BEA Survival Diaries: Ebook Soldiers and Book-Buying Genius

If you want proof, it’s in my Twitterstream. Circa 2009, stumbling around the West Village at night, I declared that 2011 would be The Year Librarians Broke, recalling how it took the fourth generation of punks to penetrate global markets via Nirvana in Dave Markey’s documentary. After five days of quality hang time with my librarian wolf pack at Library Journal‘s rousing, book-centered Day of Dialog and BookExpo America, I’m even more convinced my tipsy rumination has Naomi Campbell catwalk legs.

Ebooks‚ for all the harrowing existential angst they cause public librarians in particular‚ have contributed to this higher cultural profile. They are the reason many of you were passed the mic, so to speak, and why you’re still rocking it, one fist in the OverDrive catalog, one fist in the air. A time line of seminal developments goes something like this: Happy Kindle holidays! (December 2010), the general public’s inundation of public libraries (Dec. 26, 2010), renewed ALA ebook task force meeting at Midwinter (Jan. 7, 2011), LJ‘s Digital Book World panel (Jan. 26, 2011), LJ‘s Tools of Change panel (Feb. 16, 2011), HarperCollins’s library ebook loaning cap (Feb. 25, 2011), Amazon’s library lending for Kindle (April 20, 2011), and 3M’s buzzed-about entrance into the library ebook market (May 23, 2011).

From left to right: Moderator Hadro, Nesbitt, Colford, Santangelo, and Dunneback

Now, add to that last week’s BEA panel about selling trade ebooks to libraries, moderated by my colleague Josh Hadro and packed with librarians and publishing representatives. Having attended a half dozen depressing panels on this issue in the last year and a half, I found it striking for the unflappable, we’re-doing-this-no-matter-what, almost pro-wrestler attitude of the panelists: Robin Nesbitt, technical services director, Columbus Metropolitan Library; Michael Colford, director of resource services/information technology, Boston Public Library; Michael Santangelo, electronic resources analyst, Brooklyn Public Library; and Katie Dunneback, consultant, East Central Library Services, IA.

The 20-ton question of the HarperCollins loaning cap arose with Colford’s comment that Boston Public does not buy the publisher’s ebooks and will not until another system is hashed out‚ but, he believes it will. When Santangelo defended HarperCollins’s right to experiment and praised its ebook discounting, his co-panelists unanimously concurred with the latter point. Nesbitt herself could not imagine opting out of HC titles altogether given its range of offerings.

If my tweaked earlobes were any indication, many people in my proximity up front were taken aback by this show of support for a Big Six house that has been largely disemboweled in the blogosphere. If you digest the doubling and tripling ebook circulation stats at the panelists’ institutions, however, it all makes perfect sense. Today is no different than ten, 20, or 30 years ago in the sense that librarians still aspire above all else to put quality information in patrons’ hands as efficiently and painlessly as possible. They are not scared of DRM or a loaning cap because they’ve dealt with the George W. Bush administration, floods, tornadoes, recurring budget cuts, homeless cats and dogs living together, and the occasional tasering.

Annoyed is a much better word‚ Dunneback repeatedly pointed out the need for invisible technology‚ but do not confuse it with daunted.

This psychology, methinks, could be too easily misconstrued to resculpt the stereotype of the liberal librarian pushover, a torchbearer of democracy with an embarrassing phobia of political wildfires. But every professional I’ve met with a few years of selection services under her or his belt is a granite-beaked negotiator, accustomed to arguing for lower prices on all make of databases. OverDrive is just the latest in a long line of products with exorbitant price tags.

Alas, even the most ardent pro-library book lovers and pundits have taken this noble hard-headedness for granted, and it’s a low-down dirty shame because it’s meant more books being read and talked about than if libraries didn’t exist, and it could mean more books sold if publishers dared to break out of the staid, no-simultaneous-use model dominating the library ebook market. For evidence, look no further than go-getter Nesbitt, who vocalized her desire to see publishers prosper and willingness to pay more money for more access to electronic content.

I swear to you upon hearing that pronouncement, my ears assumed the superpower of hearing publishers’ most deeply guarded thoughts, e.g., You mean librarians have money to spend in a recession?! and But I thought they were only here to Robin Hood our profits! Take it from a professed optimist with a grimy pessimistic core: we all left room 1E02 in the guts of the Javits feeling a lot more educated, relieved, and grateful for the‚ dare I say, symbiotic?‚ roles of librarians and publishers.

