How libraries select books

Back in May I wrote about a Gallup survey that shed some light on how US adults select books to read. That poll revealed that book reviews only play a role 7% of the time with readers. The most important things to readers are prior experience with an author and recommendations from someone they know.

But there’s another important block of buyers that don’t buy the same way. In fact, for them reviews are KING.

Who are these buyers?

Public libraries.

And the library market isn’t small. According to  a fascinating Library Journal article, “there are more than 9,000 in the US, and that’s not counting branches.” Furthermore, “library 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.”

When looking at how many books average authors sell and what it takes to make a living writing, it becomes very apparent that libraries can have a huge effect on a midlist writer’s career.

Of course, we all know there’s more to it than sales. The article points out:

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.

I love libraries for this very reason. And because there’s no way I could purchase all the books I read. No way in heck. So how do they find the books for their collections? I mentioned above that they used reviews. But I didn’t know how much until I saw the data. Holy schnitzel (click on the graphic to see it full size).


This only makes sense. Study after study has shown that buyers don’t want unlimited choice. Readers use prior experience and recommendations from people they know to manage the chaos. Libraries use reviews and then patron recommendations. Of course, this use of reviews has other implications as shown below.

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.

About 9 months ago I wrote about how cumulative advantage can drive product popularity–products that get early positive notice tend to get more notice. It appears that cumulative advantage is at work again. It’s just that with libraries the method isn’t a download counter. The article’s author concludes, “the best way to reach the library market is indirectly: by publishing books that people want to read and having them assessed objectively in reviews.”

So what are the major sources for pre-publication book reviews? The article lists five big ones:

  • Booklist
  • Kirkus Reviews
  • Library Journal
  • Publishers Weekly
  • School Library Journal

But what can an author do with this information? Authors can’t control reviews. Heck, according to the article the Library Journal itself only reviews about 10% of the books they receive.

We all know the answer. Authors can control one thing: they can strive to write the best holy freaking heck book in their power. After all, what’s a review but a recommendation? Besides, patron recommendations were #3 on the librians’ list anyway. Nevertheless, it DOES help to have a publisher who sends your book out to the reviewers and their catalogs out to libraries. It helps to have a team that’s connected with librarians.

The article ends by saying publishers and libraries are actually working together. I liked how the author summed it up.

What publishers offer:

  • Discovery of talent
  • Shaping and refining books
  • Design, distribution, marketing, and promotion

 What librarians offer:

  • Discovery of books
  • Nurturing of diverse reading communities
  • Selection, distribution, marketing, and promotion

Here’s to libraries! (And good reviews. And grandmas. And the little house trolls that give writers fabulous ideas.)

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6 Responses to How libraries select books

  1. bdayton says:

    The Logan UT library must definitely work this way. I’ve suggested five titles to them since I moved here in August, and they’ve bought all five. Clearly, they listen to what their patrons want. I guess I’m not too shabby at explaining just how great the books are I suggested, either. Hey, I haven’t suggested yours yet! Better put that on the to-do list.

  2. John Brown says:

    Yeah, what were you thinking! 😀

    I called the Logan library a number of months ago and talked to an acquisitions librarian there. I thought that it might be helpful to send out a letter to all the public libraries in Utah, letting them know about my book, since I’m a Utahan and many have a special interest in local authors. He told me the same stuff–they look at the reviews. Luckily, SERVANT has gotten great reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist (forthcoming), and Library Journal.

    Logan’s been great about purchases as well. I put in for interlibrary loans and half of those they decide to purchase.

  3. bdayton says:

    The Logan Library told me they’re definitely purchasing your book, in a response to the request I made for it. Now, to get my nephew interested in it and get the word of mouth train rolling.

  4. John Brown says:

    That’s good to hear. So happy to hear your excitement. I hope you’re coming to the Logan signing. I’d love to meet in person.

  5. bdayton says:

    I’m definitely planning on being at the signing. I’ve got it in the google calendar, so hopefully that actually translates into remembering to go, unlike the book sale on Friday that I missed even after I emailed myself.

  6. John Brown says:

    😀 You miss things too? You’re a man after my own brain. See you there.