I posted this tweet this morning and it got some attention, so I wanted to expand on it a little bit here.

Challenge: Love to support indie and self published writers, but I still get most of my books from the library. What to do?

So here’s what was going on there: Was scrolling through my Twitter feed, saw a book referenced, probably a re-tweet from the author. Doesn’t matter what book, it happens all the time, but I did what I do when a book sounds interesting, which is hop onto my library’s website to put it on hold.

A little about me: I was a professional librarian for 10 years: 6 years in public libraries large and small and 4 years in an elementary/middle school library. I am on a hiatus from working as a librarian right now while I’m home with my toddler, but I am a certified librarian with a Master’s degree in library science (yup, that’s a thing) and will always think of myself as a librarian. These days, though, I place my holds and use the library like any other patron.

When the book wasn’t in my library’s catalog, I headed over to Worldcat.org, which is a global library catalog to see what libraries do have it. By this time, I suspected that like a lot of self-published books it is not widely available in libraries and I was right: it is owned by two public libraries, neither of them in my state, probably near where the author lives (kudos to that author for getting the books into their local library.)

I now have three options: I can ask my library to interlibrary loan it (one of the library’s most underrated services: your library can get you just about anything you want if you are willing to wait for it, it is often free, just ask), I can buy it (which is why it appeared on my Twitter feed in the first place, I get that), or I can forget the whole thing.

Truth? I’m probably going with option 3. I read a LOT, there are a lot of books out there, and I get most of mine from the library because I have neither the budget nor the shelf space to buy everything I read. I usually have more books than time, so I’m probably going to forget this book entirely and move on. Which is kind of a shame. But here’s my big secret: I’ve actually come a long way.

Confession time: I have a librarian’s automatic prejudice against self-published books.

…and odds are, your librarian does, too.

I know. It’s not fair. Why are they judging your book before they even see it? Why does Big Publishing get the automatic in just because they are Big Publishing?

Answer: way too many bad self-published books out there.

This is getting long, I know, but let me digress for a minute and talk about my life as a podcaster. When I started podcasting, I loved podcasts. That’s why I wanted to get into it. What I did not realize until I really started interacting with podcasters and getting involved in the community is that I was automatically biased against indie podcasters. Sounds weird, right? I mean, podcasting is this alternative media that most people don’t know about anyway, so how could there be indie podcasters? Isn’t everybody an indie podcaster? Nope. Turns out there are a whole lot of people that aren’t produced by NPR or a “mainstream” media company or promoted by a big podcasting network. Remember how “Serial” was such a big deal and everybody was saying, look, we found this podcasting thing that no one had heard of before and it’s really great, look we are so different? Nothing wrong with “Serial,” but it is an NPR product. Mainstream media.

So I dove headfirst into indie podcasts and found some great ones. If you’re interested, you should check some out. I’ll list a few of my faves on the bottom of this post. But, like indie anything, there are also some really bad ones. Really bad. Like can’t talk near the mic, rambling endlessly, not edited, don’t go near it kind of bad. Because it’s 2015 and anybody can be a producer of anything. Which is great. Unless you are terrible.

The following situation has happened to every single librarian: You’re hard at work, trying to do, you know, your job, and this thing lands on your desk. A large manila envelope that you didn’t ask for from an author you’ve never heard of complete with a long letter (they are always long.) The cover art looks like it was done by one of your students (and not even the best artist), the blurb is off, the whole thing looks like it was bound in the bindery you have for student work, and you don’t have time to deal with it. So it gets dumped in the book sale box or the teacher free stuff box or wherever you put stuff you want to make go away. And, if no one claims it from there, it gets dumped in the recycle bin.

Librarian secret: librarians are not sentimental about books as objects. Readers are. Writers are. Librarians know books get wet, get left under the cat’s litter box (true story,) fall apart, get lost, are bad and no one reads them, or get outdated and have to be thrown away. Did you know that you can’t recycle a book with its hard cover on? They get ripped off.

So when someone, even your best friend (or your best friend’s dad, true story) tells you they are going to self-publish something, you wince because you think of those really bad books.

I know what you’re thinking: I didn’t even read it. And I ask you: why would I? If that author didn’t spend the money on decent cover art or a good quality binding, I bet cash money they didn’t spend it on an editor either. Face facts, guys, we DO judge books by their covers.

