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Don’t Count Them Out: Selling to Libraries Amid COVID-19

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by Sharon Castlen, Integrated Book Marketing –

Sharon Castlen

The activity of discovery for new titles and procuring them is still alive. This article shares the changes in the library space and considers what the future might hold.

Article Synopsis:

  • Discovery is still vital, and librarians are looking for your titles.
  • Now might be the right time to invest time and dollars to increasing your book’s formats.
  • Reopening is still a moving target for most. It looks like mid-July and throughout the summer for some, others not until fall.

COVID-19 has brought uncertain and trying times now and for the foreseeable future. The library market is certainly in this mix as it struggles to navigate everchanging paths for patrons, library buyers, the distribution chain that supports the libraries, and the publishers who look to this market for sales.

Although most libraries across the country—at the research/writing of this article—are closed and likely will be at least into part or all of the summer, the activity of discovery for new titles and procuring them is still alive—perhaps not as robust, or in search of the same products/formats, but nonetheless alive.

Small presses don’t want to miss the opportunity to be a part of this process and alert library buyers to new and backlist titles, though we need to temper our expectations as we travel these uncharted times.

As with all aspects of COVID-19, there are many different thoughts, predictions, and current processes/practices. The research for this article engendered valuable communication with small and independent publishers, buyers from library wholesalers, library reps from national distributors, and the panelists from the recent Book Expo and Library Journal’s Library Day. It was fascinating to see the level of activity and the passionate involvement in selling books, adjusting schedules, and trying trusted marketing in new ways, often with different timing and new book formats.

This article is an effort to bring these responses to small publishers and share the changes, explain the buying patterns, and hypothesize about what the future might hold. Please keep in mind this article was written at the end of May, and even more changes will likely be in place by the time you read this.

What an exciting opportunity to be in the book industry! This may be a different reaction than readers may have at the moment, but a key response from some book industry leadership is, “It’s different. We are adjusting. We are making it work in new ways.” During many connections with individuals and companies, the feeling of hope that is drawn out of an unprecedented difficult situation was surprising and refreshing.

Sales and Marketing

What changes have become the norm in our COVID-19 world? The early connections with small publishers revealed a slowdown or complete stoppage in marketing to libraries. Perhaps this made sense since almost every library across the country was closed. However, some publishers were moving forward. If they used marketing channels, was anyone listening? The investigations began.

Early connection was from LibraryWorks, which receives the eBlast from IBPA and sends to their subscriber libraries of approximately 5,000 contacts per blast. They indicated, “We’ve noticed lately that librarians are definitely still buying and are reading our emails more than usual because they are now at home in front of their computers instead of on the floor of their library. They want and need to work, and we have their attention.” IBPA continued their Library eBlast summer programs and has found an increase in their open rate among librarians.

Library Journal echoed a similar response in early April. “Based on surveys conducted by Library Journal, most libraries have staff working on-site, so the magazine is being received and viewed. Electronic versions of Library Journal magazine have been opened to the public to expand readership during this time. Electronic versions are also available to librarians working remotely.”

As they always have been, the industry review journals remain a key source for discovery. The change here? Most have gone to accepting digital books in lieu of printed galleys mailed to their offices. Check them out online and learn the new ways to submit. Discovery is still vital, and librarians are looking for your titles.

Foreword Magazine has some excellent pointers. A couple are mentioned here, but there are even more on their website. As you are likely working from home and adjusting what and how you market, “Now is the time to get your metadata in shape, particularly if you’ve changed any publication dates. Are your education, juvenile nonfiction, and children’s books Lexile leveled?” You want the librarian to see the right information during their discovery process. Have you added to your formats and now offer e-book and/or audio? Make sure that metadata is in all the right places.

Digital is also key for your sell sheets, support materials, and so on. A limited number of people are in their offices: librarians, sales reps, et al. So, mailed information at this time is limited in its successful reach.

Although most physical book show events have been canceled for the summer and even into the fall, many have transitioned to virtual shows. Check to see if state library shows are in this mix and whether it works for your publishing company.

Local libraries have also canceled spring and most summer events, but many are creating virtual events. According to The Panorama Project data used in a recent Book Expo panel on libraries, 94.8% of librarians work directly with individual authors. So, they will expect to be hearing from the author for virtual events, too. These events create consumer discovery and direct sales. There might also be opportunities to partner with local bookstores for sales.

Librarians are exploring new ways; this is something you can bring to the table. Check out their websites. Many have virtual events now. Many are developing online events. Tweak your presentation for online. Pitch them and create your opportunity. As with other aspects of marketing in new ways, virtual events may become a permanent part of library activities. This can expand your visibility in additional geographic markets.

Expanding Products

Librarians are discovering and they are buying, but when and what are they buying?

Many librarians have money remaining in their fiscal or calendar year budgets, but they are mindful of what their patrons want, or at least what they can get, during this time of closed libraries or slow reopening.

According to library wholesalers/distributors, e-books and audiobook sales are increasing dramatically. Have you converted to e-books? Is your book a candidate for an audiobook? Now might be the right time to invest time and dollars to increasing your book’s formats.

Perhaps you have one or both formats already. Do you actively promote these to libraries? Are these additional formats clearly evident on your sell sheet and website? Does your distributor or wholesaler have the metadata for these versions? Now is the time to not only have the product, but make sure it is presented in every way possible to enhance library sales.

In addition to the marketing channels you now use, you can start to market these additional formats to libraries in your geographic area and/or to libraries in the geographic location of the book’s settings. Thinking beyond what you currently do can increase your revenue in a time when sales of print book are limited. Many patrons who can’t get printed books are moving over to e-books and audio, and they may stay there, creating a continuing revenue stream for each title.

At this writing, we have heard from several wholesalers and distributors that many librarians are buying print books but putting a hold on shipment until their libraries reopen. E-books are purchased and accepted into the system in most cases.

What’s Next?

Few sources were willing to predict much about the fall or beyond. Crystal balls were at best a bit murky. Many confirm that while it’s been and will be tough for some time, it’s created opportunities to do new things, some even better than before.

Sources did suggest that about 96% of libraries were not open to patrons on the premises at the time of this writing. Reopening is still a moving target for most. For those willing to project a timeline, it looks like mid-July and throughout the summer for many, with others are not planning to open until fall.

Discussions with library buyers confirmed that they expect a continuation of strong e-book and audiobook sales and that virtual library services that have been enhanced during this time will continue. The often-repeated comment was that some budgets for 2020 are reduced and, for others, 2021 budgets likely would be reduced as well.

Our times are uncertain, but the lasting sentiment from many of the distributors/wholesalers who work with both publishers and librarians is one of hope. Publishers are encouraged to remain confident that the need is still there and that reading is still critical and essential. So, they need to keep their programs in place and adjust accordingly, adjusting quantities and pushing publishing dates out further if needed. Keep the communication flowing through your distributors and other marketing channels to the end users.

We’ve been hit hard. We have found ways to work through things we never before imagined. We have scars, some of them lasting. We have made changes and are doing things in new ways, sometimes in better ways—some that will remain long after today’s challenges. We see some positive signs ahead to reopen and provide products and services to our loyal customers.

Sharon Castlen is a book marketer with Integrated Book Marketing. She has been marketing for authors and independent and small presses for over 30 years and has spoken at IBPA’s Publishing University for 20-plus years.

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