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Why Librarians Don’t Want Your Self-Published Book

why-librarians-dont-want-to-buy-your-self-published-booksBetween eBooksAreForever, OverDrive, and other channels, indie authors are making inroads on the library market, and yet they’re still facing resistance. OverDrive, for example, isolated self-published books in a ghetto, and librarians are still resisting the idea of buying self-published books.

But as Molly Wetta wrote on her Wrapped up in Books blog last week, the resistance doesn’t come from a perceived self-pub stigma. Instead, librarians face tight constraints on both their time and budget.

Wetta explained that a collection development librarian like herself only has a few hours a week to devote to buying books. And in library systems where collection development is just one of many primary duties, a librarian faces even tighter constraints.

As a result:

It’s simply not efficient or cost-effective to acquire self-published books. They don’t often have existing records ready to add to the library’s catalog; these records have to be created. Self-published books might not be available from the library’s main vendor, who might do any number of tasks to make the book ready to be shelved in a library (a protective cover, property stamps, stickers to identify the proper location of the item, etc.). And of that work has to be done by library staff as an extra step if it is purchased by a different vendor (say, Amazon) and that’s only if the policies allow the library to do that (sometimes a library is restricted to specific vendors).

And that’s not the only problem.

Even when a librarian wants to buy a self-published book, they are still constrained by a limited budget. The librarians need to make sure that the books they buy are in demand and of good quality.

That applies to all books, and not just self-published, but the latter are more difficult to quantify:

It’s not that librarians are completely unwilling to buy self-published books, it’s just that the systems aren’t in place yet (or aren’t yet robust enough) to make it easy to evaluate the quality and to efficiently bring them to patrons.

The supply channel issue can’t be solved by authors on their own, but aren’t there steps that an author can take to demonstrate the quality of their books?

For example, authors could put their ebooks into Biblioboard’s Self-e platform (there’s no money in this, however, just visibility which could lead to sales). Do you suppose a paid book review from a legacy source (PW, Kirkus, etc) would help?

In the absence of official recommendations, some librarians have had to wing it. One librarian explained in the comment section of Wetta’s post how her library is selecting self-published books:

The Greater Victoria Public Library in Victoria, BC (where I am the Head Cataloguer) started an Emerging Local Authors Collection this year, intended for (mostly) self-published books. Clear guidelines were posted on the library’s website, including the geographic area where the authors live, durability of books and the fact that one copy of each book would be donated by the author. The books were fully catalogued (by me) and the collection was launched with an evening reception for the authors and their guests. The books are prominently displayed at our Central Branch, and have been circulating briskly. At the end of one year, books that have proven themselves by high circs may be added to the permanent collection (which is, of course, subject to weeding. Already a small number of titles attracted enough holds on our public catalogue that additional copies were purchased).

That is a lot of work, so it is beyond the resources of most libraries. But until more self-published books make their way through  the accepted vendors, ad hoc arrangements like GVPL’s could be the way that many self-published authors get their foot in the door.

image by Friar’s Balsam


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Chris Meadows August 27, 2015 um 1:42 pm

Isn’t this the exact sort of issue that eBooksAreForever is trying to address, what with its platform-building and collection-curating initiatives?

Nate Hoffelder August 27, 2015 um 3:22 pm

Yes, but it’s still in beta.

Mark Williams August 28, 2015 um 4:40 am

OverDrive does *not* isolate self-published books in a ghetto. This story is ancient history and was never accurate anyway.

Indie titles forwarded by aggregators like Ebook Partnership have been appearing in the OverDrive library catalogue for years.

There *was* an issue with the Smashwords-OverDrive partnership and at first the Smashwords titles were restricted to a sub-section of the catalogue visible only to librarian, but that has long since been resolved.

There are currently 187,000 indie titles showing in the OverDrive public catalogue courtesy of Smashwords.

OverDrive does not take self=published erotica titles from Smashwords (but does from other aggregators).

