Give 'Em What They Want, Then Give 'Em the Good Stuff: Why We Can't Afford to Focus on Small Press

If there’s anything I’ve re-learned this summer, it’s that librarians can be downright political about books. And I’m glad for it.

In this guest post, Stephanie Chase, interim Reference, Adult Services and Programming Coordinator for Multnomah County Library, demonstrates her profession’s passionate investment in keeping the general public reading and her own readiness to engage her fellow librarians on their tactics for doing so. For more backstory on what has become a blog series of sorts, read on. You will learn a lot about how librarians fit into the larger publishing picture.‚ Heather McCormack, Editor, LJ Book Review

stephanie chase 150x150 Give 'Em What They Want, Then Give 'Em the Good Stuff: Why We Can't Afford to Focus on Small PressHardly a day seems to go by without someone calling for (or attempting to ring) the death knell for publishing. The recent American Library Association conference, which ran from June 23 to June 28 in New Orleans, was no exception.

Some librarians called for us to host our own ebooks and cut out publishers, some called for us to encourage the addition of more self-published works to our collections, some called for us to become hyper-local in focus for our collections, and some called for librarians to leave behind the big publishing houses and focus on small press.

This last discussion continued on two posts on LJ‘s In the Bookroom blog, the first of which was Heather McCormack’s ALA Annual 2011: Ebooks: New Strategy Required, Now, and the second, Beyond the Blockbuster Model: Why Small Press Representation Is Important, written by Jessica Smith (@subclassz on Twitter), the head librarian at a private boarding school.

What hit me immediately upon reading Smith’s post was how utterly wrong she has collection development, selection, and access in public libraries. It’s pretty easy to call for an increased attention to small press publishing when you have a built-in captive audience to hand sell to‚ a couple hundred students and teachers to reach out to, and ten months to do so. Working at the Popular Library desk at a busy Central Library in a city full of readers, I’m lucky if I see the same 300 people day to day. I’ve often got one chance to sell a library patron on a book, and it is a job I take seriously.

In any public library I have worked for or with‚ including one library, in my previous role as the founder of the digital collection for the state of Vermont through the Green Mountain Library Consortium, that had an annual budget of $800 (no, I didn’t leave a zero or two off that)‚ the staff has been dedicated to creating as rich, rewarding, and accessible collection as possible, one that provides the familiar (the dessert, if you will) and the unknown or unusual (the vegetable you didn’t know you wanted to eat). Every public library I have had experiences with has collected the very kinds of local interest materials Smith recalls from her childhood, because it is what the people in our communities want.

We strive to provide what people come in looking for, but also what they never even knew they wanted, and what they will be willing to try because it is free, or displayed well, or recommended by a librarian, or by someone local.

Libraries do it all the time, and it’s probably most easily seen with our DVD collections: we purchase the blockbusters, the Oscar winners, everything that features the actor or director our patrons particularly like… and then we flesh out our collections with unusual documentaries, foreign films, locally produced fare, classics not available at the one video store still open in town, the entire Criterion Collection. We look at the titles we are thinking of purchasing and pick ones we think patrons won’t sacrifice the top spot in their Netflix queue for, or that they wouldn’t fork over $3 at the store for, or that won’t ever appear in a Redbox. We’re doing the exact same thing with our books.

The fact of the matter is‚ as I would wager almost any public librarian will tell you‚ patrons do not come up to the desk asking for something good to read. They come up to the desk looking for the book that was featured in USA Today this morning, or People last week, or on The Daily Show last night, or on the cover of The New York Times Book Review.

They come up to the desk for the newest book by their favorite author, and we help them find it‚ whether their favorite author is James Patterson, Danielle Steel, or any of a number of other prolific writers many collection development librarians would love to see stop publishing every five minutes, or whether their favorite author is someone local and probably small press.

These patron desires serve as our readers’ advisory gateway: they are the easy sell that opens them up to public librarians’ knowledge of what else is being published and those unknown or unusual titles in our collections. Without that initial request, we wouldn’t have the chance to let the vast majority of our public know about what else is on our shelves, which have the very left of center titles Smith advocates for.

