In a business challenged by the disappearance of retail bookstores, publishers are counting on the nation’s 9,225 public libraries to invest in the spiritual and buy up to 10% of their religion books.

Working with libraries, however, means working through specialized distribution channels that are as unique to libraries as the Dewey Decimal System. Unless publishers and libraries get more proactive about using what’s available from distributors, observers say, they’re going to miss opportunities to build religion collections around the country.

For print books, librarians go largely through Ingram or Baker & Taylor. For digital, most libraries use OverDrive, although competition is growing from the likes of 3M’s new Cloud Library initiative, eChristian, Ingram’s MyiLibrary platform, and Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360, which started last year.

Even with the growth of digital, everyone still relies on just a handful of players to funnel books from thousands of publishers into libraries from coast to coast.

“All of the consolidation, both in the publishing end as well as in the vendor end, means publishers are depending more and more on the last person in the chain” that leads to library buyers, says Don Wicks, director of Kent State University’s Center for the Study of Information and Religion.

It’s Different with Libraries

In selling to libraries, distributors use a distinct approach. They don’t contact buyers and run down a list of new releases, as dealers do when selling to retail chains. Instead, distributors employ collection development specialists, who select which titles go to particular library systems in accordance with their profiles. Distributors then get the books, label them with codes and stack them—physically, or in the case of e-books, virtually—for smooth integration into catalogues without taxing a library’s personnel.

Collection development services from distributors play a critical role in generating book sales. Publishing industry sales consultant Karen Strauss says librarians often aren’t aware of potentially eye-catching titles because, unlike major retailers, they don’t have distributor representatives running through lists of new releases with them.

But making selections on behalf of library clients is a value-added service that librarians appreciate, according to Martin Warzala, director of collection management and technical development at Baker & Taylor.

“The library community does not have the time to have individual sales consultants come in and promote titles to them,” Warzala says. “Our job is to provide for them the profiling [of] titles while not going too far over the edge and promoting things that are not of even peripheral interest to the library.”

To make the most of collection development services, Wicks says, libraries need to be more active in a process in which it’s easy to become passive. By letting distributors know of patrons’ requests and interests, librarians increase the chances that their shelves will include pleasant surprises.

Efficiency Is Important

Distributors work with library staff to develop collections, but libraries also order specific titles requested by patrons, and they establish automatic purchasing programs to get copies of every new book by popular authors. Like libraries, publishers appreciate the services offered by distributors.

“Anything that creates efficiency for the collection development process is welcomed,” says Nathan Henrion, national sales manager for Baker Publishing Group. “Automatic order plans, such as Baker & Taylor’s Automatically Yours program, help tremendously.”

While library distribution channels have distinct virtues, they aren’t perfect and sometimes leave librarians frustrated. At the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Public Library, where patrons flock to Christian fiction and nonfiction from big-name pastors, library staff say they can’t tell from distributor listings whether a book is physically built for durability.

“They don’t warn us,” says Mary Elizabeth Harper, director of the Tuscaloosa Public Library. “It’s not easy to determine that this title, which looks really good, is going to come to us as a 3-in.×5-in. softcover with a gold edge that will throw our security into fits, if we can even get a tag on its binding.”

In building religion sections, libraries respond primarily to their local communities’ stated interests. Publishers say Christian fiction has strong appeal among libraries—especially in the Bible Belt. In urban West Coast libraries, books about Eastern religions and how-to spirituality round out core collections.

“We don’t have the critical mass of religion books to truly reach out to this [library] market,” says Munro Magruder, associate publisher at New World Library, which publishes fewer than 10 religion and spirituality titles per year. “We have to rely on intermediaries to help us get there.”

Digital Uncertainty

Librarians feel hard-pressed to keep up with the digital era. While some library systems have invested heavily in digital content for lending, 39% of libraries were offering no downloadable media service as of summer 2011, according to a survey of chief officers of state library agencies. Even libraries that do have digital collections don’t always avail themselves of all that distributors offer to help them diversify.

