Take it easy. People write around here.

A comment from Jill the Librarian on yesterday’s It’s the Reader, Stupid post:

Self-publishing is going nuts right now. Bowker says that “148,424 print books were self-published in 2011, and 87,201 ebooks were self-published. … So as a librarian (or bookstore buyer) with extremely limited staff and resources, how do we choose? We don’t yet have any real volume of ebooks being reviewed by known review sources. In my library, we do try to grab books once they clearly rise to the top of the heap — like WOOL– but that leaves an awful lot of perfectly respectable books flying under our radar.


I, for one, WANT to represent independent authors in my collection. I want to bring new voices to readers. I want to provide access via print, ebook, audiobook, cuneiform manuscript, or any other format anyone wants. But it’s hard to make it happen in the current model.

Jill brings up an issue that is affecting distributors (both bookstores and libraries), as well as readers and aspiring authors. There isn’t one perfect solution, but I think one place to start is local. Every library and bookstore should have a section for community authors. We had one at our bookstore. Authors came in all the time to pitch their book to us, and we would invariably agree to carry a copy or two. Here’s what I noticed from my info-desk perch:

Some authors would go on to hand-sell their book to friends, family members, and strangers in the community while directing them to our bookstore for the transaction. These authors would check in regularly to see about our stock, and we would re-order. We provided respectability and a cashier. They acted just like sales reps from publishing houses . . . but for their own books.

All of the local authors, I noticed, were given pride of place. Most just wanted to know that their book was on a shelf, somewhere, available. Local authors would pop by and scan the section, see their books next to those from their writing groups, and smile. I can tell you that I used to do the same with my own books in that bookstore. It was like peeking into a crib to check a sleeping baby. It was motivation to continue writing. To have more of them.

The most important observation, though, is seeing what customers did. It wasn’t the majority, not by a mile, but there are shoppers who want to support local artists. These are the same people you see at art crawls and local art fairs. They came to our shop because they knew we had not only a local interest section but a local author section. And they would take a chance on a book based on the cover and blurb.

If every bookstore and library had a section like this that someone cared about maintaining, it would give tens of thousands of aspiring authors at least a small chance of being discovered. A tiny chance, but still a chance. And the psychological rewards are enormous. What this does is distribute the burden of selecting which indie books to carry. You are guided by hometown loyalty. Each town carries a small number of books. All it takes is one reader being blown away and telling their friends. Or one bookstore or library employee discovering some local and hidden talent and arranging a talk or a signing.

It can be overwhelming, seeing how many books are published every year. But how many books were published by authors in your town? Do they have a public, physical forum for celebrating their achievement? Does any bookstore or library have a twice-yearly Book Release Party where community authors come together to toast their accomplishments and swap copies of their books? Why not?

We have art fairs and craft fairs. We have music festivals, and bars and restaurants do a great job of giving musicians some kind of start. Yes, there are book festivals, but very few local authors get to attend in any way other than setting up a table in the dealer room. I think those of us who love books can be more involved in nurturing the local variety. I have enjoyed participating in writing groups and working with NaNoWriMo here in Jupiter as well as back in Boone. Geeking out about books and writing just fuels more writing.

Authors are a passionate lot. It might be a good idea for bookstores and libraries to focus a little more on the creation side to go with the consumption. Writing groups to go with reading groups. Mix local authors with young writers on Saturday workshops. Turn November and NaNoWriMo into a national holiday. Encourage young writers to self-publish and put their works on display (we do this with their artwork, don’t we?). Have a bio with headshots to go with staff picks in these sections. Set up meeting times for writing workshops and critique groups. My mother’s yarn shop was built on a foundation of local knitters who spent a lot of time in her shop, stitching and bitching, teaching classes, forming the base of a creative community. I would love to see bookstores and libraries reach out to local authors, making them feel welcome, giving them some shelf space and a place to meet their peers. I think it would be good for everyone.

24 responses to “Take it easy. People write around here.”

