June 24, 2019

Why I'm Mad at the Library

While my in-laws were visiting from out of town, we decided to go to the public library. Our local library has been recently renovated and has tons of sitting areas, excellent AC, not much noise, and a fun children’s section complete with a playroom. Basically, everything needed to appease a crowd of all ages. As soon as we entered, my father-in-law asked, “Do they have your books here?”

A number of people have asked me if my titles were available through our library system. After the library ignored my requests to add one of my novels to their collection, I found on their website that they accept books donated from local authors. The books are placed on the shelves for a trial period of a year, and if there isn’t enough interest, they’re removed and added to the next rummage sale/fundraiser. All I had to do was fill in a form and bring it and the books to my local branch, drop them off with circulation, and let the library take care of the rest.

Naturally, when I brought my novels to be donated, the staff at the circulation desk had no idea what I was talking about and referred me to the research desk. The librarians at the research desk also had no idea what I was talking about and said, “I don’t think our library even does that.” I helped them navigate to the page on the library website which outlined the process. After much ado and many phone calls, the librarian reluctantly took my books and my contact info so they could update me once they figured out how to handle the situation.

After a few months and no word about my books, I called the administrative office to check if the books I had donated still existed. The acquisition manager had them on her desk and assured me they would get added to the collection. She added a reserve request on my account so I’d get an email once the titles were added. Great!

Several more months later, I finally got an email stating my books were available—six months after I had donated them. I told the members of my writing group that the books were now stocked at my branch. The next time I went to the library, I checked the collection of sci-fi books and fiction section, but I didn’t see my novels. I figured if they weren’t on the shelves, they were likely checked out and didn’t think about it after that.

But this time, I had family there who wanted to see my work on the shelves. This time, I checked the availability first. Both copies were listed as available at my branch, and they were located on the local author shelf. Satisfied that they were in the same building we were, I started my hunt for that specific shelf. I figured they would be located at the front along with the shelves of new books. There are also featured sections a little farther in and local interests just past circulation. However, none of those areas housed the section I was searching for.

Next, I went through the main collection. Biographies were tucked next to non-fiction, manga had its own aisle, some of the paperback genre books were separate from the rest of the fiction area, then were the music and videos, followed by encyclopedias. After exhausting the entire library, I still hadn’t found the shelf.

Clearly, I needed some help. I went up to the circulation desk and asked where the local author shelf was located, getting the response, “I didn’t know we have a local author shelf.” After assuring them that I learned about the shelf on the website and I was not just making shit up, I was directed to the research desk.

I asked my question again to the librarians at the research desk. One of them said, “Local authors? Is that in reference?”

The other one responded, saying, “I don’t know, they keep moving it!” After they laughed for a minute, she added, “It’s probably in reference, somewhere over there.” She gestured toward an entire quarter of the room.

“You’ll need to show me.”

The librarian led me to the back corner of the library. Each section had a large, clear sign on top of the bookcases stating what type of books were housed in the shelves underneath. Glancing around the shelves, she pointed to one at the floor and said, “There it is,” then briskly walked away.

I mumbled, “Thank you,” as I kneeled down to the ground. The shelf was marked with just a half-sheet of printer paper instead of an actual sign. Most of the books looked brand new, making me think none of them had ever been checked out. Around them were almanacs, algebra study guides, and dictionaries—all reference books which couldn’t even leave the building.

My father-in-law thought it was cool and snapped a few photos to post on social media, but I was (and still am) pretty miffed. Wouldn’t the library want to celebrate their local authors? Why take such great lengths to hide these books, moving them all the time so I’ll never know where to look and can’t accurately tell anyone where in the library my novels are located? Wasn’t the library supposed to support the local community, including those of us who’ve published books?

My city has an annual book festival which only got started a couple of years ago. The first time I heard about it was through the local newspaper. I was disappointed that I hadn’t been contacted about it since it seemed like a great opportunity to share my work with my community. I kept my ear out for the following year so I’d have a chance to volunteer in some of the programs for the event and schedule a book signing. However, the first news I got of the next festival included the full list of invited speakers and authors, all best-sellers in their genre—most of whom don’t even live in Maryland. I understand the desire to enrich the community, but yet again, I was sad that locals weren’t even given an opportunity to participate.

The reluctance to support local authors isn’t unique to my community. I recently read an article titled Solving the Local Author Dilemma. The author of the piece, a librarian in Canada, views local authors as a problem. She claims that hosting an event for a member of the community means the library loses out on having a big-name author come in instead. Her solution is to hold an annual three-hour event where local authors can mingle and sell a few books. This keeps the authors from attempting to schedule signings at the library during the rest of the year, and “the library comes across as the community-minded good guy that does not turn up its nose at unestablished writers.” Now, this article was written for other librarians, but her contempt for indie authors is clear.

On the other hand, getting a self-published book into a bookstore is an even greater uphill battle. Store owners claim self-published books don’t sell. They might reluctantly take a few copies on consignment and place them spine out on the highest shelf next to the employees-only area where no one can see them. Then, the books don’t sell, creating a self-fulfilling cycle that ‘self-published books don’t sell.’ I’ve frequently wondered if some books become best-sellers simply because they’re placed front and center in bookstores. But short of opening my own bookstore, I have no control over where my book might get placed.

Self-publishing has changed a ton in the past ten years, but several institutions have failed to recognize this. Before ebooks and digital printing, a writer had to invest serious cash into printing their own book, an endeavor only someone (over) confident in their work would pursue. Although the bar for self-publishing is even lower now, the space of self-published literature is no longer dominated by egomaniacs.

Yet ultimately, publishing is a business. Big publishers have the clout and authority to pick which books they believe will sell. Every new author is a gamble, so they only take on the ones which the most commercial appeal. However, there are more and more indie authors who also treat their writing as a business, and we’ve reached a point where there are tons of indie authors supporting themselves and their families with revenue from their books.

But don’t look for these successful indie author’s books in the library. They won’t be there, because libraries don’t like self-published books.

I told a friend recently that I haven’t held a signing or anything for my books at the library since people don’t normally go to the library to buy books, and I also haven’t done so at a bookstore because I use Amazon to print my books and Amazon and bookstores don’t get along. In one sentence, I shot down the two biggest sources of physical books. Even so, I desperately want my books to exist ‘in the real world’ and outside of the internet. I’ve used conventions and festivals to fill that void, and they’ve been so successful it’s made me wonder why I’ve shunned other physical-book outlets.

What’s the solution to getting indie authors recognized in brick-and-mortar book institutions? I don’t know. My goal in this post is simply to point out the disparity and encourage others to think about it too.

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