Even more importantly, though, public libraries have, since their inception, prided themselves in making available to the public access to the materials they desire. This freedom of access, free of judgement, is a cornerstone to the mission of public libraries. Your Big Six publisher schlock is another person’s reason to come into the library. I have no right to pass judgement on what my patrons are reading, whether it is a book from the self-help collection or James Patterson.

When 23% of the American public reads two or fewer books a year (according to a 2010 Harris Interactive poll), we better make sure we have in our collections that one book‚ otherwise, what we will be left with is not the opportunity to provide that patron with ideas for other reading, but the likelihood that patron won’t be back, because the library doesn’t have anything good.

Add up every patron who has had an experience like that one, and you can see why people vote to close their local libraries or reduce budgets: not because we don’t have small press, or because we stock big budget books, but because of the simple reason that we didn’t have what they wanted, or that we didn’t have what they wanted when they wanted it.

51rvmtA6iCL 197x300 Give 'Em What They Want, Then Give 'Em the Good Stuff: Why We Can't Afford to Focus on Small PressI have a patron I regularly see on my Popular Library desk shift. He loves Nicholas Sparks, and he often comes to the desk to see when the new Nicholas Sparks book will be out (in case you are wondering, it is The Best of Me, and it is out in October). Every time, we try out new suggestions for other books he might like, and sometimes, he takes us up on them; more often than not, he’s happy just to have it re-confirmed that he really does have something to wait for.

This is clearly a fellow who is not going to read Rae Armantrout’s Versed‚ a title which, I would wager, many libraries purchased, along with the other Pulitzer Prize nominees, when the nominations came out, if they had not already‚ but he is a happy patron, who continues to give us the opportunity to talk with him about books.

Smith speaks of the redundancy factor: Let’s not forget that patrons can get the best sellers cheaply and easily elsewhere, making the library’s physical locale just one more errand to run, one more hurdle between the patron and the book. If I order a James Patterson on Amazon, I get it on the release date. If I download it wirelessly, I can read it as I’m going to bed, already in my PJs while the library is closed.

That scenario is plausible enough, for a very small, very select group of library patrons (12% of the total population, according a Pew study from May 2011). Many of our patrons‚ especially if we are developing our collections well‚ would rather get it free from the library. They’d rather wait three months than head over to Costco and pick up the book they want. Importantly, most can’t afford the kind of behavior Smith describes: they don’t have wireless access, an Amazon account, a Kindle, an extra $15 or $25.

Those are the hurdles, and the public library‚ and our 300 copies of the new Nicholas Sparks, many of which will be read within an inch of their lives before they make it to our used bookstore‚ is the cheap and easy option. The patron I mentioned above is probably going to get the Nicholas Sparks book on the release date, because we put him on the hold list for it as soon as it appeared in our catalog; hopefully everyone in line behind him also won’t have to wait too long, because our holds ratio will ensure those 300 copies are enough. It’s win-win: our patrons get it for free, and we get patrons who think the library is the best thing since sliced bread.

It is our job, as librarians, to have the readers’ advisory skills to help further their access to our collections‚ just as it is our collection development librarians and selectors’ jobs to create the most well-rounded, interesting, successful collections possible. Many of us are doing this in communities where the only options for obtaining books are either the library or a big-box chain store such as Walmart or Costco‚ places where you won’t have the opportunity for dialogue about what you are buying, never mind being referred to items in the midlist or from small press.

It is a delicate balance; the long tail and those left of center items are, in part, what is killing many a central library, as they sit unread on the shelves, requiring a vast overhaul to move away from the old warehouse model. Public libraries have fought, since their inception, to provide our patrons with access to what they desire: early in the 20th century, it was providing access to fiction for our patrons; at the beginning of the 21st, it was DVDs; now, it seems, it is to provide access to the titles they want to read, instead of the titles we think they should read.

– Stephanie Chase (@acornsandnuts) is interim Reference, Adult Services and Programming Coordinator for Multnomah County Library

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (hmccormack@mediasourceinc.com, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.

