Every independent publisher looking to maximize sales understands the importance of the library market. Libraries can be a significant source of revenue (a favorite statistic: there are more public library branches in the US than Starbucks!), but they’re also an excellent tool for driving discovery, staffed by enthusiastic readers eager to be evangelists for good books and writers (and publishers) that they love. During a global pandemic when access has become vital, libraries have grown even more important, so much so that The Washington Post recently declared that the public library is enjoying something of a golden age.1
Eager as they may be, librarians are overwhelmed with information. And despite the renaissance, many libraries face challenges that drive—and limit—buying decisions. Fortunately, librarians are typically open to titles from independent publishers, so you may have a receptive ear. Librarians are listening, but there are lots of publishers talking. Here’s how you can cut through the noise and reach librarians directly.
Let’s start with the tried and true: email newsletters. Sure, not the most groundbreaking of digital marketing tactics, but based on a completely unscientific poll of librarians and publishers, newsletters are still very popular and very effective.
“I subscribe to about a million newsletters,” says Allie Affinito, librarian at the Chatham Square branch of the New York Public Library in Chinatown. While she often first hears about new titles through conferences and reviews, a title popping up in multiple newsletters can really help a book stand out. “I find a lot of new titles by just skimming my inbox.” And publishers agree. Digital marketing coordinator Anita Ragunathan, who manages library marketing for Toronto-based ECW Press, says that their monthly newsletter—sent to a list built from opt-ins at conferences, Edelweiss requests, and direct advance reader copy (ARC) requests—is their primary outreach tool for this channel.
Why? For the same reasons email newsletters work for businesses in other segments—you’re marketing to a self-selected audience who has already indicated they want your product. Abigail Gehring, associate publisher at Skyhorse Publishing, insists that the importance of capturing emails and building your list right can’t be overstated. “These are people who have already told you that they want to hear from you. We really encourage our authors to build and use newsletters to get the word out about their books.” So, be sure to give librarians every opportunity to opt in. Collect emails from Edelweiss and NetGalley requests, provide a specific librarian opt-in on your website, and keep track of everyone you interact with at conferences and meetings.
Jane Friedman wrote a wonderful how-to on publisher newsletters a few years ago and her advice still stands.2 The key points to remember: Grow your list organically as much as possible (even if it means starting small), stick to a schedule, and continually optimize. Also, make sure your newsletter represents who you are as a publisher. Ragunathan insists that the “personal” touch is what makes her newsletter so effective. “We include illustrations of the staff and talk about the books we’re reading. Even if they’re not ECW books … We really want to personalize everything so that when [librarians] reach out to us, they know it’s Anita who does marketing they’re talking to, not just some staff member.” In other words, the newsletter is a conversation that helps build relationships and is not just a sales flyer. In the small world of grassroots book publishing, those personal connections make all the difference.
Though certainly more fraught than they used to be, conferences remain an excellent way to drive book discovery and create relationships with librarians. For some publishers, it’s still one of the most important. Monique Muhlenkamp, publicity director at Bay-area publisher New World Library, says that even with the move to virtual, conferences are vital. “Library sales are a very important part of our business,” she says. “[In years past], we may have skipped BEA or regional shows, but we never miss ALA.” This face-to-face time is vital for nurturing an ongoing conversation between publishers and librarians.
While publishers are on the fence about the move to virtual conferences (though everyone interviewed here readily acknowledged the need), librarians tend to be more receptive. Some even prefer the format. “Honestly, that was a silver lining of the pandemic,” Affinito says. “Conferences are still a main way I find out about new books … I felt like I was always able to hop on to a conference of some sort.” Importantly, the virtual format also means librarians can go back later to see more. “[The virtual format] allows me to go back and look at things I couldn’t attend live. Review things I missed,” Affinito says.
Conferences may have lost that personal touch (at least for the time being), but they remain a great way to make connections, build your email list (the virtual booth makes opt-ins incredibly easy), and drive discovery for new titles, with the added benefit of giving librarians plenty of time post-conference to learn and engage.
For many, social media is their digital marketing, and since librarians have a strong and vibrant presence on Twitter and Instagram, it would seem this is a golden opportunity to directly reach an important community. And it can be! But you need to make sure your goals match the channel and that your expectations are realistic.
First and foremost, don’t plan on social media driving a lot of discovery for new books. “I don’t use social media to learn about new titles at all,” says Christy Thomas, adult reference librarian and fiction selector for the Main Library in Oakland and coordinator for the online readers advisory service, Book Me! “I follow authors that I like on Twitter and will occasionally get recommendations from them. But I generally don’t use it to look for new books,” she says. A quick scan of library Twitter shows that she’s not alone. While there’s a lot of conversation (and, yes, grumbling) about systemic issues such as budgeting, constituent services, and, somewhat unbelievably, book bans, there’s not a lot of talk about new books.
“For librarians, social media is really about community, about sharing current pain points, moments of joy when a patron or student has that ‘Aha! moment,’ discussions about organizing books for improved reader access, and interactive successes,” says Heidi Gioseffi, a book marketing consultant in the Washington, D.C., area. “Librarians do so much. They advocate for reading rights, lift up banned books and authors, amplify lesser-known voices, and host author talks. That’s what they discuss on social. While there are groups of librarians who share ARCs, social media isn’t generally their primary source for discovery of new books.”
With that in mind, how can you leverage social media to boost sales to libraries? “For us, it’s about continuing conversations,” says Muhlenkamp, “and building on the relationships we’ve already made.” She says this is especially true shortly after conferences and meetings when attendees have met with dozens of other publishers and social media provides an opportunity to ensure New World Library isn’t forgotten in the shuffle. Affinito agrees, especially when publishers use images in visually oriented platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok. “I love seeing a book cover in an Instagram post,” she says. “I have a much better chance of remembering that book.”