“There are services provided by our distributors that we don’t take advantage of,” says Lisa Rice, director of Warren Public Library in Bowling Green, Ky., and president-elect of the Kentucky Library Association. “We get a lot of input from our community [and] we just haven’t needed” distributors’ full suite of offerings.

Reluctance to invest in e-books reflects uncertainty about the digital future. Public libraries used to buy books and own and lend them until they wore out or fell out of favor with readers. Now HarperCollins has turned libraries effectively into licensees that can circulate an e-book only 26 times before it expires.

With e-books, libraries are routinely asked to pay more per item than consumers pay—sometimes a lot more. Libraries can still buy e-books from Random House for unlimited circulation, but prices jumped exponentially on March 1. In an extreme example, Tuscaloosa Public Library paid $12.99 for an e-book version of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones last year, but this spring the price jumped to more than $100, Mary Elizabeth Harper says. Wondering if volatile e-book prices might soon drop, some libraries are now taking a wait-and-see approach before investing, Rice says.

There’s not much distributors can do to shore up library buyers’ confidence, since publishers, not distributors, set pricing and terms. But e-book distributors are hardly sitting still as they vie for more market share by offering new products and services.

The 800-pound gorilla of e-book distributors to libraries is OverDrive, which claims to serve more than 90% of libraries that distribute e-books. For client libraries, OverDrive creates a virtual branch on the Web, where patrons can download e-books to their electronic reading devices.

New competitors, however, are redefining what distributors offer. With 3M’s Cloud Library, patrons get access to e-books, audio books, and other content through a server that lets them read on various devices. However, Cloud Library doesn’t work on Amazon’s Kindle products. 3M hasn’t struck a deal with Amazon, but continues to pursue one, according to Cloud library marketing manager Tom Mercer.

Another big change: 3M furnishes libraries with new 3M reading devices, which patrons can check out along with their e-books. 3M’s program started up this year and serves 40 library systems, including those in St. Paul and Baltimore, and the Kansas State Library.

Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360 also expands the breadth of what distributors offer. Its Blio software app, which library patrons download to their devices, seamlessly accommodates video and other graphic features in enhanced e-books.

Publishers are also evolving in how they work with distributors. A growing dynamic involves pay-to-play. OverDrive’s ContentWire e-newsletter has been a free vehicle for getting new book announcements in front of thousands of librarians. But that will soon change when OverDrive starts charging publishers to participate, according to OverDrive’s director of marketing, David Burleigh. In this step, OverDrive is following a revenue model used by Baker & Taylor, which charges publishers for preferred placement and advertising in Spirit, a quarterly preview of upcoming religion releases.

The Value of Visibility

Publishers seem to accept that visibility before librarians is worth paying for. New World Library pays for a chance to showcase its books on spirituality-related themes in webinars hosted by industry journals such as PW and LJ. Christian publisher Abingdon derives 5%–10% of its sales revenue from public libraries, according to Mark Yeh, director of sales and marketing, who says advertising through distributor channels has helped grow its library market.

Even as new services from distributors proliferate, religion publishers still value traditional ones. Henrion says Baker Publishing Group depends heavily on distributors for cataloguing and prepping books for library shelves. Baker derives about 3% of all sales from public libraries, according to Henrion. He notes that new novelists tend to get warmer receptions in public libraries than in retail outlets.

As publishers experiment with library pricing and terms, distributors find themselves caught in the middle. When asked what libraries could do to help distributors better meet their needs, Ingram says more certainty would be useful.

“If there were one thing,” says Ingram’s director of collection development, Joyce Skokut, “perhaps being a bit more foresighted and providing predictive information on how budgets might be spent in the future, i.e., print and digital” would help.

With religion continually in the news and on the minds of readers, distributors plan to keep rolling out tools to help librarians keep their patrons engaged. The challenge will be getting publishers and librarians to use all of them.