Comments

  1. Tim says:

    LJ post by @acornsandnuts excellent, but omits the consequences for the ebook future. They are big.

    The trend is already clear. Small presses will offer ebooks on “generous” terms, without DRM, with no cap on loans, etc. (That “generous” is yesterday’s “normal” is a metric of how much ebooks screw libraries.) They’re going to do this because small presses don’t care as much about libraries extracting too much value and cannibalizing sales. Small press items aren’t pirated as much (yet), aren’t constantly out on loan, and they don’t get loaned dozens of times, so the publisher doesn’t lose value by allowing them to be. And when loose restrictions might make the difference between zero sales to a library and one, small presses will go for it.

    By contrast, the big publishers are afraid of all those things. Now that publishers in general can control libraries rights, abilities and prices independent from other book buyers, they’re going to take whatever steps they need to protect and enhance their bottom line. That means lending caps, DRM and higher prices.

    The natural result is that libraries get pushed toward small presses, whose terms and prices continue to look like what they’re paying now, and away from big publishers. @acornsandnuts makes it clear what the downside of this is.

  2. Marco says:

    I’m not sure how this article argues against stocking small-press titles. To me the message is clear: it’s easier to give people what they want, and Big 6 books circulate well. Okay, fine, nothing wrong with that. But why is that a reason not to put some effort into small press titles? Why do the two have to be mutually exclusive? Why can’t the “new releases” kiosk in the entryway have small press titles alongside the new James Patterson and Janet Evanovich? When I worked the circulation desk after college, I had quite a good percentage of people asking for recommendations, and not just where to find a particular book. Many patrons do not have their minds made up, and while it’s easier to just rattle off the most common author names you can think of, most librarians I know are more committed than that.

    I’m certainly not arguing that libraries shouldn’t take the easy sell with big-name books, but what I’m missing is why that precludes looking into small press titles. The only inkling of a reason I can find in this article is that it’s just easier not to, and that seems like rather a flimsy reason for the people who are supposedly helping to curate a well-rounded collection.

  3. Sarah says:

    How exactly do we KNOW that people aren’t looking for small press titles, or the ones not on the top bestseller lists? PEOPLE and The Daily Show and the NYTBR don’t always push these titles. What if we had actually purchased those titles, because we know they will appeal to our patrons? What if they go out many times from the new book shelf?

    Perhaps the difference is that not everyone works in the central branch of a large city library, and there are often more local, and more personal, choices being asked for – often by title, but more than once as a general “can you suggest a good book” question.

    So I too am a little confused by this article.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Excellent rebuttal, Stephanie. As a collection development specialist, I agree that having those “indie” books sit collecting dust on your shelves is a much bigger liability to a collection than reselling the old copies of bestsellers. And I love me my “schlock”. :) I can’t stand it when librarians get all pretentious about what their patrons “ought” to be reading.

  5. Lisa says:

    I also concur with Stephanie. Ideally, a library offers something for everyone. Ideally, a library has the budget and space to buy everything that gets a good professional review. But at the end of the day, if a choice has to be made, I’ll always go with what people are asking for over an obscure title (with, all too often, a bad cover). If patrons don’t find their favorite book at the library — and odds are, that favorite is something mainstream and “commercial” — they’re going to wonder where their tax dollars are going. Meanwhile, I cringe as our paperback shelves fill with small press books that, while they received good reviews, simply do not circulate.

  6. FGoldsmith says:

    This article mixes apples and oranges, as I read it: requests for best sellers aren’t readers’ advisory questions but information (directional) or reference (“what’s the name of that story about X?”) oriented. Secondly, the kind of readers’ advisory service that placed the librarian on a pedestal from which s/he dictated “what’s good for you, benighted library user” was the readers’ advisory work of much earlier generations, not the coin that has been developed and circulated across the past 15 years.

