Librarians are the usually overworked gatekeepers between publishers and patrons, arbiters of shelf space and reading habits. That makes them obvious targets for publishers eager to tap into a market that buys often and in big numbers. With more than 9,000 public libraries/systems—totaling nearly 17,000 individual buildings—in the United States, publishers are looking for innovative and successful ways to reach them.
Religion Is In Demand
Public libraries aren’t hesitant to carry religion books. According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, “Librarians have a professional responsibility to be inclusive rather than exclusive in collection development.... Collections should [provide] access to diverse religious thought without becoming a proponent of any of them.”
Everything from Christian fiction to Native American mysticism, Judaica, Tarot, Islam, Zoroastrianism are carried on library shelves in the 100s and 200s, according to the Dewey Decimal System. Even the smallest library, such as the Craig Public Library in Craig, Alaska, has about 1,000 religion titles in its 14,000-book collection.
The largest subset of the religion category is, by far, inspirational fiction. From Craig on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, to the Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis, such authors as Karen Kingsbury, Beverly Lewis, Tracie Peterson, and Francine Rivers draw long waiting lists and create the need for multiple copies of new titles.
In Hennepin County, senior librarian Jeffrey Gegner has purchased 27 copies of Lewis’s September release, The Bridesmaid (Bethany House); 63 readers are already on the waiting list. Dee Henderson also has a new book releasing in October (Full Disclosure, Bethany House); 40 people are on that waiting list and 27 copies are on order for the library.
“If the book is with a known publisher, it’s not a question of if we’ll buy it, but how many copies we’ll buy,” says Gegner, who has been with the system for 16 years. “Christian fiction readers know what’s out there, and if they don’t find it at the library they’ll ask. If they ask and the book is with a major house, we’ll order it. If we’re not familiar with the publisher, we’ll research the house.”
According to Melissa DeWild, collection development director for Kent District Library in Kent County, Mich., much inspirational fiction is on standing order. “Those authors tend to be perennially popular and have a lot of book series. We know we’ll want those authors and a certain number of copies, so as soon as they become available they’ll ship.”
DeWild figures that about 15% of adult fiction circulation is inspirational fiction, with the most popular authors and Amish-themed titles doing best.
The struggle, she finds, is discovering newer authors they don’t automatically purchase. Kent District Library doesn’t get targeted direct mailings from inspirational publishers, and librarians don’t spend as much time as they’d like looking through catalogues for religion titles.
“We need more from publishers on newer authors,” says DeWild, who added that patrons using the district’s online request form help alert librarians to new authors and titles.
Getting Information to Libraries
Amy Marshall in Craig, Alaska, receives nothing from religion publishers, neither e-mail blasts nor direct mailings, perhaps, she says, because the library is so small. “We look at Booklist, the New York Times Review of Books, and get a lot of patron requests,” says Marshall.
Many librarians depend on reviews in sources such as Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal, purchasing books based on what they see in those publications. DeWild studies Publishers Weekly not only for reviews but also for trend articles, news briefs, bestseller lists, spring/fall announcements, and the advertisements. Gegner of Hennepin County also studies Christian Retailing for trends and advertisements.
Gail Mason, library services manager for the Santa Clara County Library in Los Gatos, Calif., says, “The timely availability of reviews helps us anticipate patron demand while ensuring the quality of the collection.” She finds that publisher catalogues—while not preferred by some staff—help her select religious, inspirational, and spiritual material not traditionally considered mainstream. She cites books from such publishers as Shambhala, Llewellyn, and Inner Traditions as examples.
Librarians differ widely on how they access information about new titles. Review sources—whether in print or online—are widely read. Asante Cain, librarian and collection development specialist for the Grand Rapids Public Library in Michigan, says, “It’s hard for me to purchase a title if I haven’t seen reviews or seen at least a couple of pages of the book.”
Cain purchases religion nonfiction for the Grand Rapids Public Library. He spends about $14,000 per year, some 1.09% of the system’s total materials budget. Most in demand are titles in comparative religions, Buddhism, and Christianity. He cites as currently most popular Joel Osteen’s Every Day a Friday (FaithWords, 2011), Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (New World Library, 2004) and The Vow by Kim and Krickitt Carpenter (B&H Publishing, 2000), along with authors Debbie Macomber and Mitch Album.