Remember those great indie podcasts I was talking about? (That list is coming, I promise.) There are awesome self-published books out there, too. I know this. I’ve seen them. I’ve read them. Because I realized I was being stupid and prejudiced. But I also don’t read, or certainly don’t buy, self-published books on spec. They have to be recommended by a source I trust. I’m wary.

There are three big things standing in the way of your book breaking into the library once you get beyond the bad cover/bad writing/bad binding issue (get an editor, get a graphic designer, know who is doing your binding, do your homework, people!) And I’m just talking about physical books right now. E-books are a whole different entity and while the number checked out from libraries is growing exponentially, the library is not going to carry your self-published e-book. It just isn’t. Their e-books are bought in packages from the publishers, it’s a terrible deal for them, and that’s how it goes. If you can figure out a system for mass checkout of a massive number of e-books by libraries for a reasonable price, get that patent right now because every library would buy it but it isn’t an option. Physical books, however, still account for a huge portion of book sales and libraries and schools still account for a huge portion of that, so it is worth paying attention to your physical book, especially in children’s markets. So here are those three things:

  1. It is more expensive and more time-consuming for libraries to stock self-published books. Books from Big Publishing come with computer records all ready for library catalogs. Sometimes they even come shelf-ready, with the bar codes and stuff already on them. For self-published titles, those things have to be created and/or prepared by hand.
  2. Self-published books are overwhelmingly paperback. That’s fine for fiction, but paperback nonfiction or children’s picture or early reader books just don’t stand up in a library collection. They aren’t worth the trouble. I actually had a selector once spend the money to have paperback children’s books rebound by a book binder because she believed in that book’s potential (local author with a great and original subject.) The binding cost about $14 per book. Just the binding. Of an 8 book series she wanted to stock at 8 of our system’s libraries. It’s going to be hard to convince libraries to spend that. Also, small city libraries with just a branch or two may buy one copy of something, but most libraries won’t. It isn’t worth the money to put into it if you only have one copy.
  3. It is really hard to get your self-published book reviewed in a reputable source. I’m not talking about goodreads or your Amazon reviews or even your blurbs by well-known authors. I’m talking about what reviewer in a publication or on a website your librarian has heard of is reviewing your title? Know how a lot of librarians select? They go through the review journals and just start circling. Again, time is a factor here. They aren’t going to seek you out.

Now for the end of this blog post, the place where I give all the answers. The truth? I don’t have answers. That’s why my tweet was phrased as a question. I know there’s an issue. I’m a huge supporter of libraries and they are still a way a lot of readers find books, but as the publishing landscape changes there’s this whole sector of books not being included. Some of that is the market at work, and until the percentage of indie stuff out there that is really bad starts to decrease a little bit a lot of good stuff is going to continue to get passed over. But ignoring the whole sector of the market can’t be the answer.

I have a question for you, oh readers of this long blog post: Do you care? Does your book appearing in libraries make a difference to you? Do you think you reach more readers that way? Do you think the same barriers are in place for bookstores, either indie or chain? What are your marketing priorities? Honestly, as someone not right now working in the library, I really want to know.

Oh, yes, and before I go, that short list of indie podcasts I promised. These are some of my faves that I think my readers and listeners might like:

  1. The Slumberland podcast. This is seriously my favorite thing I have found in the last week. I’m rationing this out because they don’t come out that often and I don’t want to run out. I can’t find a website, but search it in iTunes or your favorite podscast app, it’s there. A sound technician is sent to collect an oral history on a fictional island in the Great Lakes region. It’s a unique kind of storytelling and it is fantastic.
  2. Songs Inside: Songs for the Second Sex. Beautiful spoken word stories. You have to hear the episode about the woman going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, I think it’s episode 2? Wonderful production quality and just good storytelling.
  3. Brain Burps About Books. This is a MUST listen for authors about marketing yourself and building your platform, a fantastic resource for any author. She’s a professional author herself and has been podcasting a long time.
  4. Regular readers and listeners have heard me rave about The Catapult Podcast before, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them: bringing real NYC author readings right to you, wherever you are, and showcasing the best in new writing.
  5. UPDATE! I knew as soon as I posted this I would stumble across something amazing, and I did. If you are a mom, a woman, a fan of NPR-style podcast documentaries, or really a person who likes conversation, you have to check out First Day Back, the podcast about a freelance filmmaker mom’s return to work after becoming an “accidental stay-at-home-mom.”

Please tell me what you think of all this! I’m still trying to answer all these questions and would love your feedback!

Happy reading and happy listening,