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Are Libraries the New Bookstores?

NYC Public Library photo by Andrew E. Larsen [1]
NYC Public Library photo by Andrew E. Larsen

Please welcome return guest Martha Conway [2]! Martha’s first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her novel Thieving Forest [3] won the North American Book Award for Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been published in the Iowa Review, Carolina Quarterly, Folio, and other journals, and she teaches creative writing for Stanford University’s Online Writers Studio and UC Berkeley Extension. Martha grew up in northern Ohio and now lives in San Francisco. Her latest novel is Sugarland [4].

I love libraries, and I was excited when a number of librarians in Ohio asked me if I would hold a reading at their library. Later I realized that my library tour had some advantages over a traditional bookstore tour, which I thought other authors might want to know about.

Connect with Martha on Facebook [5] and Twitter [6].

Are Libraries the New Bookstores?

Last year I was about halfway through my book tour in Ohio when I noticed something strange: I had not yet laid eyes on a bookstore.

I was traveling with my father and my sister through northwest Ohio. My novel Thieving Forest, which prompted the tour, took place in this area in 1806, when it was known as the Great Black Swamp. Today the swamp is mostly drained except for a few state parks and forests, and what has taken its place is farmland. Miles and miles of farmland.

“Hey, have you noticed there are no bookstores anywhere?” I asked my sister.

She said, “But there are a lot of libraries.”

That was a good thing, since I was on a book tour of libraries—eight of them. Every reading I held except for one (there’s always one) was extremely well attended with an audience full of avid readers. They had interesting questions, insightful comments, and we always engaged in a lively discussion. It was every writer’s dream. And then, after each reading, my sister and I sold my books—at a discount, since there wasn’t a bookstore’s cut to consider. The readers were happy and I was happy, too.

It turns out that just because there were no bookstores didn’t mean there were no readers. They were all at the libraries.

I love bookstores, but I have an even deeper attachment to libraries that began in childhood. Like most compulsive readers, my branch library was my second home. After I read From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I fantasized about running away like the two siblings in the book, only instead of living in a museum as these characters had, I wanted to live in my library.

Sugarland (low)Authors are becoming aware of the benefits of reaching out to libraries and making their books and themselves available. For one thing, nearly every library has at least one book club, if not two or more. What author doesn’t want to promote their book to as many book clubs as possible?

But book clubs aren’t the only ways that libraries promote books. According to Holly Kabat, the Acquisitions Editor at Medina County District Library and the librarian who organized a reading for me in Cleveland, “Libraries spend a lot of money and time, including training staff and coworkers, on best marketing practices. . . We want your books to circulate as much as you do!”

In addition, most libraries foster a strong sense of community, which librarians nurture not only by hosting author readings, but by providing hands-on help on a multitude of topics. In the Ohio libraries that I visited, I saw posters offering workshops on, for example, filling out tax forms or learning computer skills.

“Academic, public and school libraries are experiencing a shift in how they are perceived by their communities and society,” according to the latest State of America’s Libraries report from the American Library Association. “No longer just places for books, libraries of all types are viewed as anchors, centers for academic life and research and cherished spaces.”

Libraries are becoming what’s known as “Third Spaces”—a social area apart from home or work. Even in the most rural of areas, I was told that people drove for miles to attend libraries events. And in fact I witnessed that first-hand as I read from my novel in crowded rooms.

According to Trinity Lescallett, Adult Services Manager at Tiffin Public Library, libraries “are certainly about more than books. We provide programs, both informational and entertaining, … and partner with other organizations and schools in our community to better serve our patrons.” Trinity not only organized a reading for me at her library, but also petitioned for my book to become her town’s Community Read for 2015—and succeeded.

The sense of community in libraries means that readers go there to look for a variety of reasons, not just books. And if your book is displayed prominently on the “New Releases” shelf, then you get a lot of eyes on your cover (and hopefully on the pages within). I couldn’t help compare the very large bookcases in libraries displaying new books to the very small tables I’ve recently been seeing in bookstores that do the same. According to a recent study by Bowker, a new book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.

So what can a writer do to attract the attention of librarians?

Don’t wait: contact libraries as soon as your book is released. According to librarian Holly Kabat, “Libraries rely heavily on their “new” section for continual circulation, because a lot of patrons don’t look beyond displays, and a lot of members don’t have an interest in books that aren’t new releases, for whatever reason. It is very rare that I buy a book with a pub date more than a year or two past the current date.” Also, keep your request short, giving a concise summary of the book.

Ask friends to request your book from their library, especially if they live in different cities and/or different states. Libraries listen to their members, and often have automatic requests built in to their web site—you can request without leaving your couch!

Get to know who is working at your branch library, and ask about that library’s audience. Librarians can tell you what kind of book is popular in different areas; for instance, in the Cleveland Heights library I visited, there is a large demand for Urban Fiction, while in Medina, Ohio, Christian / Amish novels tend to circulate well. But don’t let popularity be an obstacle. Librarians also balance what’s popular with promoting variety.

Make sure you have a great cover. Librarians arrange displays of different kinds of books all over their libraries, and you want them to want to put your book among them! Face-out books get the most circulation.

Whether a published author is giving a talk or local authors are using the library as a meeting space, libraries are “natural magnets for writers,” Holly Kabat states. So don’t be shy. Pick up the phone, send an email, or even stop by for a chat. You don’t even have to whisper inside anymore.

Tell us about your library experiences! Have you used a library on a book tour, for a book talk, or other event? We’d love to hear!