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Getting Librarians to Buy Your Books

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by Jenny McCune —

Librarians have less time, fewer staff members, and smaller budgets these days for evaluating and buying books. That makes it harder for independent publishers to get their books noticed among the hundreds of new titles launched every day. As reported in last month’s PMA Independent, participation in the Library of Congress’s Cataloguing in Publication (CIP) program usually doesn’t factor into librarians’ buying decisions.

So what can a publisher do to get their attention?

To start with, it’s important to remember the pressures that librarians face. “Our buying power has been reduced,” explains Christopher Albertson, city librarian at the Tyler (TX) Public Library. “Say we have a clientele interested in books on raising rabbits. In the olden days we would have bought one of everything on that topic. These days, we’ll choose one or two.”

Ned Kraft, acquisitions librarian at the Bunche Library in the U.S. Department of State, puts it this way: “Because of our ever-shrinking ability to buy books, I’ve made a decision to buy only from reviews or patron requests. In other words, someone has to specifically ask for a book, or a reputable reviewer has to recommend it.”

The Reviews Route

Who are those reputable reviewers? They’re the ones who edit and write for book-trade periodicals, including Choice, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal (see “For Reviews in the Right Places” for tips on sending review copies to these publications).

But consumer publications—including The New York Times, Newsweek, The New York Review of Books, and The Washington Post—also carry weight with librarians. And reviews in specialized trade or academic journals are important to librarians who specialize in their subjects.

“Generally, the reviews I use the most are from Choice, Library Journal, and The New York Times Book Review,” says Allison P. Mays, acquisitions/serials librarian for Millsaps College in Jackson, MI.

Marilyn Lewis, an academic librarian with more than 30 years of experience in the field, says she relies on the reviews in Choice, which focuses primarily on mainstream books and gives her what she wants: an unvarnished appraisal. “These reviews are honest and sometimes brutally honest,” Lewis says. “Booklist and Library Journal also have excellent reviews, but they are more than likely to be favorable.”

Reviews in book-trade publications also help the librarians at the Tyler Public Library in Texas decide what to pick and what to pass on. “Our tools include Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal,” says Lara Tabri, collections development associate at the library.

Some but not all of the librarians interviewed for this article also use publishers’ catalogs when deciding what books to buy. The major problem they have with catalogs is that they are not impartial.

The Request Route

Librarians do not take kindly to authors or publishers masquerading as library patrons and emailing requests for their books. “It’s a waste of our time,” Tabri of the Tyler Public Library says. To generate legitimate requests, join forces with book clubs or other groups and associations whose members will be interested in your books. Members of Veterans of Foreign War chapters might ask their local libraries to carry a book by a Gulf War veteran, for example.

Like many of the librarians interviewed for this report, Mays, the librarian at Millsaps College, takes patron requests seriously and often buys books because of readers’ requests and recommendations. Her college library also takes direct requests from the faculty, she says. “If they request it, I generally don’t even bother looking for a review. I take their word for it. They’re the subject experts, and I trust their judgment.”

Similarly, Marilyn Lewis says that she often consults faculty members at her college about the best books on their subjects. “It is these faculty members who’ve put me at ease in purchasing titles from a publisher that is new to me,” Lewis says. “They’ve also steered me away from publishers. So I would hazard a guess that faculty members can be a small publisher’s best advocate.”

“We respond to demand,” says Albertson of the Tyler Public Library, who reports that the library gets 10 requests a week from readers, some via email and some on cards available at the library’s front desk. While the library tries to accommodate as many patron requests as possible, “sometimes we say ‘no,'” Albertson notes. “The item may not circulate well because it is a strange format—like a cookbook with a spiral binding. Or someone asks for something that is too individual—like a book on biogenetic markers for rats, which maybe they need for school.’

Most collection development has gone by the wayside in favor of just-in-time ordering in response to patrons’ demands, says Ned Kraft of the State Department’s Bunche Library. His comments echo those of Lewis and Mays: “Of course we still buy some important works without being asked for those books by customers, but a greater and greater percentage of our buying is rush ordering when patrons ask for specific books.”

For Reviews in the Right Places

One message came through loud and clear in talks with librarians about what influences their purchasing decisions: almost all say reviews in certain publications help them whittle the list of possible acquisitions down to a manageable number. Here’s an list of the review media librarians rely on most often.

  • Booklist, published by the American Library Association. Talk about being in demand—Booklist receives more than 60,000 submissions a year, according to its Web site.
  • Choice, (Current Reviews for Academic Libraries), published by the American Library Association. According to the ALA, Choice reaches almost every undergraduate college and university library in the United States.
  • Library Journal, published by Reed Business Information. Used by both public and academic libraries, Library Journal reviews approximately 6,000 current titles annually. Books are selected for their potential interest to a “broad spectrum” of libraries. Library Journal does not review children’s books, but its sister publication, School Library Journal, does.
  • Publishers Weekly, published by Reed Business Information. Publishers Weekly reviews nearly 7,000 books for children and adults each year. Publishers Weekly never reviews books after publication. At least three months prior to publication, send galleys (folded-and-gathered sheets are acceptable for children’s titles). For adult titles, review materials must be bound in some way, and a cover letter should list every book submitted. Publishers not listed in Literary Market Place should provide complete address, telephone number, and information on distribution arrangements.

Jenny McCune, a business writer, has worked in book publishing and reports regularly on publishing and publishers for PMA Independent. You can reach her at jennymccune@imt.net.

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