Publishers and Librarians: Two Cultures, One Goal

Both aim to put books and readers together

(This article was originally published in Library Journal on May 1, 2009. Since it is no longer available at the LJ website, I”m reprinting it here.)

For two professions so committed to meeting the needs of readers, publishers and librarians have distinct cultures. Put simply, one culture is all about developing and selling books; the other is about sharing them and fostering a culture of reading. But there’s another basic difference, too. Publishers work closely with authors and use sales figures to tell them what readers want, interpreting those figures like tea leaves. Librarians work closely with readers, using them as informants to help them select books that will satisfy the diverse tastes of a community.

Though sharing may seem contrary to the imperative to sell books, many publishers have recognized the importance of the library market. Traditionally, children’s book houses have been especially aware of libraries as a catalyst for the industry (libraries represent about 40 percent of the children’s book market), and libraries are critical for some small publishers. On the adult side, larger publishers often have library marketing departments that actively network with librarians. Talia Ross of Macmillan, Virginia Stanley at HarperCollins, and Erica Melnichok, Jen Childs, and Marcia Purcell (who heads academic and library marketing) at Random House, for example, are thoroughly plugged-in to the library scene and well known among public librarians. However, for many publishing professionals working in the trenches, the library market is just a number on a P&L (profit-and-loss statement), and for many librarians, the ways of publishers are a complete mystery.

Libraries are a major market for books. Their purchases account for over ten percent of the $27 billion industry (excluding print textbooks for K-12 and higher ed). In contrast to consumer buying, which relies on discretionary dollars, the library market remains a consistent sales channel for publishers.

Libraries’ true roles

Libraries are far more than a market, however. Libraries create readers. They are the test bed, the petri dish for books, a place where people can discover a passion for reading as children and indulge it as adults and where passionate readers can sample new authors. Librarians are the ultimate handsellers of books (though they call it readers’ advisory), and increasingly they put their considerable technical skills into making library web sites rich interactive social networks for book lovers.

Many library users are also book buyers. Tim Spalding of LibraryThing noticed that when he mapped the location of bookstores and libraries in urban communities, bookstores often cluster near libraries, benefiting from the proximity. But libraries are much more broadly spread throughout the community. They bring books to places where future, and current, readers live but where no bookstore will go.

Yet many publishers remain permanently befuddled about the library market-and they don’t grasp the access to readers that libraries provide them. Some think there’s something a little dodgy about letting lots of people read the same book at no charge. This lack of knowledge cuts them off from a tremendous resource-librarians. Librarians are knowledgeable about the practices and preferences of readers of every demographic and have a wealth of information from their patrons about what makes books work.

Moreover, Bookscan isn’t the only source of hard data on what’s popular right now. LJ aggregates statistics on the most popular books from multiple library systems nationwide to create a “best sellers” list of the books most circulated in U.S. libraries. Combined with their own local data and their immediate connection to readers, librarians know what readers want and, like publishers, strive to bring books and readers together.

In an effort to help us all just get along, let’s channel the thoughts of two professionals, both struggling with red ink, feeling misunderstood and underappreciated, yet both devoted to books and readers in their own way. These two profiles are fictionalized composites intended to illustrate the similarities between the two cultures-and their profound differences.

The book editor

The next person who tells me, “Gee, I wish I could read books all day at my job,” is going to get a punch in the nose, seriously.

They think all I do is have boozy lunches in mid-Manhattan with famous authors, correct a few typos with a red pencil, and voilà-a book!

They have no idea.

First, I have to acquire the right manuscripts. When I find one I love, I have to convince the editorial board and the publisher that it’s going to sell, persuade the author’s agent we’re the right house for the project, spend hours on the phone bidding against other publishers, and, finally, close the deal-and that’s just the beginning. I have to manage every step of the process of turning a manuscript or a proposal into a book, from convincing the author he really can cut 100 pages out of his masterpiece, to negotiating an agreement on cover art and page design, to coordinating with marketing and publicity so my books won’t get lost in the shuffle, to pleading for blurbs and soothing ruffled feathers when production screws up or when I’m way behind. And I’m getting dozens of new manuscripts to consider every week, while juggling multiple books at once, all at different stages in the process.

Too bad I don’t have a crystal ball. I must guess what people will want to read a year from now, and my future as an editor depends on making good guesses. Not that much is at stake in the pay department. My $32K starting salary barely pays the rent, and my prospects won’t get much better. The average salary for editors is in the mid-$50s. I suppose that’s because this “gentleman’s profession” is largely female-unless you look at upper management.