For Cain, e-blasts and e-newsletters are “distracting,” though he may look at a print catalogue from publishers who still send them, such as Rowman & Littlefield. “Titles will bubble up. Maybe someone will ask about a title and we’ll most likely buy it, but if I’m doing my job I shouldn’t have a lot” that are not already on order.
Rebecca Near purchases all fiction, including inspirational and e-books, for the Grand Rapids Public Library. Like Cain, she depends on reviews, but also uses catalogues and Web sites to choose inspirational fiction, which is not classified separately from other fiction in the library system. “While inspirational fiction is popular at GRPL, there are many other genres that are more popular,” says Near.
Still, the perennially bestselling Karen Kingsbury and Beverly Lewis are in the top 30 fiction authors across the Grand Rapids Public Library. Near says Tracie Peterson also generates large hold lists.
Librarians tap into a number of other sources for information. Marshall of Craig, Alaska, uses NetGalley, an online warehouse for publishers to post book galleys for librarians, reviewers, and media. DeWild of Kent District Library also takes advantage of publisher catalogues posted on Edelweiss (abovethetreeline.com/edelweiss/), an online service that replaces or supplements print catalogues.
EarlyWord (earlyword.com) is another resource that links librarians and publishers, with a grab bag of new title alerts, bestseller lists, blogs, news, and information on all things book related. DeWild and others tap into this resource, as well as e-newsletters such as PW Daily and the other PW newsletters, Publishers Lunch, and Shelf Awareness.
“I look at Shelf Awareness and EarlyWord every morning,” says DeWild. “The information and ads are important, and the sites aren’t overwhelming. For me, having things in smaller chunks but more often is much easier. Print catalogues and fliers are getting less effective for me because I can quickly skim things online.”
Direct Contact with Publishers?
When it comes to direct contact with publishers, librarians are ambivalent. Some find e-blasts and e-newsletters annoying, while others welcome them from publishers such as Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, and HarperCollins. Some have never heard from a publisher, others occasionally participate in online book chats in which publishers participate. Many depend on distributors (see story on page 10) for information on religion titles, while other librarians search online resources for that information.
“I don’t have a lot of direct contact with publishers,” says Gegner of Hennepin County. “Major New York publishers have library marketing people, but it’s more of a casual relationship with them.” He and fellow Hennepin librarians once visited the Minneapolis headquarters of Bethany House, the Christian publisher of inspirational fiction. Gegner is on the lookout for Bethany titles, as well as those from Llewellyn, a publisher of New Age materials, also located in the area.
Librarians may meet publishers at the American Library Association or Public Library Association conferences, but contact on a personal level is sporadic, as budget cuts often prevent attendance at such gatherings.
“If there are innovative ways that publishers are using to reach us librarians that I’m not aware of, I think publishers need to do a little better job of making us aware of them,” says Cain of Grand Rapids Public Library.
Mason of Santa Clara County Library argues for ease of access to titles and ordering. “I find that publishers willing to provide titles only through direct, exclusive channels are shooting themselves in the foot. Making titles and standing order plans available through other channels widens their distribution and is a more effective means of promotion.” She also questions publisher reluctance to make titles available to libraries in digital formats.
“Libraries and publishers have a long history of matching books to readers, and by shutting libraries out of the digital market, publishers are depriving themselves of the buying power libraries represent,” says Mason.
For librarians struggling with budget cuts and understaffing, the basic need is for ease of finding news and information on religion titles, whether reviews or new-author information, galleys or bestseller lists. Yet preferences for accessing that information vary widely.
Print vs. online catalogues. Publisher e-newsletters vs. compilation Web sites such as Shelf Awareness. Hard-copy galleys vs. NetGalley. Print reviews or online review sites. Librarians are as individual in how they like to acquire information as they are in personality.
“While publishing formats and library selection tools are rapidly changing, my observation is that most libraries continue to use a tried and true approach as they strive to provide quality collections that are relevant to their communities,” says Mason of Santa Clara County.