Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 2, 2019

Keepers of the Flame: Libraries in the New Millennium

…and why they are important to writers

James Preston

You’re book people. Don’t try to deny it—I know you are.

And you like libraries. 

Not me. I love libraries. Big ones, little ones, mobile ones, they’re all wonderful, as far as I’m concerned. If I could get that “book smell” bottled, I’d wear it as an aftershave. (Right now my friends reading this are sending up prayers of thanks.)

Today I want to talk about your chances of getting your novel into libraries.

And you’ve all heard the stories. “Print is dead.” Oh, yeah? (That’s from Elon Spengler in Ghostbusters, a guy who collects mold, spores and fungus. I rest my case.)

It ain’t so. I’m here to dispel some myths about libraries and to talk about why they’re important to writers of all levels.

Why should you listen to me? Three reasons. First, I’m the writer of a series of thrillers called the Surf City Mysteries. Second, my books are in some libraries, not all, but some. Third, my background is on the other side of the fence too. I have a Masters in Library and Information Science from USC, and I’ve worked in the CSULB University Library.

And did I mention that I love libraries?

When I was in grade school in Fullerton, CA, our neighborhood was visited by a bookmobile. And it was great, a highlight of this kid’s life, truly, not only because there were books, lots of books, but also because there were reading challenges.

Well, that’s all gone now; you just tap a button on your smartphone and Bam! There’s the new Jayne Ann Krentz or Violet Winspear.

No! Don’t you believe it! Nossir, that bookmobile and many of its incarnations (more on that later) are alive and well and so are libraries.

Myth Number 1: Libraries are dying, because you have the sum total of human knowledge at your fingertips via your iPhone.

Nope. Why not? Why, because you have the sum total of our knowledge at your fingertips and it’s too much.

When I worked at the Cal State Long Beach Library, I ran the Reserve Book Room and Current Periodicals and filled in on the Information Desk as needed. A typical Information Desk question went like this: “Uh, hi. I want to do a term paper on the Civil War. Do you have any books?”

Tap that into your phone and see what you get! The problem is not finding information, it’s asking the right questions and finding useful information that answers those questions. If that kid ventures into the stacks, she’s going to find rows and rows and rows of books, literally countless articles, and that, friends and neighbors, is not counting the ever-popular web pages.

That’s one reason libraries are so important. Behind the desk there’s an expert who can gently ask questions to help the student narrow the topic and then suggest appropriate sources. The trick isn’t finding information, it’s finding the information you want.

That applies to fiction as well. If the question is, “What’s a good novel?” The expert behind the desk will ask questions that narrow the choices and point the user in the right direction.

Between 2015 and 2018, foot traffic in U.S. libraries has gone up almost 20%. Full disclosure: physical circulation for books and media is down, not by a huge amount, and those numbers are a bit more confusing, but the trend is clear. 

So what kind of books are circulating? 

Mystery and suspenseAdult print: 97%ebook: 85%
General fictionAdult print: 73%ebook: 80%
RomanceAdult print: 73%ebook: 49%

There are more categories, but these are the ones we are most concerned with. Note that these numbers are survey-based, and respondents can check more than one category, which accounts for the total being more than 100%. What matters, the takeaway from these numbers, is how well Romance and Mystery do. They’re the top of the list.

That means if you approach a library with a new romance novel, you stand a better chance than with other categories.

Myth Number 2: Novels by self-published authors or from micro presses can’t ever get into a library.

Okay, libraries are doing all right—the numbers support that. So you’re self-published or published by a small indie press. You have no chance, right? Wrong! (You probably guessed that; why would Writers in the Storm publish and essay that said, “You’re doomed. Give up now”?)

Let’s talk about how to make that approach, what has worked for me, and then briefly about a means of checking which libraries are stocking your pride and joy. I won’t kid you: The New York Public Library System is going to be a hard sell. But your local branch is another story.

A friend of mine I worked with at IBM is a techie and a marketing guru. One thing he says is, “Remember what you’re asking when you ask someone to buy one of your books.” It’s not the money, in most cases, it’s the time. You’re asking the buyer to spend six or more hours with your book. Remember what you’re asking a library too. Not time to read the novel, but time to catalog it, label it, and put it in the shelf. The only reason they will do that is if the book will attract readers, and of course, if you’re unknown how will they know that? Hmm. Can you spell “Catch-22"?

