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September 28, 2015
By Jane Friedman
Self-publishing guru Jane Friedman explains the challenges authors face getting self-published books into libraries.

It has become a cliché to talk about how e-book distribution has leveled the playing field for indie authors and made the publishing environment more democratic. But accessing the library market remains somewhat more difficult for single authors with just a few titles.

While indie authors can gain some access to libraries by making their books available through major library distributors, that doesn’t mean that those books will be purchased. In many ways, getting self-published titles into libraries hasn’t changed since the e-book revolution: authors still have to prove that they have quality products that fit the collection. And, unfortunately, authors still face the stigma of self-publishing: there’s a long history of patrons offering to donate handwritten poetry collections or memoirs to their libraries.

Though some libraries work with their communities to publish local writing for their collections, that’s not what I want to address. Rather, I want to provide a framework for how self-published authors can understand the opportunities and challenges represented by the library market.

First, genre makes a difference. Those writing commercial fiction are better positioned. Self-publishing success stories are predominantly within genre fiction, and that’s where patron demand often lies, as well. Also, it’s easier for librarians to assess the quality of adult fiction than nonfiction. With nonfiction, librarians need reassurance that someone is vouching for the integrity of the information, as well as the author’s credentials. And children’s work has to reflect an understanding of children’s learning and development. (Some librarians I spoke with said that self-published genre fiction has achieved professionalism, whereas self-published children’s literature has not.)

Second, discovery rarely happens through library databases. Librarians will not necessarily see or go looking for a self-published e-book just because it’s available through a service such as OverDrive—a major digital distributor to libraries. It becomes invisible in a sea of thousands of titles. Librarians have to know that the title exists, and that it is of quality, before they seek it out. Heather McCormack, who has been working for libraries since 1998, told me that at least a couple of times a month librarians ask her how to determine which self-published books to buy. Thus we come to the heart of the problem.

"While indie authors can gain some access to libraries by making their books available through major library distributors, that doesn’t mean that those books will be purchased."
Traditionally, librarians find out about new books through trade publications such as Library Journal, PW, and School Library Journal. But most self-published titles are not reviewed by these journals, leaving librarians to come up with their own methods of discovery. McCormack says that there isn’t a trustworthy one-stop source for finding self-published titles, and librarians typically have more pressing concerns than staying on top of the indie market.

Still, some librarians do make covering self-published books a part of their jobs. Robin Bradford has been working in libraries since the mid-1990s and is currently at the Timberland Regional Library in Washington. She doesn’t make a distinction between self-published and traditionally published books when acquiring, but says that finding self-published titles is an issue. Her go-to sources are genre fiction blogs, but she also follows authors and pays attention to chatter about upcoming releases and indie authors on social media. She also receives and acts on patron requests, another avenue of discovery.

There are also two services in the early stages of development to help librarians find quality self-published titles. One is Self-e, a joint venture from Library Journal and BiblioBoard. The other is eBooksAreForever, started by indie author J.A. Konrath. An important element of both programs is curation. Librarians don’t have time to sort through a database of thousands of titles, nor do many have the budget to add hundreds of titles at a time. Plus they have to make acquisitions in light of their current collection’s size and balance.

This partly brings us back to square one. Self-published books need to succeed on some level or be vetted by reviewers in order to come to the attention of these programs. And the way to give off the appearance of success is to make sure your book is reviewed and talked about online—on book blogs and social media. The process of being recognized by the library market isn’t necessarily different from that of getting traction with readers and retailers.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that getting a book added to a library’s catalogue is just step one. Gary Price, who writes Library Journal’s Infodocket, emphasized this point when I talked to him. Even if libraries help books get discovered, what does the library do to make patrons aware of new books? Before you market yourself to any library system, study how it publicizes new additions to its collections. Does it have displays or end caps, informational newsletters, events or interviews with authors? It’s one thing to get your book added to the collection but quite another to generate interest and make it something that the community wants to read.