There were for a long while unseemly delays with the egestion of titles submitted to OverDrive by Smashwords, but that too is history. My latest titles submitted through Smashwords appeared in the OverDrive catalogue within a week.

Library Purchaser August 28, 2015 um 10:05 am

I undertake part of the purchasing for an overdrive platform and I make special note to go into the self published section of the Overdrive marketplace and locate some gems. It appears as if the full Smashwords catalogue is not immediately available in the OD Marketplace, however if there is a title you know of, but can’t find, you can place a request to have it added. I have had some minor issues with some covers not coming through, eg the cover is on Smashwords but no cover in the OD marketplace. Again you can place a request to have the cover added, the process has been hit and miss for me. I also go to the Smashwords site itself to try and find good content, then look it up in OD Marketplace, if it’s not there I then place a content request.

Other than seeing what titles are in the top sales it can be hard to find a good title to purchase, especially using Smashwords, as I find the faceted searching very basic and apt to yield similar results.

There is a special 'local content' area of Overdrive where you can upload self published titles, which we have not employed. I would encourage authors to submit works through Smashwords, set a library price in the settings, and most importantly make sure you have a great cover. I will only purchase books whose covers can sit well next to 'published' titles.

As a guide to pricing, I will take a chance on things that are a few dollars $1-5, $5-10 if they look popular, $10-15 if it is a non fiction title that is popular and looks really valuable to the collection, $15+ I’m not so sure, it would have to be exceptionally popular. Also the better the price, the more copies I will buy if the title is in demand. You could argue that I’m being too cheap, but based on current titles, their prices and the limited time I have to find these titles, the above is a basic overview and insight into my reasoning.

Nate Hoffelder August 28, 2015 um 10:32 am

"the self published section of the Overdrive marketplace"

So is that still a discrete section, or ghetto?

Beth August 28, 2015 um 10:38 am

That story was accurate, not ancient history, and it was never changed. The ebooks from Smashwords are still separated from other ebooks and placed in a ghetto along with ebooks from Author Solutions. This happens in the backend site that librarians use to purchase material, not the site library users have access to. Librarians looking to purchase ebooks from Smashwords have to know what they are looking for, because they are in a separate catalog and can’t be found through a regular search. If they are purchased, library users can access them just like everything else.

Yes, self-published ebooks are available in the main purchasing catalog through Ebook Partnership, but the ones from Smashwords aren’t and never were. It was never resolved, because OverDrive refuses to consider it a problem that needs resolution.

Beth August 28, 2015 um 10:39 am


Beth August 28, 2015 um 10:41 am

Sorry, the reply button isn’t working for me for some reason. My first comment is a reply to Mark Williams, and my second comment is a response to Nate’s question about whether there’s still a self-published ghetto on OverDrive’s site.

Nate Hoffelder August 28, 2015 um 12:34 pm

Yes, a conflict between my webhost and a plugin broke the reply button.

I’ve had to give up nested replies, sorry.

Mark Williams August 28, 2015 um 11:27 am

Beth, please explain why I can see all my titles, through both Smashwords and Ebook Partnership, in the main OverDrive catalogue, along with 180,000+ others from Smashwords.

Have you actually tried looking? Simply typing Smashwords into the search bar will show 187,000 relevant titles, as Smashwords is listed as publisher. I live in The Gambia, West Africa.I somehow doubt I have access to the self-pub section that is available to librarians. That is there specifically to enable librarians to identify self-pubbed titles, which may well be much cheaper than other titles and therefore of interest to librarians.

It is not a ghetto if the exact same titles are also openly available in the public catalogue. All the indie authors I know (US, UK and elsewhere) who have submitted non-erotica titles through Smashwords are able to see them in the public catalogue. Why can’t you?

Chris Meadows August 28, 2015 um 11:32 am

Is it possible that Beth’s implementation of OverDrive works differently from yours? Maybe she doesn’t get those titles when she types that in? If not, perhaps she should contact OverDrive and ask them what’s going on.

