. Of course, I donated the books, and I don’t know if that led to any sales. After reading your article, I’d like to pursue the sale of digital copies to libraries.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Truant. You’re right, acquisition librarians are the main deciders. In my library system called them “materials selectors*,” and they were incredibly knowledgeable about books, genres, publishers, reviews etc.

      That’s a great story about your friend managing to hand your book to the cataloguing librarian. Talk about perfect timing.

      Definitely pursue getting digital copies of your books into libraries. Wonderful that two of us former denizens of library-land are here, too! Incidentally, one of my best friends from library-land and our branch’s mystery expert, Jan, was from New Bedford, Massachusetts.

      *Calling acquisitions librarians “materials selectors” is an example of my quip about my native state, “Oregon, we call things different names here.” When I managed my late father’s estate years ago, I wasn’t an executor, I was a “personal representative.” When I did jury duty, my fellow jurors selected me to be what in other states would be called the jury foreman, but here is called “the presiding juror.” (It was an honor either way 🙂

      • I like Oregon’s different labels better.

        In Massachusetts, many of our state-centric terms are linked to England.

        We drive around rotaries not roundabouts or traffic circles.

        Cobblers repair our shoes.

        And we drink from bubblers, not water fountains. (As do people in Eastern Wisconsin.)

  7. Great job, Dale! I was surprised how far in advance libraries book events. At the beginning of this year I heard from so many librarians to set up book events. I’m now booked at least once a week from September through December, with a few others who needed to fill summer openings, as well. And not one from my state. I did a Zoom event in CT, and before I knew it, every librarian in CT was contacting me. It’s crazy how word travels.

    • Thanks, Sue! It’s a true honor and privilege to be a guest poster here today.

      It’s true, libraries typically plan the year in advance. We would do it over the summer. Scheduling programs is a huge endeavor.

      Your story about all the other CT librarians contacting your is a great example that there’s nothing like word of mouth in helping to spread information 🙂

  8. Dale, m’ man. This is a really good, really well written piece! Exploring library distribution is on my to-do list and this guide has moved it towards the top. Thank you!

    Question: How would an indie guy like me be able to track lends in the library system to see how things work out?

    BTW, you’re an interesting character. So much so that I’m thinking of using you as a character in my new hardboiled detective fiction series City Of Danger. Spoiler alert – you’ll be killed off, of course.

    • Thank you, sir! I’m glad that this post is helpful.

      Excellent question. It’s typically a very straightforward process librarians to see the “circulation” number of any item. We’d use that number to determine if a book or multimedia item should be discarded from the collection (books gotta be used 🙂 That number is not associated with any patron record.

      You could check with your local librarian after your book or books have been in the collection for, say six months, and ask if they could give you the circulation numbers. This might combine “check-outs” with “renewals”, which are when a borrower has been able to extend the borrowing period, basically borrowing it a second time, unless it is on “hold” for the next patron. Speaking of holds, that can be another good gauge of a book’s popularity–and that number is usually available to patrons, so that they can see how *many* (again, not who) is waiting for a particular title.

      I’m flattered that you find me interesting and worthy of a fictional death 🙂 I’d be honored to be so “Tuckerized”!

      Bob “Wilson” Tucker was a science fiction author who was famous for including people he knew as minor characters in his stories and books. British author Simon Greene took that to the next level, repeatedly fictionally slaying the editor of the fanzine “Ansible” 🙂

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuckerization

  9. Great information, Dale! I’m bookmarking this page for future reference.

    I’ve donated copies of my books to local libraries and they were happy to shelve them, but I need to do more work to get my books into other libraries throughout the country.

    I had a great event at one of the local libraries a couple of years ago where I gave a talk, showed the book trailer, and then played a mystery game with the audience. The library facilities were wonderful and the staff was very supportive. In my on-going effort not to make any money on my books 🙂 I donated the profits from the book sales at the library event to the library.

    • Glad you found it useful, Kay.

      You are a wonderful library supporter! Giving what sounds like a very fun and multifaceted author event and then donating the proceeds to your library, I’m very impressed. Your library must have been very appreciative of all your support.

  10. This was informative and helpful. Another quick tip a friend offered was to beware of simply chatting with the person at the checkout desk and offering a free copy of your book to the library. That person may accept it with a smile. But if you return later, you might see your book offered as merchandise in the Friends of the Library booksale!

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