31 October 2013

Self-publishers and Posterity

The Library Journal's Annoyed Librarian column recently published an article, Self-publishing and Libraries, and a follow-up, For the Self-Publishers.  The gist of the first post is:
  • "Publishers are supposed to stand between the public and awful novels and “inspirational” works."
  • [Speculation about the motivations of self-publishers (which are presumably significantly different from trade published authors).]
  • "But with almost 400,000 self-published books a year, the amount bought or preserved by libraries is going to be negligible. In the future, it will be like the vast majority of these books never existed."
  • "Or maybe that’s true now. If an ebook is published in the wilderness and nobody reads it, does it still count as a book?"
The second post, responding to comments on the first post, covers the following:
  • Trade published books are not necessarily going to be better edited than a good quality self-published book.
  • Library users want the most popular books, not niche books.
  • Librarians rely on certain sources (Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly, etc) for reviews to allow them to make book purchase choices.
  • Librarians do not have the time or budget to evaluate quality individually, so a librarian is infinitely more likely to choose a trade published book which has been reviewed by a trusted source.  Most of these sources do not deal with self-publishers (or only do so on an exploitative payment basis).
These posts inspired the usual eye-rolling in self-published circles, but (ignoring the misplaced suggestion of self-pub = poor quality) their overall gist appears to me simple common sense.  There are a lot of books out there, and librarians usually have a limited budget and even less time to spend.  They're going to focus on popular, reviewed and 'trusted' books.

I disagree, however, on the question of posterity.

Print on demand and ebooks have completely altered the question of how long a book is remembered.  Unless the book world goes through another revolution, every book I release will be available for as long as I allow it to be available and then it will linger on on pirate sites and eventually public domain.  For as long as there is a version of the internet, my books will remain.

I already have over ten releases.  Each year (except for the ones where I am exceptionally slack), I will release a new book.  Physical copies of my books are purchased by readers who particularly like my work (or just prefer to read from paper).  Some of these will circulate to second hand book stores.  Two of my books have finalled in 'creditable' awards.  I am linked three times in Wikipedia, though probably don't quite meet the notability requirements to warrant a page of my own.

I've never been reviewed by Library Journal or Publisher's Weekly and don't really expect to be.  I have been reviewed by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Neumeier, and believe me, the Library Journal isn't going to make me squee nearly as much as the idea that People I Read Have Read Me.  It's possible for any of my books - new or already released - to become a break out hit, or at least a minor success, but even if I simply continue on at my mildly improving growth rate, I have still made tens of thousands of sales.  There are people who consider me an auto-buy author, which (along with re-reading) is one of the biggest compliments a writer can have.

I do not suggest, however, that libraries are irrelevant.  Libraries were my lifeblood, back when I was a kid in a poor family who got new books on occasions like birthdays, if I was lucky.  For a book-a-day girl like I was, libraries were essential.  And the collection of the libraries I had access to shaped me.  My libraries had lots of Norton and McCaffrey and McKinley and Jones, and thus for me science fiction and fantasy has always revolved around female writers.  I gather that some libraries somehow failed to have much if anything in the way of SFF written by women, and thus some people actually don't associate SFF with women.  [That's a hard idea for me to get my head around.]

For the kid I was, growing up in a family where you got books from the library or for your birthday or not at all, a writer not 'preserved' by a library would simply not exist.  But that kid still would have grown up, and transitioned to second hand stores, and then the luxury of buying brand new books on the day of release - sometimes in hardback!

And that was back then.  If I was myself, and ten, in 2013, that once-a-year gift would have been an ereader, and I would be fully appreciating Project Gutenberg, and the plethora of free ebooks used as promotional tools by publishers, and I would shamelessly download pirated books because, after all, it was the books which were my lifeblood, and libraries only the intravenous system which delivered them.

The system has grown.

I started this post because Flannery, Readventurer Extraordinaire, excitedly tweeted to me that she'd seen Stray sitting out on display at her local library. In the nearly four years since I first published a book, this is the first - the very first - time I've had an "in the wild" sighting of any of my books. I was so excited I demanded asked her to go take me a photo. So there we have it: my book in a library, ready to give some unsuspecting teen what Norton and McCaffrey and McKinley and Jones gave me.

Flannery checked the library system, and there are five copies of each of the Touchstone books, and four of And All the Stars. King County Library System is apparently the busiest in the US, and evidently has managed to spare a little bit of time and budget for the occasional self-publisher. [I suspect it was making the Cybils finals which may have triggered the purchase - that definitely did raise my profile generally.] What a lovely picture that is, Stray being a real book and not looking out of place at all.  My excitement demonstrates that libraries are still an important part of the system, but they're not the only part of the system.

My posterity's doing fine, thanks very much.

Edit: Now with a bonus picture of my books in Minette Public Library!  [Or some of them - the rest were apparently checked out!]

Gosh I write skinny books.


  1. When I saw it, I was practically giddy. It makes me want to write a note of congratulations to the acquisitions people at my library system for being on top of their game. I know it must be really hard for them to figure out what to purchase but it makes me really happy that they've deemed at least some self-published books worthy enough to order print copies. And it also made me excited that some Bothell library (the particular branch I was at) employee picked your book from their new acquisitions to put with the stuff up front. It is so crazy that after four years, the very first library your books show up in is in Seattle!

    1. What is it about the Pacific Northwest which makes it such rich book territory? Something in the mist?

  2. Congratulations! A new milestone for sure. And you are definitely one of my auto-buy authors.
    Our local library has a somewhat limited selection, but has started lending e-book titles. It has occurred to me that if it were possible to donate e-book copies to your local library(s), that would be another good way to establish presence, much like occasionally dropping the price of "Stray" to zero, without impacting your overall sales too much.

    1. My ebooks are available at reduced rates to Libraries through Smashwords (and the Stray ebook is available at $0.00 to libraries). Not all libraries participate in that, though.

  3. That photo makes me smile.

    I think you're right about the librarians' filtration system. Even if there were not a veritable firehose of self-published titles (many of which, let us not mince words, are a bit rubbish), there would still be too many books and not enough funds for them to curate everything. It makes sense that the more technologically-aware and/or better-informed ones will extend the same criteria to self-published books, and that authors who have a strong profile and a good track record will eventually make their way onto librarians' radars.

  4. Just to let you know- we are ordering several of your books for the Baldwin County (Alabama, USA) Cooperative Library system. I read your free sample on Pixel of Ink, then purchased my own electronic copies, then ordered paperbacks for the system. Love your work.

    1. Hi Victoria! What a huge compliment. :) I'm so glad you enjoyed them, and hope your library patrons like them too!

  5. Just a couple of ideas. First off, just getting on the shelf is no guarantee of posterity. All libraries weed their collections on a regular basis. If no one is reading the book, it doesn't matter what kind of reviews it got. It will be gone. Of course we can't look at every new title that comes out, but I sure don't base my buying decisions soley on materials provided by entities with a finacial interest in the outcome. Another source I use, and other librians use, is Unshelved. This is a comic that runs weekly, but they have a book review every Friday. I don't know how they decide what to review, but they feature more off beat stuff, and a lot of teen fiction. As far as E books, our library is part of a collective, and all ebooks have to be purchased through Overdrive. They also offer a purchase option, so that might be worth looking into. I don't know what their criteria are.
    I'll send you a picture of your books on the shelf if you'd like. The ones that aren't checked out.

    1. That would be very cool Victoria! :) [My email address is in the sidebar.] I'll have to check out Unshelved too.


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