A Conversation With the SELF-e Team: Exploring Payment for Authors

Image- iStockphoto: Quintanilla
iStockphoto: Quintanilla

Note from Jane: Earlier this month, I featured a guest post on how self-published authors can distribute their ebooks to libraries, through the SELF-e program from Library Journal and BiblioBoard. That post wasn’t without controversy, since the program doesn’t pay authors for licensing of their ebooks. I invited the folks behind SELF-e to comment on the program, to start a dialogue about its purpose and to offer greater transparency about it. Porter Anderson offered to host a conversation, which you’ll find below. (Full disclosure: Porter is a paid consultant with Library Journal, which he discusses in further detail.)

For those catching up, SELF-e is a service for self-published authors who would like to have their ebooks available to patrons in American library systems. The key objection voiced about SELF-e is its business model: the service is free to independent authors who submit their ebooks but offers no royalty payments to those authors for checkouts of their ebooks.

Access to libraries has been difficult for independent authors so far. While SELF-e’s program gives authors automatic availability to librarians at the state level, and a chance at national-level consideration, the author community is right to place a high premium on the principle of authors being paid for their work.

Library Journal's SELF-e Select is the curated collection of indie ebook submissions for the national library system.
Library Journal’s SELF-e Select is the curated collection of indie ebook submissions for the national library system.

I spent an hour in conversation on this with:

  • Ian Singer, vice-president and group publisher of MediaSource/Library Journal
  • Guy Gonzalez, director of content strategy and audience development of MediaSource/Library Journal
  • Mitchell Davis, chief business officer of BiblioLabs/BiblioBoard, and formerly a founder of BookSurge, which was bought by Amazon and integrated into CreateSpace.

This is the team behind SELF-e. It’s a partnership between Library Journal and BiblioBoard. It has no outside funding. Its costs during its year-and-a-half of development have been covered by the two companies without revenue. The easiest way to think of the partnership is to see Library Journal as the editorial component, evaluating and curating submissions, and BiblioBoard as the technical enabler and sales channel. SELF-e stands on the BiblioBoard platform, which is designed as an interface between libraries and their e-patrons—it’s the system many libraries use to allow patrons to access ebooks, historical databases, learning materials, videos, and other digital library materials.

Library Journal is a client of Porter Anderson Media, my consultancy. This means that I am bringing it to authors’ attention as a consultant on retainer. This is not an affiliate relationship, so my compensation does not depend on how many authors use the service. Therefore, my brief is to familiarize authors with the availability of this new development, not to pressure them to enroll in it. I believe that SELF-e can be a boon to some, but it’s not for all authors.

In the course of my discussion with Singer, Gonzalez, and Davis, two key points were made.

  • SELF-e is designed in response to libraries’ acquisition needs, particularly in terms of local author communities.
  • The program is still in its early stages, and it’s possible that royalty payments for authors might be considered later.
From left are Library Journal's Ian Singer and Guy Gonzalez, and BiblioLabs' Mitchell Davis.
From left are Library Journal’s Ian Singer and Guy Gonzalez, and BiblioLabs’ Mitchell Davis.

How Libraries Acquire Materials: The Need for Curation and Scale

We all know that digital is gaining. One of the services of Library Journal is an annual “Materials Survey” that sorts out US public libraries’ budgets and collection breakdowns. In her report from March, Barbara Hoffert writes:

Trending of Materials Budget Breakdown, Average Findings Based on Population Served, 2014. Library Journal Materials Survey 2015
Trending of Materials Budget Breakdown, Average Findings Based on Population Served, 2014. Library Journal Materials Survey 2015

This year, print books account for just 59% of the budget on average—a figure that has, however, held steady in this survey’s findings over the last three years. Meanwhile, ebooks have jumped from 1% of the budget in 2009 to 7% today. Almost all respondents [libraries] now offer ebooks, up from 66% five years ago.

Singer says that it was very much a grassroots aspect of that ebook jump that prompted the inception of SELF-e about 18 months ago.

“What we know about library acquisition,” Singer says, “is that libraries need to feel comfortable in making purchase decisions. That led us to figure out a way to lend Library Journal’s status in the market to helping them feel more comfortable in acquiring certain self-published titles. That, coupled with our understanding of various models of acquisition in libraries made us know that we’re not selling one and one and one and one book. Instead, we’re going to create collections that will comprise 200 titles to start with, and grow over time.”

That combo of requirements—curation and large volumes of titles—Singer says “led us to the conclusion that the pricing model of not paying royalties in exchange for the broad marketing and discovery opportunity that getting content into public libraries would provide to self-published authors” was the way to go. “We’re creating a trusted link to make it comfortable for public libraries to provide self-published materials for the first time…It did not make sense for us to build a royalty scheme at present.”

But is it possible to consider splitting some of what libraries pay SELF-e with the authors?

“It could well be possible in the long term,” Singer says. At this early stage, he points out, no money is coming in. “But as we generate more overall usage,” he says, “we will certainly take a very hard look at remunerating those titles that are circulating more than others.”

Meanwhile, one of the costs of SELF-e is the evaluation of each manuscript submitted for the national collection. That’s an expense not charged to authors. And if the author’s work is selected, they then get to use the SELF-e badge on their book covers and sites to help promote their work.

