Q: From a University of Washington I-School colleague of Nancy’s comes this great topic for discussion: how libraries collect self-published materials. One of the students in that colleague’s class asked: “How do public library selectors who rely primarily on vendor lists and professional pre-publication book reviews find out about the growing number of self-published materials? Is it possible to give the same credence to a book whose content, ideas, or writing style may not have been reviewed except by the author and has not been through the editing and publishing process?” The discussion was wide-ranging, with most students deciding they’d hesitate to select self-published books—until one student said: “There are occasions where books are initially self-published, start to gain some traction, and are then picked up by a publishing house. Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria trilogy, which begins with Theft of Swords is quite good, and he originally self-published.” That’s true of the now bestselling book of all time—E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. How many libraries stocked that book when it was self-published? We put the question to Nancy: when it comes to the library, whither the self-published book?

A: I find the whole question of libraries and self-published material difficult, because it conjures up a whole host of other complex issues, such as how much importance a library places on demand for titles, how you define a “good” book, the nature of book reviewing, the current state of publishing (both self- and traditional), and that’s just for starters.

I am probably the wrong person to ask this question of, since my feelings about a library acquiring self-published materials are almost entirely influenced by two facts: (1) I went to library school (the University of Michigan) at a time (the tail-end of the ’60s) when the quality of materials selected was still more important—or at least as important—as the demand for them was; And (2) my first job as a children’s librarian was at the Detroit Public Library, where three librarians vetted every children’s book that was considered for purchase. Their reasons for accepting or rejecting a title were then written on 1×3-in. cards that were kept in a wooden file cabinet at the Main Library. I remember being surprised that the library didn’t own copies of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books (which were among my childhood favorites) and discovered when I looked at the card that the librarian-reviewers of that series deemed them “too sentimental” for purchase. I’d like to know how many libraries purchased copies of Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place in 1956, or if you could only find it on a spinner rack in the drugstore (which is where I bought a copy). It was originally published by Messner, was generally panned by critics—and was on bestseller lists for over a year.

Those were the days, right? We used to read our books by candlelight and walked to and from school, which was an uphill trek (both ways) in a foot of snow. I know that in 2012 there are many reasons besides rejection by a traditional publisher why an author would choose to self-publish, and I know several who have gone that route with varying degrees of success. I also know that you can find nicely written, well-plotted self-published titles pretty much as easily as you can find badly written and poorly conceived traditionally published titles.

I suspect that libraries will continue to find out about most self-published titles via patron requests. They then have three choices: (1) wait until a self-published book becomes popular enough to be picked up by a traditional publisher, when it will show up on vendor lists and probably receive some professional pre-pub reviews; (2) place their trust in online, crowd-sourced reviews (if librarians go this route, I’d make David Streitfeld’s recent New York Times Business section article “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy” required reading); and (3) they can go ahead and read and evaluate for themselves every requested self-published title.

Q: Once again, the subject of e-books has come up. Last month, the ALA Digital Content Working Group issued a report on e-book business models, and in a story in PW in the August 27 issue, “Life with E-Books,” we noted how librarians are beginning to tire of the e-book question and all its complexity—and are ready to move on to something else. So, two parts to this question: how are you feeling about the state of affairs regarding e-books? And, are there other things libraries can, and should, be going after rather than limited access to popular e-books from the big six publishers?

A: Can this please be the last e-book question I answer until 2014? I am stunned by the amount of ink, time, and energy that’s going into this relatively minor topic. Does anyone really think that the success or failure of public libraries—or even the results of the next bond measure—rests on whether Macmillan and Simon & Schuster ever allow library users to download their e-books? Surely not. It’s like Nero fiddling while Rome burned. There are so many bigger issues facing libraries today, like the threat to their very existence in a society that seems to be turning away from many of the core beliefs that define our profession, including, most importantly, that libraries are necessary to a democratic society because a library is the one place where everyone has free and open access to a multiplicity of ideas and beliefs.

Let’s talk about different ways of building relationships with our patrons. Let’s discuss whether the library still has, or even should have, an educational mission. Let’s talk about how our purchasing decisions reflect that. Let’s talk about the future of reference and reader’s advisory in an increasingly (but not totally, not for everyone) wired world. Let’s talk about other books to read once you’ve finished Fifty Shades of Grey (like The Story of O). And maybe most importantly, let’s figure out some ways for libraries to share good ideas with each other.

Books to Read Before You Die

Souls Raised from the Dead by Doris Betts
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
The Walls Came Tumbling Down by Babs H. Deal
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
24 Hours by Greg Iles Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke Time’s Witness by Michael Malone
The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker
Heartbreak Hotel by Anne Rivers Siddons
Black Mountain Breakdown by Lee Smith
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

Nancy Pearl, a veteran Seattle librarian, is a regular commentator about books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.