Beth August 28, 2015 um 2:36 pm

@Mark Williams and @Chris Meadows What you see when you are searching the OverDrive catalog is not what the story was ever about, unless you are librarians who are purchasing ebooks for your library collections.

When librarians are purchasing ebooks from OverDrive, they are on a special website that is only available to libraries who subscribe to OverDrive. On that site, ebooks from Smashwords are separated from the main ebook catalog in a special section that can’t be searched or browsed without going to it specifically. This means that librarians purchasing ebooks have to make a special effort to go there, and it isn’t intuitive to find it or use it.

There is a public version of the OverDrive catalog, and the self-published titles are integrated there, but librarians doing the purchasing aren’t using that when the are finding title to get.

I still call it a ghetto, because it was specifically billed to librarians as them separating out the self-published titles so they didn’t clutter up regular searches, and they are relegated to a buried section along with Author Solutions. They are very clearly given 2nd-tier status on the library backend, and OverDrive has done very little to make sure that librarians know it exists. I actually didn’t find out about the Smashwords deal until I read about it here, even though I am the coordinator of my library’s OverDrive subscription, that’s how much they cared about promoting the Smashwords deal.

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August Wainwright August 28, 2015 um 4:26 pm


Figured I’d weigh-in on this a bit. Although I agree with you that we’re still facing resistance from libraries on the indie side pertaining to purchasing, all of the issues that Molly Wetta points out are exactly what we’re tackling at eBooksAreForever.

The first (and most important) step, which speaks entirely to Molly’s point about the TIME required, is curation. Regardless of how you feel about it – and it’s a topic that many self-published authors are adamantly against – curation is needed to massively reduce the time requirement of acquisition librarians. Librarians need a trusted source which provides at least a partial guarantee that the books they distribute are professionally produced and popular among readers.

In my experience, many authors see the issue as a cost problem, when, in reality, most of the issues revolve around the time outlay required.

And as Molly highlights, Overdrive/Smashwords does nothing to even remotely solve this first large hurdle to getting indies into libraries. It has little to do with tiers or the self-publishing ghetto, but much more to do with the fact that roughly 200,000 titles were dumped into Overdrive’s platform without any system in place to help librarians evaluate those titles. It’s also worth noting that a large majority of the more successful indies bypass Smashwords altogether; why pay Smashwords 15% of net when you can just go direct? (Also, Overdrive/Smashwords only net authors 45% of list price for library purchases). It’s just not a solution to the problems librarians are dealing with.

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Library Purchaser August 31, 2015 um 10:35 am

I now see what you are saying. My initial post was made to shed light on my current process and not necessarily to take any particular stance on the issue.

However, I will say that it can be annoying that the titles are in a separate section. the other day I wanted to look up stats on a particular title that I came across on the public facing site and couldn’t find it, I then realised it must be a Smashwords title and I had to switch over to that section. What they need to do is allow you to toggle 'Self-published' on and off in conjunction with other search options in one search area. That way you could search all, no Smashwords, or just Smashwords.

Sarah September 1, 2015 um 3:08 pm

As a public librarian, I have been selecting an increasing number of self-published books, especially by local authors. It does take more time/labor to select, acquire, and get those books into circulation, but we feel it is generally worth it. There is demand for these titles. But what has been frustrating is when authors of these books call/email/stop in to demand we immediately pull their book out of circulation and replace with an updated edition. This has happened more than once, and one time it happened only a week after we had finished the extra processing these books often require. It has unfortunately soured some library staff to self-published books in general, that and the authors who loudly complain when we choose not to add their books. Quality is important, and we really appreciate self-published authors who put out professional products. There are excellent self-published books out there that deserve a spot on library shelves, but we’re not likely to add books with typos every other sentence (please don’t forget the 'r' in t-shirts). And remember that there are many, many traditionally published books that we also choose not to add due to quality, cost, and availability.

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