BiblioBoard logo at 300Davis says, “This is not a business yet. This is a cost center right now. We have done nothing but work on this and invest money in it for a year-and-a-half, and we’re just beginning to get to the point that people can recognize it and know what it is. We’re trying to change the way independent authors get their books discovered and that’s a big undertaking to tackle. And there will be all sorts of permutations to this thing as it grows and becomes something that’s mainstream and real. But we just released it.”

Gonzales cautions against calling it a start-up, “because people might assume there’s tons of investment capital.” No venture capital or other outside funding has been involved in the development of SELF-e.

“We have funded it completely out of the other parts of our businesses because we believe in it and we believe in its potential. But it’s a long road and we’re right at the beginning,” says Davis.

A Focus on Local Libraries

From Library Journal's Materials Survey, 2015, a look at top circulation in print (left) and digital (right) books among US libraries responding
From Library Journal’s Materials Survey, 2015, a look at top circulation in print (left) and digital (right) books among US libraries responding

It’s at the local level that SELF-e had its inception.

Singer says that the initial development was a response to libraries’ needs to interact with their local independent authors. Many librarians have wanted to be able to house and offer local writers’ work, but simply had no way to acquire and then offer it to their patrons. SELF-e provides that mechanism.

“Simply submitting your title to your local library using the SELF-e system is a way for you to have your content in your local library,” says Singer. “And we’re not getting paid for that. We do get paid for the initial sale of the platform to a library.” But that’s a one-time payment, Singer adds, not an annual fee.

“What we’ve been doing for the last year,” Singer says, “is establishing the value proposition, this ecosystem that exists between libraries and their local, self-published authors. We’ve spent more than a year investing in that message, and we’ve succeeded.”

At the local level, Davis says there are already more than 40 library systems using BiblioBoard and SELF-e to interact with local authors. They include some of the top library systems in the country, libraries that are influential as thought leaders among the other institutions. And this is the functionality that he was describing when he spoke to Schwartz for a Library Journal piece in June, about the experience of the Los Angeles County Library system. He told her:

In the last 15 years…millions of books were self-published. Librarians know there are good books in there, but they don’t have the bandwidth to sort through them. So it seemed like a perfect marriage for LJ to become a readers’ advisory service for self-published books. I think that solves a really huge problem for librarians: it lets them make self-published books available with confidence and without a lot of hassle. It also solves a problem when local authors want their ebook in their local library and libraries have had to turn them away. Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) told us they were getting multiple emails a week and would have to say no. SELF-e lets the librarian say yes and engage their writing community more viscerally.

The national curated collection called SELF-e Select, then, is an outgrowth of that grassroots capability provided by BiblioBoard and Library Journal to libraries which are trying to interact with their local author communities.

Gonzalez puts it this way:

The very first and foremost problem SELF-e solved is a way to enable libraries to acquire, archive, and share locally produced content. From that, Library Journal’s evaluation and curation of that locally sourced content from around the country becomes these [SELF-e Select] collections we offer, and that’s the discovery aspect. The first step is that platform, which enables libraries to acquire, archive, and share local content. And then there’s LJ’s evaluation and curation that enables some of that local content to be shared nationally.

Davis, for BiblioBoard’s participation, expands on the point this way:

When a library licenses BiblioBoard, they not only gain the ability to take books from local authors for SELF-e, they also get the ability to work with local filmmakers, local musicians, they get the ability to curate summer reading collections—a whole laundry list of things they can do around engagement. They also become a potential customer for us on some of the other content we make available from more traditional publishers, film studios, national libraries and archives; so there is a business value to us today in SELF-e. We’re solving a problem, and that introduces us to new libraries and makes them aware of the suite of things we offer, to turn them into customers.

SELF-e has been developed not as a revenue vehicle but as a discovery platform for authors. The partners are clear on the fact that it is (a) new, (b) still developing with chances to tweak the model along the way, and (c) reversible.

“Authors can remove their books,” says Gonzalez, “but if they do they probably were not right for SELF-e in the first place. We’re not looking for ‘one and done’ authors. This service was built for authors who are looking to expose a piece of their writing to new readers and build off that by selling them other books, print books, or to build audience for a future book.”

Davis says that people should think about SELF-e not in how it may compare to OverDrive or other commercial library services, but more how it might compare to BookBub (where authors pay to give their books away free or sell them at a discount) or other “permafree” promotions that most successful self-published authors agree are important marketing tools to gain readership.

“Of course, any authors who are doing well financially in the library market today or who have a plan they believe is going to work to create royalties in the library market,” Davis says, “should not sign up for SELF-e. This service was not built for those authors.”

Davis says that, even for the Big Five publishers, library royalties are “a small part of their overall revenue.” When you get past the Big Five, the revenue generated from library channel sales is low in terms of dollars, “even for traditionally published books.” However, Library Journal Patron Profile surveys show that people who discover an author in the library are inclined to go on and purchase a book from that author. In that context, Davis argues, the library can be more valuable as a marketing platform than as a revenue source.

Davis also says that the self-publishing companies that have attempted to provide commercial library distribution services have generated little in the way of author royalties. (In fact, if there are any self-published authors reading this who have stories that reflect library revenue, share them in comments; we would welcome your input.)

Davis maintains that “since practically there’s very little in the way of author royalties flowing from libraries, once you can philosophically get over the issue of royalties in the library market, it becomes a powerful marketing opportunity.”

As before, I’m available for questions in our comments. SELF-e team members are also open to direct inquiry at support@mediasourceinc.com.

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