  1. I’d like to add two things that I didn’t want to muddy the story with: The first is that I am the kind of shopper I mention above. I love looking for the obscure with the hope of uncovering a gem. Those readers who don’t do this can’t imagine how a new voice is ever discovered. Well, it’s because some people are adamant about supporting the underdog and dredging for that buried jewel. And once they find it, they tell others about it. It worked with music, and it works with books.

    The other idea that occurred to me while writing this piece is that local authors and writing groups might do well to form a publishing collective. This would do more than critique each other’s works. It would be a place to put together a catalog of “new releases” (maybe books from the last 3-5 years, depending on the size of the group). Members could take this catalog to bookstores and libraries and try to sell the idea of a community bookshelf. Rather than two dozen writers buzzing about independently, they would look and act more like a small press with a stable of clients.

    The same collective could share freelance contacts. Hire on a local artist, who would help give the group a similar style and feel, which would make those local sections look less chaotic and more groomed. Or a local IT person who would do all the e-book formatting at a decent rate.

    Local gardeners congregate each week at the farmers’ market. Libraries and bookstores can be that same place for the writers’ market.

  2. We have a Local Authors section in my library, and we add ANY Watertown author to that collection if the book is brought to our attention. The good news is that because we view it as part of our mission to preserve local history (and the arts count), we won’t withdraw those books from the collection, ever. They are a permanent part of the town’s “archive,” if you will. The bad news is that that particular collection lives in our local history room, and is thus not part of the vibrant, circulating area of our library. I may need to rethink our approach…

  3. Bah, I’ve had a quiet wish to open a bookstore for years, and this post is doing a very good job at making that wish stronger.

    In your experience, would the task of starting up a bookstore be a doomed struggle given the demise of such powerhouses as Borders?

    The idea of having a spot for community writers, hosting workshops and NaNoWriMo groups is deeply exciting.

    1. The demise of such powerhouses as Borders ought to make this LESS of a struggle. Independent bookstores are doing well (on average, reportedly), because they take a different approach. They do exactly the kind of stuff Hugh writes about in this post — building community, encouraging exploration, marketing to the customer who’s not just stopping in for the latest James Patterson.

      1. Agreed. Especially if local bookstore owners are willing to change their business model slightly. Communities, both urban and suburban, are starved for what are called “third places” – coffee houses, bars, cafes, etc., that are neither home nor work. A locally-owned bookstore fused with a coffee shop of wine bar would be one way to do it. Right now the third place market is dominated by Starbucks. Problem is, many affluent people – people who tend to read more than average, btw – resent having to use such a charmless international chain for their meet-ups and kibitzing sessions. Personally, I’d love a bookstore with a nice whisky selection. ;-)

    2. You’d have to gauge community interest. One way of doing that would be to begin a Kickstarter campaign and have the donations be good toward store credit. Let people vote with their wallets. It would be up to you to present a dynamite campaign. And you’d have to be prepared to take on a lot of debt or outlay a lot of your own money before you saw profits. Small businesses are tough work. I’ve met a handful of bookshop owners who see their shop as a way to SPEND their retirement, not EARN their retirement. They can be profitable, but there’s a LOT of risk. (Yes, I already dream about the bookshop I’ll own when I retire).

  4. One more thing: I recently encountered a fascinating local author, Jonathan Papernick (google him), who will be participating in our Self-Publishing Authors Panel in October (see http://www.watertownlib.org/one-book-one-watertown/obow-events for details) who is known as The Book Peddler. He takes his peddler’s cart full of books to local farmer’s markets, festivals, etc., in much the way you suggest above. Very interesting approach, and I’m eager to learn more about it from him next month!

  5. Great ideas! I’ve tried to reach out to some local shops and libraries but they just seem to not be able to get out of their own way. Maybe they are being inundated with local talent?

    I love the idea of the collectives. I often try and help other authors to navigate the web of technology. I feel that their creativity is better served writing instead of all the minutia of trying to convert and load their work into the aether.

  6. Your collective idea is already happening — not on a local level, at least where I am, but on a genre or idealogical one. I belong to two web based groups of like-minded authors, working together to raise the water level, lifting all our boats, rather than just our own.

