Nashville is as much Music City U.S.A. as it is a literary hub that plays host to dozens of publishers, including Christian houses. Devin Maddox, v-p of publishing at B&H in Nashville, became aware of both the literary and musical forces within the city at an early age—his father first worked for Thomas Nelson before becoming an attorney on Music Row.
“When I think about my hometown,” Maddox says, “I think about both kinds of publishing that drive our influence as a city—music publishing and book publishing.”
The thriving metropolis is not immune to national trends, however, including the loss of bookstores. Tennessee alone had nine LifeWay Christian Stores—all of which closed by the end of 2019. As Christian bookstores disappear and shelf space decreases, libraries have become key places for readers to discover new books.
The Nashville Public Library system has 21 branches serving more than 1.5 million people—and according to statistics released in 2019, there were 3.3 million library visits, 6.9 million items borrowed, and 32,000 new library cards issued in the past year. Diversity and inclusion are among a librarian’s top priorities when it comes to collection development, and religious books are no exception.
Creating a varied collection is the key to survival for libraries, and librarians work diligently to provide information, says Rita Shacklett, director of libraries for the Rutherford County Library System, which is located within Nashville’s metropolitan area. “As a public library, we don’t censor,” she notes. “We try to have a broad view of everything, which is so important because we’re serving a community that is diverse.”
Librarians strive to provide not only pleasure-reading material but also textbooks, journals, historical documents, plus the Bible and the Koran.
“Public libraries have a duty, literally, to offer all viewpoints, to connect to all our customers, and not just the majority,” says Noel Rutherford, material services manager at the NPL. “We are more educational than the public knows. You can check out anything—no one is stopping you. It’s really the most democratic institution.”
Nevertheless, librarians often struggle with budget cuts and understaffing, leaving little money or time to stay on top of upcoming titles and new authors. They need easy access to news about religion titles. Some of the ways librarians access this information is through reviews, galleys, or bestseller and awards lists, but preferences vary widely. Many librarians look for monthly or quarterly newsletters from publishers, while others complain about the deluge of mailings. And more and more, they rely on algorithms and other data about the most requested and most used book at each branch for stocking library shelves.
“It’s a mixed bag,” Shacklett says. “Ten years ago, [representatives from publishing houses] used to come to us and show us the newest books and what’s available, but we don’t have time for that anymore.”
In order to gain an audience with librarians, several religion publishers use newsletters, webcasts, and galleys. Exhibiting at library conferences—PLA, ALA, and regional meetings—also fosters a connection to the library market.
“Whether our team is able to attend PLA or not,” says Jenaye White, senior publicist at B&H, “we work with Baker & Taylor to ensure B&H has a presence there and is doing everything we can to serve librarians in attendance.”
Additionally, B&H uses NetGalley, which reaches over 18,000 librarians, as well as media outlets that circulate to librarians, such as BookPage, Christian Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.
Some of HarperCollins Christian Publishing’s library outreach includes e-newsletters, trade shows, social media, and distributor publications. “We understand that librarians, much like all readers, are paying attention to multiple channels to find content that their constituents will enjoy,” says Kathleen Dietz, manager of library sales for HCCP.
Publisher engagement with public and school libraries often takes the form of author visits as well. Meet-and-greets, readings, and other events help authors connect with library staff and library patrons—including teachers, parents, and readers of all ages.
“The face-to-face meeting offers a connection and camaraderie that’s not possible with any other form of communication,” says a representative from Worthy Kids, an imprint of Hachette Nashville. “The time authors spend actually inside the library creates stronger relationships with our library partners—we aren’t just ‘marketing’ to them; we are investing the time to really get to know them and work alongside them.”
So how do librarians actually pick which books they’re going to buy? Among other factors, content directors take special consideration of local authors, demand, quality, and a book’s contribution to the scope of the collection.
“There is a lot of nuance,” says NPL’s Rutherford. “I get far more requests than I can afford to say yes to. Just because [a book] is well written doesn’t mean there’s a demand, and it may not be the best written, but there is a large demand.”
Some of the most popular religious genres for Nashville area library patrons are children’s books, fiction, and self-help, according librarians in the region.
“Christian romances fly off the shelves,” Rutherford notes. “Self-help touches on everything, from decorating to the workplace. I’ve seen a pretty successful integration of a lot of different self-help topics from a faith perspective.”
Library adoption has several benefits to publishers. When patrons like what they read, they often decide to buy. And while bookstores and other retailers serve customers in order to make a sale, librarians interact strictly to serve a patron’s interests—a role that provides a unique perspective.
“More than most gatekeepers, libraries invest in meeting, knowing, and understanding their patrons,” the Worthy Kids representative says. “A librarian can take the time to understand a patron’s needs and to connect them with the right books and authors. As a result of that time investment and achieved knowledge, they can offer publishers invaluable insight into our customers that is difficult to find elsewhere.”
Recognizing that heightened visibility in libraries has both short- and long-term benefits to their businesses, several religion houses are prioritizing the library market today. “Libraries are good partners for launching new authors, supporting the backlist for existing authors, and making new ideas available to everyone in the community,” says HCCP’s Dietz. “With a library card, readers can access a world of knowledge, adventure, and entertainment, and we want to be a big part of that experience.”
Though sometimes relationships between publishers and libraries are fraught, the partnership between religion publishers and librarians appears to be on steady ground, with room only for growth. Rutherford County’s Shacklett recommends that publishers supply fiction and nonfiction pairings, since a novel can pique the interest of a reader who then searches for factual material on the same topic. For instance, Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan, a novel about C.S. Lewis and his wife, Joy, might lead readers to another Thomas Nelson title, Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis by Terry Lindvall. Additionally, publishers can contact the state library association and get on listserves that reach across the region. And catalogues from publishers, though fewer and further between, are still helpful as well, Shacklett says.
For her part, Rutherford of the NPL says, “We’re getting everything we need from publishers.”