Your job is to convince the library that, as a local author, you have something to offer that other writers do not. In my case, it’s track record plus a unique bonus. Track record: I can tell you how many people came to each of my signings and where those signings were. You are keeping track of those numbers, right? (If the answer is “Uh, no, not really,” stop reading this essay, pull out that appointment book, and make some estimates. Okay there were four rows of chairs, ten chairs in each, and they were all mostly full, so call it forty people. Then come back to this essay.

You’re back? Good!

Next you need to get acquainted with the library staff. Attend book signings, greet staff members. Keep your eyes peeled for a Local Authors Day. You may have to pitch yourself for the upcoming year, but that’s all right. You’re playing a long game here. And do keep it non-threatening! I can’t emphasize that enough. Avoid introducing yourself with, “Hi, I’m here to sell you my novel. I’ll take a check.” Once the staff is comfortable talking to you and you with them, then mention your new book.

This sounds like a lot of work. Is it worth it? What’s the payoff?

If you’re in this game only to get rich, well, it may not be the best use of your time. But if, like me, you write to attract readers, it is most definitely worth it, perhaps not in terms of direct sales, but in terms of goodwill, the feeling that your work is worthwhile and that you are making a contribution to the ongoing story of our culture. 

One of the best moments of my writing career was when the Fullerton Public Library invited me to be part of their Local Authors Day. As I sat and signed books, I thought about that Bookmobile and I could feel the ongoing process, time and space flowing around me.

You can, with some luck and perserverance, do something like that, and, trust me, the feeling you get at that moment will sustain you through many nights where you wake up thinking, “I can never finish this story.”

Yes, libraries and bookmobiles are still going strong, delivering stories to those who might not have access otherwise. And it’s not always a bus or motor home. In South America there’s a gentleman who takes books to remote villages on his donkey. The Biblioburro is alive and well, plodding along remote pathways, carrying stories. Maybe someday he’ll carry one of mine, or yours.

Libraries are literally the repositories of our culture, keepers of the flame.

Did you grow up hanging around a library? Did you sign up for the Summer Reading Program? Did that program have challenges like, “Read a blue book,” or “Read a book about the state where one of your parents were born”? Have you successfully approached a local library to stock your books? Let’s hear about it!

References: See the web page data for 2019 (opens in a new tab)">Newshelvesbooks>data for 2019 for the full analysis of library usage. To see which libraries are stocking your books, try Worldcat.org>Search> your name or title.

About James

James Preston writes the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His most recent work, however, is not part of that series. It’s a novella called Buzzkill, a historical thriller that Kirkus Reviews said is “enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His work is collected by the UC Berkeley University library as part of their special collection, “California Detective Fiction.” For more about the stories, check out his web page, www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at james@jamesrpreston.com

15 comments on “Keepers of the Flame: Libraries in the New Millennium”

  1. You know you'll have heads nodding with this one, James. As a kid, my library saved me, allowing me to escape the war zone that was my childhood for a few precious hours at a time. By the time I was 7, the librarian realized that rules didn't apply to me, and let me check out as many as I wanted (the library was a long way away, and we only went once a week).

    Now, jump to modern day. I am friends with our local librarians, and all my books are there. Our local writers group, with the help of our amazing library manager, has a 'Local Author' bookshelf, front and center as you walk in the door.

    Will getting in the library make you a ton of money as an author? Maybe not, but like you, James, I'm in it to get my name out there. And there's no better way. Our library is a hub of local happenings - entertainment for kids, a knitting group, traveling speakers, historians, and of course, book groups.

    Long live libraries!

    1. Ah, Laura, Laura. We should have been hanging out together. We moved to El Segundo, which had, and has, a great library. But back then the Children's Department was small. I asked at the desk if I could have an Adult card so I could read in the main collection and was turned down. I went and got my mother who told the lady she thought that was fine; I could have an Adult card. The librarian said, "Oh, we have a wonderful collection of children's books." My mother said, "He's read them." I got the card. True story. I found the adult Heinlein novels as well as The Caine Mutiny and more. Thanks for sharing!

    2. That biblioburro is giving me a great belly laugh. BOOK ASS is a real thing! I shall find a way to use that. 🙂

      And yes, I adore libraries. Always have, always will.