It’s also about establishing your imprint’s brand in a way that will resonate. Caroline Suzuki, who oversees social media for ECW Press, says that when she took over the social media reins for the company, she wanted to make sure that the company’s voice was authentic and entertaining. “We’re not afraid to be funny. That gets us a lot of engagement. If you’re just announcing new books or company news … we do that, but that’s every fourth or fifth post. People don’t really engage with that. We want to be fun.” And it works. Since pivoting to a more personal and entertaining approach, engagement on social media for ECW has shot up as much as tenfold in some instances. And while they don’t target librarians directly, that audience is often part of their follower growth. In other words, librarians may not be using social media to discover new books, but they do use it to discover new publishers with a strong social presence.
So, how do publishers improve their social media game? “Don’t be afraid,” Suzuki says. She feels that a lot of publishers are hesitant because of horror stories of social media gone wrong or simply because they are unfamiliar with platforms. She encourages publishers to have fun with it, stick to the basics, and do what you can, even if it’s not much. Post as regularly as possible, comment on and share posts from others, keep it light, and be authentic. Focus on the platforms that librarians favor, mostly Twitter, Instagram, and increasingly TikTok. (Feel free to avoid LinkedIn—nearly every librarian here admitted that they do not respond to LinkedIn posts or messages). And if you’re trying to reach a specific audience, such as librarians, focus on your hashtags. “Well, we call them ‘hash browns’ here,” says Muhlenkamp with a chuckle. “Just a little joke. ‘Don’t forget your hash browns!’”
Also, encourage your authors to be active on their personal accounts and provide support if necessary. “It’s not a deal-breaker, but we really want authors with active social media followings,” Muhlenkamp says. “And if they’re not comfortable with it or are new to it, we’ll provide support and give them some guidance.” And don’t be afraid to help yourself. Suzuki feels that not enough publishers are using the social media talent that is available. “There are lots of professional and smart people who can help you with social media,” she says. “I think more publishers should use this talent.”
Direct Outreach and Constituent Requests
If we’re going to discuss speaking to librarians, then we need to discuss … well, speaking directly to librarians. Don’t underestimate how effective it can be to reach out directly to librarians via email and in-person at branches, especially if you’re a local publisher. Librarians take great pride in listening to their community, and that includes small and independent presses.
“We’re always looking for local authors or books set locally,” Thomas says. Also, “there are still not enough books published by authors of color, Black authors, and queer authors. We are never going to satisfy our appetite for this.” She encourages publishers to get the word out on titles from these authors any way they can, even if it means strolling into a branch and speaking with staff.
Direct outreach is also a fantastic way to get books into committees and on lists, which are effective vehicles for awareness and book discovery. In fact, it may be the best way. “Oh, yes, please just send me an email,” Affinito says. “I always read my emails. This is a good way to highlight titles I can submit on committee.”
And don’t overlook the power of constituent requests. For book release marketing, it’s best practice to have authors mobilize a group of friends and neighbors for social media posts and online reviews, and this same group should be requesting copies at local libraries. This influences print copy purchases, and it is absolutely vital for digital collections. “Our digital collection is 100% based on constituent requests,” Thomas says. It may take more elbow grease and it’s tough to scale, but direct outreach is still an incredibly effective tool for driving sales to libraries.
Print Material, Catalogs, and ARCs
For librarians? Don’t bother. Or rather, don’t make this a priority. This audience is overwhelmed with material, it’s almost certainly going to get ignored, and, especially in an on-again-off-again pandemic climate, it may not reach them anyway. Christy Thomas in Oakland admitted as much, “We don’t really look at catalogs and print materials anymore. And I know how much work goes into those and I feel bad, but we just don’t.” Affinito says she uses NetGalley, Edelweiss, and other digital catalogs.
As for ARCs, don’t print up a bunch of extras for librarians. While ARCs are crucial for trade reviews and for conferences, most librarians simply don’t have the time to read them. One librarian, who will remain anonymous, admitted, “I’ll come back from a conference with an armload of ARCs, and I can’t give them away. It’s really a shame.”
Trade Review Outlets
Finally, we can’t discuss reaching the library market without touching on trade reviews. And, yes, you’ll be excused for letting out a long, frustrated groan. We end here not because this is the easiest or most original way to get your title in front of librarians, but because it is still the most effective. Reviews in the major trade publications, such as Library Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and more, continue to play an outsized role in driving buying decisions for librarians.
“I almost hate to admit it, but reviews are still the main way I learn about new titles,” Thomas says. “Especially if I see the same book reviewed in multiple places.” And she’s not alone.
Most publishers understand the value of trade reviews (for more, check out Seth Dellon’s article from 2018)3, even if securing them can feel frustrating and arbitrary. Stick with it. Follow submission instructions, get your materials in early, and don’t be afraid to spend a little money if necessary. One silver lining? You don’t really need to worry about critical reviews or media reviews, at least not for the library market. “Oh, by the time those are out, I’ve already made my buying decisions,” Thomas says.
Take heart! As a small and independent publisher, you have a strong ally and thousands of potential advocates in the library market. They are looking for the best way to get good books into reader’s hands, and they are more open to small presses than many other channels. They’re listening. You just need to speak where they can hear you.
Abe Ogden is a publishing consultant, project manager, and a principle at Paper Door Publishing Services in Denver, where he helps small publishers and nonprofit organizations fulfill their editorial missions. He can be reached at email@example.com.