Public Libraries: How Authors Can Increase Both Discoverability and Earnings

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When you see headlines discussing the staying power of print and the decline of ebooks, it’s important to remember those headlines are describing only sales of traditionally published books. Such headlines aren’t factoring in other market trends, such as digital subscription services, self-publishing, and—perhaps the most overlooked sector—library lending.

In 2017, OverDrive (the largest digital content catalog supplying libraries and schools) recorded 225 million ebook and audiobook checkouts around the world. To put that in context, consider that—during the same year—US traditional publishers reported 162 million ebooks sold.

How libraries affect book sales and discoverability

At BookExpo in May, I attended a panel focused on early findings from the Panorama Project, a research initiative sponsored by OverDrive, that hopes to demonstrate quantifiably how libraries affect book discoverability and sales. The project lead and panel moderator, Cliff Guren, started off by saying that, in 200 years, there has never been a study on the impact of libraries on the business of publishing—despite the fact there are roughly 18,000 library buildings in the United States and 10,000 public library systems.

The panel shared data reflecting how library events bolster bookstore sales. Bill Kelly from the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) system said in 2018 his library system hosted 93 events, with 17,600 in attendance and 11,389 in book sales through their partner bookseller. But that wasn’t all: Kelly showed a graph that demonstrated an overall sales lift for all area booksellers around the time of the events. CCPL’s event marketing begins with an email newsletter that is sent to hundreds of thousands of patrons and includes in-library displays, front-and-center website advertising, social media posts, and even occasionally Google ads. In 2019, the library is on track to surpass last year’s sales.

With help from OverDrive, it’s now possible for anyone to identify the most popular (but less well-known) ebooks based on library lending. Rakuten has aggregated all of its anonymized US public library ebook demand data to create what’s called Panorama Picks. These quarterly picks (divided into adult fiction, adult nonfiction, and YA categories) focus on titles published in the last one to two years. They are then filtered to limit known bestsellers, book club selections, and other heavily promoted titles. Furthermore, picks are segregated into the eight retail regions used by the American Booksellers Association—making it an attractive tool for booksellers who want to promote titles already of high interest to their communities. Alexis Petric-Black, the manager of publisher account services at OverDrive, emphasized that local readers differ in their interests, so those regions really matter. Anyone can download the picks for free.

To better harness the power of libraries, a Big Five publisher suggested proactive steps for editors, authors, and marketers. Skip Dye, the VP of library marketing at Penguin Random House, suggested following and participating in Early Word Galley Chat (#EWGC), the monthly Twitter chat where librarians share what books they are most excited about. Similarly, he mentioned participating in LibraryReads and seeding the market with pre-pub galleys and e-galleys.

How indie authors can get into libraries

During a webinar on May 15, publishing industry vet Amy Collins presented an hour-long session on how self-published authors can get their books into libraries. She emphasized how it’s critical for authors to make sure their work is available through a wholesaler as a first step. Wholesalers include:

  • OverDrive for ebooks (more on this in a moment)
  • IngramSpark for print
  • Findaway Voices for audio

If you intend to make libraries a focus of your marketing, Collins advised preparing three documents for your approach:

  1. One-page sales sheet: brief book description, brief author bio, marketing overview, comparative titles, book specifications (title, page count, format, ISBN, etc), and cover image
  2. One-page marketing plan that includes awards, reviews, and how you’ll be spreading the word about your book
  3. A cover letter to a specific librarian that emphasizes you’re about to launch a marketing campaign for the book that will spark demand, noting the wholesalers where the book is available

For more detail, check out Amy’s course at Reedsy.

An option for getting self-published ebooks into OverDrive

While it’s possible to get your ebook into OverDrive through a distributor such as Draft2Digital, a library may not know your book is available unless you do specific marketing outreach (as described above).

An alternative—or something you can do in addition—is submit your work for free to the Indie Author Project (IAP) and/or Self-e program; both are powered by Biblioboard, Library Journal, and OverDrive. Your work is reviewed by professionals at Library Journal, the Black Caucus of the ALA, and a network of hundreds of librarians who participate in the IAP’s regional indie ebook contests. About 8 percent of titles submitted are selected for the national Indie Author Project collection.

Starting in July, this national collection will be distributed by OverDrive to its partners worldwide, and authors will receive payments for lends. According to Stef Morrill, the director of the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium, “For years, there has been interest in sharing great indie ebooks with patrons, especially from authors in our own communities. Locating and selecting that content has been challenging, and integrating it with our existing OverDrive content has not been possible. … Now we are able to identify the best authors, both in our state and beyond, and make their ebooks available to as many patrons as possible.”

Furthermore, this program will introduce a simultaneous lending model. To understand why this is meaningful—and represents an innovation—some history and context is required. With the ease of digital lending, pressure is increasing on library budgets and resources. This article in the Philadelphia Inquirer explains how a bestseller like The Woman in the Window costs the Free Library of Philadelphia $1.04 per ebook checkout but only 16 cents per print book checkout. Complicating matters, over the last year publishers have been adjusting licensing terms and even embargoing.

For example, three of the Big Five publishers, including Penguin Random House, have moved from a perpetual-access model to a metered model. Perpetual-access terms require libraries to pay once for indefinite access to an ebook. Books purchased under metered access—at a lower price—expire after two years. Frontlist titles cost between $35 and $65 under the metered model. Both forms of access are for one patron checkout at a time per ebook purchased.

While IAP is a royalty-paying program for authors included in the national collection, it will not limit checkouts to one book, one patron. Instead, it can extend availability and experiment with an unlimited, simultaneous access model. Mitchell Davis, CEO of Biblioboard (which created the Indie Author Project), says there will be a 20% royalty pool from the revenue received in library subscriptions that will be distributed to authors based on number of ebook lends per month. “Of course, it is hard to know what the payments will look like until we launch and see if libraries are interested in this,” Davis says. “We will pay authors electronically and monthly 30 days after we are paid by OverDrive.”

As of today, there are 110 titles (in four collections) available for libraries to add to OverDrive. These are free sample collections for libraries to try, and they will remain available until October 1. Beginning October 1, the entire Indie Author Project collection will be available for OverDrive libraries to purchase in a couple of different subscription models. This will include 725 ebooks in adult fiction and YA (including the 110 in the free sample collections) and represent selected titles through the end of 2018. Each year the collection will be updated with regional award winners, finalists and other curated indie ebooks from the previous year.

The future of ebook library lending

Late last year, I spoke with Heather McCormack—vice president of collection development and publisher relations for bibliotheca cloudLibrary and formerly book review editor of Library Journal—about the library lending issue. She sees some creative efforts from publishers to sign on to new models that give libraries more flexibility—and says that simultaneous use is starting to gain attention.

“Simultaneous use has been very popular in school and academic libraries but not in public libraries yet, owing to publishers’ understandable fears about eroding revenue. To get their feet wet, they are experimenting with limited-time discounted pricing for a title that could be for a community read. … Meanwhile, book publishers can get their digital backlist hopping again.” For another viewpoint and more discussion on competing library lending models for digital works, read Bill Rosenblatt in Copyright and Technology.

McCormack says the reason for the myriad types of library licensing agreements and payment models is simple: not every publisher’s list (and not every author’s work) is identical. She says, “Your list should dictate your model. If you’re not Big Five, you have no business copying their models. You cannot compete with New York Times bestselling novelists in the digital library market in this way. You have to play it safe and mostly replicate how you sell digitally to consumers. Conversely, Big Five would be stupid to leave money on the table.”

Your turn: What’s your experience been with libraries—as an author? Share your insights in the comments.

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