My hunch is that this spirit of mutual respect will continue as LJ forges ahead with its Patron Profiles research initiative, which will document the long-talked-about connections between library patrons and book consumers, a topic I tackled for O’Reilly’s Radar blog in April 2010.

Nora Rawlinson, cofounder of librarian favorite, threw some delectable rock salt toward my theory with her panel “Buying for Demand,” held just an hour or so before Hadro’s cage-rattler. Featured to provocative effect were Wendy Bartlett, collection development coordinator of Cuyahoga County Public Library, which Rawlinson praised for its aggressive, early purchasing program and short holds list; and Cathy Langer, the buyer at Denver’s Tattered Cover, long acknowledged as one of the indies most plugged-in to its community.

From left to right: Rawlinson, Langer, and Bartlett

Many would call it anecdata, but the information these hyper-engaged book pros presented definitively demonstrated not only the similarities between public library and independent bookstore workflows‚ a theme, I must note, from this year’s Digital Book World and Tools of Change conferences‚ but also the many wondrous and even shocking ways to curate collections that achieve a rarefied level of customer service.

The most obvious example: When it comes to the basics of their buying processes, both Bartlett and Langer begin by searching publisher catalogs, preferably print ones over online aggregator Edelweiss. Rawlinson, though a fan of the latter forum, concurred, remarking, “When you look at print catalogs, you really get a sense of what’s being promoted.”

To compensate for what she perceives as a loss of emphasis in electronic catalogs, Langer stressed the importance of sales reps, often thought of as a dying breed in the 21st-century book ecosystem. “You need them now more than ever to interpret what you were used to seeing in double-page spreads,” she said.

Bartlett’s system, meanwhile, is rounded out by, you guessed it, prepublication reviews (she did not name specific sources, but commented that “one starred review does not a purchase make; maybe three”) and blogs (ditto; I am going to email her for recommendations, but you coll dev heads likely are already in the know).

Not surprisingly, neither Bartlett nor Langer reads much of what she buys because both are operating so far ahead of publication date, in Barlett’s case up to a year in advance. “Beverly Lewis put a stop to six months early,” Bartlett attested, underscoring the need to plan ahead or risk the scorn of book-voracious patrons and putting to rest a rumor about shrinking lead times heard by Random House library marketing director Marcia Purcell.

Personal taste, of course, plays no role in their decision making. After BEA, Langer and her crack team will meet to draft “an amazing, thoughtful list” of works that transcend the obvious juggernauts, e.g., for its female-centric take on the Holocaust, Caroline Moorhead’s The Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France (November, HarperCollins), previewed recently in Prepub Alert.

I am looking for special, Langer commented, which I took to mean fiction and nonfiction with just wider-than-micro-niche appeal, works off most people’s radars but that Langer & Co. can hand-sell easily to Denver’s most ardent readers.

For her part, Bartlett relies on her readers’ advisory (RA) experts‚ which she likened to “a booksellers’ community in-house”‚ to articulate concrete descriptions of plot, character, setting, etc., so she can settle on how many copies to buy and where to place it.

“I don’t care if they don’t like a book,” she vocalized repeatedly. “I can’t read horror, but I can tell you Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf [July, Knopf] is going to be the next Twilight because of the words my friend used to summarize it: sharp teeth, British labor…”

This approach has led to an impressive holds ratio of two to one, an achievement Bartlett credits to Cuyahoga’s explicit aversion to nonfiction and the midlist, in her unapologetic words, “the junk in the middle.”

Langer vehemently disagreed with Bartlett’s assessment, as did many of the librarians and library marketers in the room. Love it or hate it, however, her sound bite perfectly encapsulates a bold, anti-automated approach that I find exhilarating as a closeted RA type. This is just the kind of philosophy that buoys my theory of publishers needing librarians more than ever‚ not to mention readers and authors. In an era in which everyone wants to be writer and a publisher, you won’t be able to rely solely on metadata percolating in a database to make a discovery.

It takes people‚ mission-obsessed, story-seeking librarians, that is‚ to find a book with a pulse.