    It’s interesting that in seeing “300 readers” while “at the desk” during a public service shift is equated with meeting and working with readers who want “advice.” sure, the desk sitter is going to get the odd walk-up customer who is brave enough to take up her time with a query for something that the customer might like. But the folks who best profit from readers’ advisory services in and through the library are those who can access the advisor when they want and need: while browsing in the stacks, via email, while working through a matter indirectly related to a fully formed idea that “I want reading advice” (such as renewing a llibrary card, or discussing that best seller in a book group).

    In the past several days, I’ve been asked explicitly for reading advice by: a teacher who wanted an adult novel that wouldn’t offend her self described sensitivity to “frightening events”; a widow who has sunk her reading interests in sci fi since her husband’s death and now believes she wants something realistic, yet fictional, that makes more demand on her abilities to emapathize and sympathize with characters’ problems; a 20-year-old university student wanting something in the way of a sumer reading list of literature unrelated to his major…and the list could go on and on. In each of these examples, however, small press possibilities are obvious.

  7. David Vaprin says:

    About your article.

    1. Everything you say about “doing what actually existing patrons want” is right. We exist to provide a service experience, and sought-after “content,” to citizens (or patrons or customers or users). Getting stuff for the wished-for user is wasteful.
    2. The long tail argument (some books go out only occasionally but do so year after year) is valid. Amazon prospers on it. But we mustn’t confuse a long tail with no tail. If, as a new item, that book or books like it don’t start out and keep on circulating, it was a mistake that needs weeding – and avoiding. It is interesting that you point to “left of center” books. Are you suggesting that as a ‘politically liberal’ group of people we over-buy based on our preferences, or that like-minded people don’t read books for that audience? I would note that conservative readers pile onto a few heavily marketed books (no different there than with best sellers) – a need we should meet – but they have no tail, like bodice-rippers.
    3. You, like most of us well meaning librarians, are seeing us as serving the as-it-is-now middle class and less affluent class and even the underclass. What about the more privileged? Libraries need to be an instution which is seen as OUR PLACE by all strata. When the day comes that the library is seen as a social welfare instituion for THEM (less well off, even poor), and not all of US – that is when we get treated like a United Way agency supported by charity and not by taxes.
    4. The privileged are also those who are most cutting edge and often the most negative about community goods. We can only blunt the negative people by ALSO having value for the better off. This means, today, some attention to the 12% and an eye out for the technological and cultural future. The “privileged” people we can keep are those who feel that they can’t settle for just what they can buy. They want to surf on the culture with library help. But that “eye out” is not really for geeks or pioneers as such, but for where the middle-class-as-it-is-becomming. So some lagging is a good thing.
    5. We do have a moral / cultural obligation – we “should” – take it into account that somewhere or other there is in addition to “now” also a “past” and a “future.” Public libraries, even those with splended Central libraries, are mostly “now” places. But is only the Tea Party (collective goods for me but not for thee) or Nora Roberts (who I like and always read) who deserve all the shelf space? Even the hardware store, that profit-centered tight-margins business, sells screws of unusual size. As you note, coming in for one thing makes a patron out of an uninvolved citizen. DAVID – INDIANAPOLIS

  8. Stephanie Chase says:

    I have loved reading the comments that have come out of this post, and due to a wide variety of things happening in my workplace, I’m just now getting the time to sit down and respond to Tim — we also had a little chat on Twitter — as I said I would.

    In my mind, the choices of what people read in an ebook follow this same kind of pattern: people come to a library-based site and look for what they know. I haven’t seen a library ebook service yet that has given me the kind of browsing experience I want, so we’re still really dependent on meeting an ebook need at the first point of contact or risk the patron deciding “We don’t have anything.” The midlist and the backlist have a bigger role in ebook format, I think, because patrons are often willing to take one more step and try anything — it reminds me of the checkout behavior we see in public libraries from audiobook users (“I’ll listen to almost anything, as long as I haven’t listened to it before.”). So we’re a little more lucky, but not much.

    It’s been my experience that it is still a familiar and known need that determines how people interact with our collections, digital or not. If an author a patron wants doesn’t come up (more likely with ebooks), or the book they want has a long holds list, we’ve got a little more leeway before the patron abandons us as not meeting their need — but we still need to meet it.

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