Discard your images of a crumpled old crabapple librarian, sticky with cardigan lint and cat hair. Modern librarian work is less about filing books and more about frantic organization of an infosphere that is rapidly growing out of control. That infosphere, by the way, includes your book—your stunning masterwork of unqualified genius—and that is why getting a librarian’s attention is going to be hard. However, with a little insight and a ton of elbow grease, you’ll not only have your book on library shelves, you’ll build a network of some of the best allies an author can hope to have.
Convincing the Librarians
Here’s the skinny: library budgets are constantly contracting and library buildings aren’t getting any bigger. The hard, plain fact is that most libraries will not be able to buy your book even if they love it. Believe me, if a library rejects your book, there’s nothing personal in it. Ordering librarians are obligated to follow a set of collection development policies that prevents the place from going into the red and becoming a book warehouse.
Luckily, nothing cuts through policy tape faster than a nice, solid review! I’m not talking about your Amazon or Goodreads reviews, though sometimes those can help you a little, but your actual glossy-magazine rundowns, spotlights, features, and known-author testimonials. I don’t know a single librarian who doesn’t rely to some extent on Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and our very own Foreword Reviews to develop collections. I’ve also used blogs, particularly No Flying No Tights and Lambda Literary, to fill out genre niches. (Incidentally, I’ve also written for both of these in the past.) The reviews, my friends, will set you free, and the more you can get, the better your case will look to the swamped, overworked, and underbudgeted collection development librarian on the phone. The American Library Association itself hails reviews in their guidelines to marketing for self-publishers. Reviews. Get them.
By and large, libraries prefer self-published books by people they know, people who write about the community or its geographical area, or people who are affiliated with local writers’ institutions. Some public libraries will even mark books of local interest or use them in displays, making sure that patrons see them. Trust me: there’s absolutely nothing that piques a patron’s interest more than the idea that they or someone just like them might appear in a book. (Except booze, and if you’ve ever tried getting a liquor license for a public building, you’ll know why most libraries don’t bother with that.) Once readers pick up these “local authors,” they start asking for them, becoming fans, and even buying their own copies. There are many, many perks to being a “locally famous” author, and having a knowable audience is one of those.
Programs, AKA library community events, are the Once and Future King of today’s public libraries. Even people who “don’t like to read” get something out of programs, and when they come in, librarians can snag them with marketing about our free Internet and free literacy help and free job search support and oh my God why don’t more people use libraries??
People who come to programs want experiences. They want to learn. If they pick up a book, it’s because something has motivated them. That’s where you come in.
Offer the library a free program. “Free” here is a loose term, because you’ll make your time back tenfold in social capital. The format is up to you. Did you write a mystery? Propose to talk about the process of writing a mystery. Or run a workshop. Or talk about the process of self-publishing and self-promoting. Is your book a work of nonfiction? You are in the money, my friend! Pretend you’re doing a TED Talk.
During your talk, feel free to mention your book, but don’t sell it too hard. Many public organizations, libraries included, aren’t allowed to let people make a profit on their property. Instead, mention the library’s display of your book (or books. Also, make sure the library has enough copies of your book to make a display well before your program.) Send attendees to your Goodreads profile and Twitter account.
Finally, and most importantly, do a lot of programs. If you can become a regular at a library—if the local history club wants you to come back every year, for example—then break out your smart phone and make that calendar entry. If repeat performances don’t seem to be in the cards, follow up and be super polite anyway. Librarians love to gossip and will quickly spread word about you as a presenter, good or bad. Augment the library’s own social media presence with yours, and then not only will you build your resume and your rep, but the library will freaking love you for pulling in extra program attendance.
There’s more to getting your book into a library, of course. If you have published an e-book, there is an entirely separate set of hoops you’ll need to jump through, but the system may be better for both you and the library. (Hint: check out Library Journal’s amazing new Self-E platform. Also, Amazon’s OverDrive has a functionality that allows librarians to buy off of Smashwords.) Cold calling some libraries is anathema; they may be so short-staffed that a sales pitch during business hours is about as welcome as a bucket of ice water on the catalog server. (E-mail and snail mail are your friends!) Then there’s the question of whether or not your book already has a MARC record floating around out there somewhere or whether the cataloging librarian will need to make one from scratch.
But you’ll figure that all out. The main thing you’ll need is stick-to-it-iveness. And you, let us not forget, have written a book. An entire book! Then you rewrote it, got it edited, rewrote it again, and went back for a final proofread after that. Think of working with libraries as a new creative challenge. You’re writing a new story now: the one about how your book became a thriving success.
Anna Call is a freelance writer who blogs about science for Foreword Reviews. You can follow her on Twitter @evil_librarian.