Still, I’m lucky to even have a job after Black Wednesday (December 3, 2008, a day of mass layoffs across the industry), but with fewer colleagues, my workload has increased. And it’s hard to find anyone who’s been at this house long enough to hand out good advice.

Most of what I do is invisible. An editor plays a key role in developing a publisher’s greatest asset-its list. As soon as we build up an author, though, another publisher offers a bigger advance and off he or she goes, taking all those carefully nurtured readers along. There’s no brand loyalty to a publishing house. Most readers don’t even notice who published the book.

The last time we paid a celebrity a multimillion-dollar advance, some of my authors-the ones who get the usual four-figure advance-acted as if I personally had given a bonus to a bailed-out AIG executive. I sympathize. I don’t want to publish schlock. I’d much rather publish quality books, and I fight really hard to get attention for my authors, but we have to publish what people want. The fact is, seven out of ten books don’t recoup their costs. It’s the best sellers and the steady sellers on the backlist that pay the bills.

Yet I even get complaints from my friends (some of whom don’t flinch at paying five bucks for a good cup of coffee) that books cost too much. Here’s the reality behind that book price. We give retailers a discount that amounts to half or more of the cover price. The distributor takes a cut. The printer gets between 10-15 percent, and the author gets a similar piece of the action, to be shared with his agent. In the end, there’s about ten percent of the cover price left for us.

Part of the problem is we flood the marketplace with too many titles, and we have fewer and fewer sales reps on the payroll to promote them. Who can keep up? Besides, even if a writer has a following, we can’t afford to bring out books for a limited niche audience. We need to see audiences grow. The fact is, we’re just going to have to publish fewer books. Really. We mean it this time. (Maybe.)

Oh, sure-there’s a lot of craziness in this business. The returns thing? It’s nuts that 40 percent of hardcovers are returned to the publisher for a refund. No other business runs that way. It started back in the Great Depression. The only way booksellers could take the risk of carrying a new book was if publishers promised to take it back if it didn’t sell. Turning that returns policy around won’t be easy, especially in this economy. Booksellers are struggling, too. And even though we know good reviews help people learn about books, there aren’t many traditional consumer review outlets anymore, and there are fewer every day. Sure, there are more and more blogs that focus on books, but it’s hard to know which ones are the trendsetters.

All these pressures don’t stop the higher-ups from demanding higher profits. Though there are tens of thousands of small publishers, a handful of multinational corporations dominate the book business, and for them it’s just another business. What I don’t get-why did these geniuses buy book publishers in the first place? Books may be a big business, but it’s not exactly a boom industry, and margins are historically narrow. You can’t mass manufacture books. Each book is different-meaning it’s handcrafted, page by page, chapter by chapter. And there’s no telling how readers will respond. You can’t just follow the trends, aiming for another Da Vinci Code or the next Twilight. Readers are too smart for that-not that we don’t try. All you can do is use your best instincts, rally the resources you can get out of the publisher, and cross your fingers.

And the technology is changing constantly. We’re trying to figure it out, but this whole online world-it’s so difficult to keep up: blogs, social networks, book trailers, and this new thing, Twitter? What’s that about? The market for ebooks is growing, but it’s hard to know where it’s going. People seem to think an ebook should be nearly free, but it costs money to develop a book, whatever its format, and it costs even more to launch a book on multiple platforms. People don’t realize that Amazon keeps all but 35 percent of the list price for Kindle books. On top of that, we have no idea how many people have bought Kindles or what their demographics are, so it’s impossible to plan ahead.

Besides, who knows what could happen when books go digital. Sure, people complain about DRM (digital rights management), but we have to protect our assets. Just look what happened to the music industry.

My mother keeps sending me articles about how people are going to the library to get their books. But she doesn’t get it. How can we keep publishing books if people think they should get them for free?

The librarian

The next person who tells me, “Gee, I wish I could read books all day at my job,” is going to get a punch in the nose, seriously.

People seem to think I spend my time shelving books, except when I’m shushing people. They don’t realize how much planning goes into the workings of a library, how much technology know-how is required, or that I have to keep on top of a gazillion forthcoming books to make sure we have what our patrons want, cataloged and shelf-ready before they know they want it.

Every day brings a new challenge. I have to build a case for the materials budget when tax revenues are down. There are license agreements to figure out and phone calls from vendors for new databases we can’t afford. (I have never bought anything over the phone. Are they crazy?) There will be roughly a million kids coming through the doors for the summer reading program that nobody’s had time to plan because we lost two positions thanks to a hiring freeze. And someone just told me there’s something nasty on the floor of the men’s bathroom.

