Behind the Collection Development Curtain: De-mystifying Library Book Buying

The MG fiction section of the Ronald H. Roberts Temecula Public Library

Earlier this year, Publisher’s Weekly published the experience of an author who was frustrated in his attempts to get his local library to buy his book. The author, who published with an academic press, looked at the library as a way to sell a few extra copies. For writers of kidlit, libraries play a far more vital role in that they are one of the few ways to directly reach our audience.

So, how does your book get into libraries? Like so many things in publishing, the answer is subjective. It depends on the library. However, as is also the case in publishing, there are a few things that you can do to improve your chances.

Make sure that your book is available through our vendors. Like any government entity, libraries work with a list of approved vendors. The three major vendors for libraries are Brodart, Baker & Taylor, and Ingram. If your book is available through these three companies, it makes it a lot easier for your local library to purchase your title. There have been titles that authors have sent to me that would have been a great addition to the library’s collection, but because the book was only available through the author’s website or Amazon, I couldn’t purchase it.

Reviews, patron requests, and word-of-mouth help to guide purchasing decisions. LitReactor published a reaction piece to the Publisher’s Weekly article with great advice for authors about interacting with libraries. The main takeaway was that libraries don’t serve the interests of the collection development librarian — (if they did, my library would only have spooky middle-grade books). Libraries serve the interests of their community, which is where reviews come in handy. From professional journals like School Library Journal and Booklist to crowd sourced review sites like Goodreads, reviews tell librarians about the book and about the reactions we can expect from patrons. Many librarians also follow book blogs and BookTube to gauge patron interest. Some libraries even have policies that prohibit them from buying books that have not been reviewed by a professional source.

Word-of-mouth means that our patrons will hear about your book and request it. Patron requests help to drive purchasing decisions because if a book is requested, librarians know that at the very least, the requester will check out the book without staff having to hand-sell it to patrons. And don’t request your own book as a patron. In this case, you’re attempting to sell your book to your libraries. (After all, you’ve read your book, you’re probably not going to check it out to read it again.)

About Advanced Readers Copies and donated copies. Librarians love ARCs. They help us gauge how excited the publisher is about a book but sending librarians ARCs doesn’t guarantee that a librarian will read it. It definitely doesn’t guarantee that the book will be added to the collection. More often than not, ARCs end up as giveaways and prizes for our patrons. You would be better served getting those ARCs into the hands of reviewers.

Similarly, donated copies often meet the same fate or are sold in book sales. Even though the book may be free, there is still a cost to process it (all the stickers, labels, adding the book to the online catalog). Often, this type of processing is handled by the vendor, which goes back to my earlier point of making sure that your book is available through those vendors.

Some libraries offer local author collections, and donated copies will sometimes make their way into those collections if you are a local author or the book holds particular local interest.

A short note on formats and covers. Most libraries purchasing kidlit want to purchase hardcover copies because they’ll be able to be checked out more. They are more visible than paperbacks, which tend to either get destroyed after only a few checkouts or lost in the shelves. Also, a professional-looking cover is a big plus. Librarians must judge a book by its cover because we know that our patrons will too.

So, what’s the best way to get your book into libraries? Just like in publishing, the answer is research. Research the library’s collection development policy. Research the community. Find the best way to contact the collection development librarian with the pertinent information about your book, including a pitch, reviews, and the ISBN. If your book fits our community’s needs (and our budget), there’s a good chance we will buy it.

This article is reprinted from SCBWI ProInsider.

Mimi Powell
Mimi Powell decided to run away to a theme park instead of a museum. It was so much fun she decided to live in Orlando, FL... land of theme parks. When she's not riding roller coasters, Mimi writes scary stories and buys books for libraries. She can be found on Twitter and on her website, talking about books and writing.