    Clean Indie Reads (http://www.cleanindiereads.blogspot.com/) is a group founded by author Lia London just a few months ago, yet is already approaching 100,000 page views. The message is simple: discovering quality books that you don’t have to flinch when you read.

    The other is called Emblazon (http://emblazoners.com/) and is the brain child of Michelle Isenhoff. All of us involved write stories for “tweenagers” (10-14 or so) and have all taken the time and effort to produce quality, professionally edited books. We take turns blogging each Wednesday and the last Wednesday of the month, we invite anyone with an interest in this age group to link up with a “Tween the Weekends” post. We are currently working on a catalog of our works to distribute to school librarians.

    I like the idea of local authors banding together, but I think collecting together in similar story groups might make more sense in the long run. Great post, Hugh!

    1. Ha! Alan – I missed your comment in the first pass. :)

  7. I haven’t dove too far into the site Goodreads but it seems to be growing enough to be able to be taken seriously as a good place to find reviews. But even beyond featuring community authors, a library could find a way to engage it’s own patrons in contests or even just a bulletin board with “what we’re reading now” or something where customers could make recommendations.

    1. Or how about spotlighting a local author each month? Have a board where the library features photos of the local author, a short bio, details about their books, how long they’ve lived in the community, and where to find them that month. Or “Author Laureates” of the community that change each year and give that author the responsibility of representing the community, organizing events, giving a talk at the Friends of the Library fundraising events, or something like that.

      The explosion of self-publishing means that more people are completing works and making them available. That’s more people WRITING. Fostering this and guiding it will determine whether or not this is a boon to literature and literacy or just a fad of a goldrush. I’m betting on the former.

  8. I grew up in a really small town. I’m talking a town so small and isolated you would have to drive 60 miles over mountain passes just to get to a McDonalds. Most of my published (the printed on dead tree publications that is) works are at the public library. There are no bookstores up there, however the few local authors that there are (excluding myself, since I am so far only published in short story magazines) have their works in craft stores, trinket shops, and the local gas station. The bummer is that the books are nearly all geographically centered, meaning that they pertain to the mountains and community of the area. If I were to publish my alternative-history-steampunk-fueled-epic, well, just because I’m a local author doesn’t mean it has much to do with the market that people are buying for in that area. They want to read about cowboys and trappers and pioneer wives. Not fire monsters that boil cities in the night. So, local: good. Trying to appeal to locals with an already genre topic: not so easy.

  9. Fabulous ideas all. We have a group in Connecticut that is well-established and holds a conference for self-publishers each year as well as monthly meetings and regular showcases for writers.

    One thing such ideas will require (and facilitate) is upending the entrenched paradigm of learned elitism. For decades, at least, literary worthiness has been determined by those at the top who maintain the status quo with strict control to access and the means of production. To get readers and libraries to consider spending time on self-created books will be a stretch for some when resources are limited. Hugh, you and Ruby, above, are helping to change that.

  10. I’m sitting in my local library while I read this. :)

    A couple thoughts:
    Or one bookstore or library employee discovering some local and hidden talent and arranging a talk or a signing.
    One brilliant idea I’ve heard (it’s not mine, but I’ve adopted it) is that librarians could form a network of reviewing indie books -if each librarian read and reviewed just one indie book a year, and added it to the network, then the work would be distributed and everyone would benefit. Combined with your “local author” section idea (in the library) would mean authors across the country would get exposure. #winallaround

    The other idea that occurred to me while writing this piece is that local authors and writing groups might do well to form a publishing collective. This would do more than critique each other’s works. It would be a place to put together a catalog of “new releases” (maybe books from the last 3-5 years, depending on the size of the group).

    This is precisely what my EMBLAZONERs indie MG group is doing. Indie MG has such a hard time reaching its audience – and librarians are critical gatekeepers for kids’ reading choices. So, we’re working on putting together a catalogue and starting a mailing list. We’re starting slow, but we’re all in this for the long haul – the group is big enough that we’ll have enough releases for a Fall and Spring catalogue. And with some great new books for kids, that don’t have to meet the “marketability” bar that is so high for children’s literature, we can hopefully get some exciting new reads into kids hands.