Just another day at the library!

Luckily, I love a challenge. What I love best is helping people find the perfect book for them. I know my community, and I know what their interests are. I’m excited by the sense of pride that a child feels when she learns how to read all by herself, and I know how reading expands the horizons of an elderly shut-in who reads six or seven books a week. There’s nothing more fun than greeting a patron at the door with news of the arrival of a book that I know they’ve been waiting for. And then there are the author events and book clubs and our annual book festival…. There’s no doubt in my mind that people love books. Heck, nearly everyone seems to be writing one.

Which brings its own issues. I get a lot of requests from self-published authors asking me to buy their books, and I have to explain that with limited resources and only so much space on the shelves, we have to go with books that are reviewed, that have been professionally edited. With nearly half a million books published each year-maybe half of them self-published, and most of those pretty awful-I just don’t have time to go beyond trusted sources. This usually doesn’t go over well.

It’s getting tougher. We’re seeing a 50 percent increase in traffic, which is literally wearing out the carpet, and we’re having trouble keeping our hardworking computers running when they’re constantly in use. Circulation has increased, too, but our materials budget has shrunk and will probably get even smaller.

Some days it doesn’t take much to set me off. Why do publishers reassign an ISBN to a completely different book? Why can’t they include the original publication date in their catalogs? Why does a U.S. publisher have to give a UK book a new title? And some of the jacket art, what were they thinking? Would you want to be seen in public carrying that? Especially when it comes to YA fiction. Teens aren’t going to pick up a book that looks dumb. Trust me. They won’t.

I wish publishers knew that reputation matters. If you can’t be bothered to describe your books accurately in our vendor’s online catalog, you’re going to end up on my “do not buy” list. I’m tired of ordering what appears to be a book and find out it’s some silly gift item. Or worse, I order a book on tarot and get a deck of cards. Get your information right, and get it in months in advance, if possible, so I can have the right book hit the shelves as soon as it’s published. Isn’t that what you want, to have your books in readers’ hands quickly so they can spread the word?

My wish list for publishers: It would be nice to have lists by subject of nonfiction that’s selling well and to know what’s on a publisher’s backlist by subject. A geographical list that lets us find local authors would also be great. (Hasn’t anyone shown you how to customize Google Maps?) As for fiction, we need big books in big numbers. We bought dozens of copies of Twilight for each of our branches-and still had holds a mile long. But it’s not just about the blockbusters. Our most avid readers are connoisseurs of the midlist. We also want to be able to fill in series and replace worn editions. If warehousing copies is too expensive, why not make the backlist available through print on demand? And where’d you get the idea we don’t buy mass market?

Unabridged audio is hot, hot, hot. But we need downloadable formats since that’s what our patrons have embraced. I mean, really-aren’t we one of your biggest customers for these pricey items? Here’s a crazy idea: treat us that way.

And don’t get me started on ebooks. We thought about getting a Kindle, but we kept getting different answers from Amazon. Yes, you can use it. No, you can’t. Well, you can loan out the Kindle, but only if there aren’t any books on it because that would be a violation of the terms of service. The Google settlement bromide about having one terminal in every public library-are you kidding? That’s never going to work. And products that make it impossible to print or copy and paste make zero sense to my patrons. Ebooks have a tremendous future, but you run the risk of driving readers away by creating products people don’t want and locking everything down. Just look what happened to the music industry.

Making it hard for us to lend books as they go digital is not the way to grow a strong customer base. Why don’t publishers realize that we’re early adopters and strong allies when it comes to digital formats? We work hard to make our e-collections accessible and attractive, and we’ll help readers who are on the fence about technology embrace it. This is the cheapest marketing publishers will ever have!

My dad keeps sending me articles that claim nobody reads anymore. I know that isn’t true-but sometimes I fear publishers are working on it.

In the final analysis

Though publishing and librarianship may have different cultures, we have a common goal. S.R. Ranganathan put it in a nutshell with two of his famous rules: every reader his book; every book its reader. In an era when publishing opportunities have proliferated and the number of titles being published has skyrocketed, libraries rely on professionals who can do the painstaking work of developing quality books. In turn, publishers need librarians, who help spark a love of reading among children, sustain it through the stages of life, and know what’s important to readers.

Though book sales have slumped in recent months, library circulation is soaring. If publishers didn’t get the importance of libraries before, now’s the time to get the message, because it’s in libraries that book culture will be sustained through these hard times.