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.
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.