      1. Jenny, you made me laugh out loud. Book Ass! Excellent!! Hee Haw! I think this essay and more importantly the research behind it are testaments to the power of the printed word, whatever the delivery package and the desire of people everywhere to read. And we're part of that chain, too. Thanks!

  2. Who doesn't love libraries? But you're describing getting into your local library- okay, I'm in Milwaukee, that might mean 10 different libraries I could personally visit, give talks at, convince them I'm "local" and to carry my book. But most of us would like far more coverage than that. My book is set in Chicago - wouldn't that angle appeal to folks in that city? and how about distribution and reviews (i.e. Library Journal) - I'd like to see a column on how to get wider coverage using libraries as one outlet.

    1. Oooh, Maggie, you touch on some interesting topics. Okay, in brief, big library systems buy books in one of two or three ways. Some have an Acquisitions Department that buys for all the branches. In school we discussed library systems ordering literally 500 paperback copies of Valley of the Dolls. (Side note: it's not my fault.) Other systems decentralize the process and each branch buys for itself. Finally, although I haven't had experience with such an approach, there can be a hybrid, with branches buying some books and getting some from the central department. The reason it's so complicated is fiction Acquisitions is a complex topic, part science, part guesswork. Did that system really need 500 VOTDs? Yes! That was a good decision on their part. So, find that out. Centralized Acquisitions will be a tougher nut to crack than either of the others.
      Next, get reviewed by Kirkus. Get a good review. I believe their policy is that if you hate what they say about your work you can pull the review before it's published.
      Finally, think about why locals would be interested in your story. Is it a gardening mystery? Colonel Mustard with the weed whacker? Maybe a horticulture club meets once a month in the library. Talk to the club; get them to talk to the library.
      I hope this helps. I'll think about pitching the idea of an essay to the writers who run WITS if I come up with more details.
      And remember, most of the value will be intangible. Your Chicago system will probably not order 500 copies of your novel. Yet.
      Good luck!

  3. I spent two hours every Friday night for three years volunteering in "my" library from sixth through eighth grade. I know, lucky me! I don't spend nearly enough time there now. I need to check out the "local author" book shelf. If they don't have one, I'll see about starting it.

    1. Good for you, Fae! Despite the fairly encouraging numbers, libraries need all the help they can get. As a local author myself, I have found that in my case, it is setting as character that attracts local readers. I wish I could say I planned it that way, but no-o-o. In the past I have been on several panels that talked about writing as craft. Face it -- everybody wants to be a writer. If there are three or four local authors in your neighborhood who are willing to share, that always seems to draw a crowd.
      Helping the competition? Nah. Face it: most of those folks want to be a writer, not sit at the keyboard for hours, days, and weeks looking for what happens next. Ours is not a zero-sum game. (See? I know you're a math person and thanks for suggesting this topic.)

    2. And for those of you who wonder -- the biblioburro is alive and well! For his picture, simply Google "biblioburro." Yes, all that knowledge is at your fingertips. But, really, would you have thought to google something like "book donkey?"

  4. Victoria, thank you so much! I'm glad we shred that love. Ah, strolling through the stacks, looking for a new book! Do you have a library story you'd like to share?

  5. When I was eight years old the county decided to build a library right next to our house (keep in mind I grew up at a church situated on a busy highway). Once the library was built and opened me and my brother became two of their biggest patrons.

    1. Henri, that’s great! It must have been very cool to go into a brand-new library. I bet you guys had some good times.
      When I worked for the CSULB Library we moved into a new building. I ran a crew of guys that loaded books onto carts and wheeled them into the new building, then put them on shelves. Then the old building was remodeled and we moved half of the books back into it. That’s as close as I can come to a new library. Somehow lugging half a million volumes, twice, takes something out of the experience. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Going to the library was a research tool as a kid. We didn't have summer reading programs that I'm aware of.

    I took my kids to the summer reading programs here. The advantage is they have lots of incentives for kids, including tickets to a minor league ball game. They have seasonal reading programs for adults and the prizes include pens or mugs.

    Our local system is tied into the state system, so I can borrow books from any county in our state.
    In addition to books, our library lends things like bikes, toys, dvds, fishing equipment, and many other unique items. Another county loans art! There all kinds of online classes and certifications one can take through the library, too. It's amazing the kinds of resources available through the local library.


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