  11. I’m so excited to be part of the Emblazoner group and the Clean Indie Reads group too! It’s so refreshing to work with like minded authors. :)

  12. As a teacher I donate copies to my school library. Which then puts it in the county system. Plus they mention it on the announcements. 900 children hearing about my work in one place at one time. Awesome. :)

    1. I would love to find a way to get the many local authors in my area together. Many of them seem to big for a small get together or they feel they are not big enough to warrant showing up. Also getting my local bookstore/library to host it has been a challenge in its self.

  13. I was stewing on this yesterday, and as I mused about ways to make our local authors more visible and accessible in the library, one of the many self-published folks in our town came to the desk with a book they wanted added to the collection: I quickly snapped back to reality.

    What reality? This: 90% of everything is crap. People who can’t write think they can. People who *can* write don’t think they need editors. And people write books on a LOT of esoteric topics. Librarians are curators, in a sense, and it’s my job to curate the collection.

    I hate that many people/libraries/publishers/booksellers/reviewers eschew all self-published authors, because there’s some great stuff being published and overlooked by too many. Conversely, though, we can’t assume that all – or even most – self-published material is worth anyone’s time to read. A lot of it is not.

    And this brings me back around to the need for a solid review system of some sort. I just don’t have the time to read/assess everything. I love the idea of a national/global librarian collective of reviewers — very cool concept. I wonder how to make it happen…?

  14. Wicked trilogy, Hugh. I’m fast-approaching the final pages . . . No. In fact, I’ve been purposely flipping my way through Dust with heavy digits. Like a gorgeous sunset, I don’t want it to end. That said, I’m looking forward to exploring Molly’s universe.

  15. We need an online library that will lend eBooks over the net and delete it once the lending period is over. Of course, readers could have an option to extend their time, like in physical library. Is this already available anywhere and available for international readers?

    1. Such a model does exist, Destination Infinity! There are a few vendors in the playing field right now. My library network uses a platform called Overdrive. Overdrive has many thousands of e-books and e-audiobooks available for download in a variety of platforms, and the borrowed title will automagically disappear from your device at the end of the lending period. It’s very cool. That’s the good news.

      The bad news comes in several parts:

      1. Overdrive purchases the rights to make titles available, and some publishers won’t play ball. Most significant here in the States is Simon and Schuster. They simply WILL NOT sell their ebooks to the library market. Not at any price. Greedy pigs. There are others, too. Some pubs will sell their ebooks but only for X number of checkouts. HarperCollins,for instance, limits ebook checkouts to 26, at which point the library (or Overdrive) needs to purchase the product again. Ad nauseum.

      2. Small and academic press releases and self-published titles are simply not included. At all.

      So there’s a WHOLE LOT of good, viable content missing from this model thus far. 3M has thrown their hat in the ring with a product, as well, but I haven’t worked with it directly. There’s also a model developed in the Douglas County Library system in Colorado (called the DCL Model) that provides a platform that would enable libraries to purchase and mount self-published content, etc. But the model is quite expensive, and very much still developmental — when I recently viewed it up close and personal, it appeared very much bug-ridden.

      The real answer is: it’s coming,it’s coming! But it ain’t there yet.

  16. It is hard as an indie to get an e-book into the local library because they are tied into a specific system and can’t add things themselves. However they were more than happy to accept a donated print copy of my book and featured it on the local authors shelf.

    As writers we should be donating books to our local libraries. I owe a tremendous debt to libraries for all of the fantastic reads I have gotten through them over the years. They made me a reader and they are doing the same thing with countless others.

  17. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the blog and the ensuing comments have given me a lot to think about. Mark’s comment about writers should be donating books to our local libraries struck a chord because the Riverside Regional Library that had a mobile unit in the summer time made a reader out of me when they came through my part of the country that was miles from a library.

    I live in Chicago and realize there are about 80 branches so I have a good opportunity to broach the subject of local authors.

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