When I got the job, Bartlett said, the first thing I did was cancel every single standing-order plan. The vendors told me about books I already knew about, and junk.

Langer’s stand, if I may conjure an overly dramatic Western-styled image, came courtesy of a good question about ebooks being easier or harder to hand-sell. Her rhetorical answer was on the terse side to my ears (and understandably so given her lack of options outside of Google Ebooks). We’ve been kind of kept out of the e-original market. Why should I promote something I’ve been prohibited from selling?

Bartlett could’ve answered in the same way, but like her colleagues on Hadro’s ebook panel later that morning, she did not seem stymied by the daunting grocery list of complications preventing her from doing her best work.

I’m buying just as much [electronic] as in print, she said, but there’s a huge ebook patron base that I need to be aggressive for.

New York shocker (er, not really): Ebook romances rule Cuyahoga’s ebook purchases‚ and Library Journal is about to begin reviewing them in earnest. In the words of Bartlett, Oh, my god! My theory is, it’s guys.

Judging from the waves of approving chortles and giggles in the room, we may have a new power niche market.

Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

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


  1. Bill says:

    Love this phrase of yours: convinced my tipsy rumination has Naomi Campbell catwalk legs.

    Well done!


  2. Michael Santangelo says:

    What a great post Heather. I really appreciate the image of collection development librarians you present here. Hardworking advocates and tough negotiators is definitely how I see many of my colleagues–especially Robin Nesbitt and the other nationwide leaders in collection development. My one concern may be the characterization of my position vis a vis Harper Collins lending cap/licensing model, which could possibly have manifested from my word choices. I would say I defined Harper’s model as an experiment–not defended it. It is not up to me to defend or represent any vendor’s position, but to evaluate it and see how it best meets the needs of my institution and its users.

  3. Kathryn King says:

    As a selector of adult nonfiction I find this statement disheartening: This approach has led to an impressive holds ratio of two to one, an achievement Bartlett credits to Cuyahoga’s explicit aversion to nonfiction…

    While my turnover rate and items with zero circulation after a year is both lower and higher respectively than my fiction counterpart’s this doesn’t mean there isn’t a need or a want for nonfiction. I have cookbooks that are never on the shelf. We order more copies when any title reaches a 3:1 hold ratio. Of course, the best scenario is having ordered enough in the first place so you don’t run the risk of not being able to get more until a second printing.

    I can’t help but wonder if Bartlett might have a personal dislike for nonfiction and therefore doesn’t see the demand for it in her patrons. Just because our sci fi mmpbks don’t circulate as well as our paranormal romances doesn’t mean I don’t buy them at all. I am just far more selective in what and how many I buy and where I place them.

    Long Live Nonfiction!

  4. Heather McCormack says:


    I don’t think it’s personal with Bartlett. I just think she believes she has found a successful formula for her library, but do read my interview with her in next Thursday’s BookSmack! e-newsletter. She clarifies her statements.

  5. Kathryn King says:

    I’m looking forward to your upcoming interview. Maybe it is *my* personal bias because I don’t read fiction (except for a mystery once in a while) so her statement struck me as an affront to my own reading habits. As a library user I often have my limit of items checked out and there is nary a fiction title among the stack. Professionally, I do not purchase very much (if any) research/academic/scholarly type nonfiction materials for the library where I work and this is based on what our focus groups told us. Maybe that is what she meant by nonfiction because a quick search of their catalog shows numerous nonfiction titles (many with hold queues)–everything from the latest NYT and Amazon nonfiction bestsellers to the always popular EatingWell and Taste of Home cookbooks. They even have nonfiction titles that I passed over for my library because I didn’t think they would be a good fit. I do hold fast to the concept that books should circulate and circulate well in order to earn their place on the shelves. And Cuyahoga is certainly doing something right. I have always thought of them as being on the forefront of the library world. Circulation (or use in our case because we count in house use) drives how we allocate our budget so our patrons tell us how much to spend on nonfiction. I’m sure her statements about mid-list fiction caused even more furor–so I am anxiously waiting for Thursday’s BookSmack!.

    • Heather McCormack says:

      @Kathryn, just a heads-up that the interview has been postponed to the July 21st issue of BookSmack! I think you will find it enlightening and that Bartlett’s aim is to give the people what they want, but not mindlessly, meaning no reliance on vendors.