In 2014, as the author of a new nonfiction book—which, even before publication, was more or less doomed to obscurity, at least outside of academic circles—I was looking for ways to shill a few copies. Hey, royalties are royalties, after all. Then it hit me: libraries. Of course! Libraries not only accept but actively encourage suggestions for new book purchases. Why not?
Well, many libraries forbid or at least discourage authors from suggesting purchases of their own works. As such, whenever I was able to do so, I self-identified as the book’s author but proceeded to explain the sound reasons why the library should purchase a copy anyway. So, please, before you get all high and mighty on me, I was upfront about what I was doing.
Suddenly an otherwise humdrum evening of TV, a postwork beer or two, and making too many ill-advised online chess moves devolved into an odyssey of looking up various public library systems across my home and native land, Canada, seeking either those fill-in-the-blanks book suggestion pages or librarian email addresses.
The pitch? Easy: I’m a Canadian living in Canada. The book, Behind the Front, is published by a preeminent academic press. It deals with World War I, the centenary of which we were then in the middle of. It had received several positive reviews, and it dealt with a subject near and dear to the hearts of many Canadians—relations between English and French speakers.
To the credit of Toronto Public Library, I received a personal response, rather than the far-more-common automatically generated sort, thanking me both for sending along a URL to a review in a major print publication and for not being an annoying self-published author, clearly a bête noire of this city staffer.
Thinking even more locally, I turned my focus toward the suburban and intellectual fringe of Toronto, where I currently live. Hey, if I could interest a local newspaper in devoting a story to the book’s publication as part of its Remembrance Day coverage, how difficult could it be to convince my neighborhood library of the relative merits of buying a copy?
Perhaps for no reason other than the fact that I can leave my front door and be outside the entrance of a local branch of Markham Public Library in, oh, three minutes, their belated “thanks but no thanks” rankled. Here was a golden opportunity to not only think local but to buy local—but they weren’t, dammit.
Responding in the gentlest way possible, I expressed my disappointment that the library was not open to supporting a local creator—not to mention a local taxpayer as well as a local voter—and to give my epistle added oomph, I copied my local municipal councillor.
Lo and behold, I received apologetic emails from both the library and the councillor within hours. They assured me that this had all been a misunderstanding, that a portion of the library budget was earmarked for just such worthy purchases (note to self: good to know), and that several copies of my book would be ordered.
Mission accomplished—or so it seemed.
Though subsequently checking up on which libraries did or did not make a purchase was not a priority, it was nevertheless gratifying to discover that two copies had appeared in the TPL system. Not to be outdone, the London, Ontario, system purchased three—yes, three—copies.
My local library? Not one. Not on order. Nothing. Other than reminding the librarian of her earlier assurances, my final email was brief. Frankly, I was more frustrated than angry. Like, what the fuck gives? So when a single copy—yup, a measly singleton, not the original several copies promised—of my book eventually appeared on local shelves, it felt a pyrrhic victory indeed.
In retrospect, I’m not entirely convinced that there’s any moral or insight or wisdom to be gained from my experience. But what I would say is this: as much as we’d all like to idealize the people who run our libraries as the book-loving and curious people we want, or at least imagine, them to be, they are eminently human, constrained by bureaucracies and policies and financial considerations.
In the meantime, despite its plummeting Amazon ranking (#4,605,584), the book continues to receive excellent reviews. Not that that matters. Obscurity beckons.
Torontonian Craig Gibson is a historian and blogger. His first book, Behind the Front, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014.