Are you selling your ebooks to libraries?

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Last week this blog was the core item in my newsletter. I had so much response from it I’m sharing it as a (long) blog too.

Two questions: (1) Why would you even care about selling your books to libraries, much less their lower-priced digital versions? (2) And what’s so different about it anyway? Don’t you pretty much do the same thing you do to sell paperbacks (or even hardbacks)?

Let me touch first on (2), then explain the “why” of the problems later.

Selling bound books to libraries is easy enough because until now bound books have been their stock in trade. That’s what you see on the shelves, catalogued, labeled, checked out, and so on. If you have a professional looking book; it has a specific ISBN for the bound version; you look or approach them like you are serious; the book has substance, some purpose, maybe even some research) in it, and the acquisitions folk think their readership would (or should) at least check it out, they may buy it. (I deal in nonfiction books. I’m told that it is more difficult—sometimes impossible—to sell self-published fiction to libraries.)

But there are two markets where you usually have huge selling difficulties: schools (for anything) and the library if the book is in digital format (an ebook). And both are much harder yet if you are a one-book beginner band, or very small, or unknown, or new.

Let’s go back to (1) and focus on libraries.

Why do you want to sell to libraries? Because selling bound books to them, particularly now, can substantially help you keep your firm alive and growing. There are lots of libraries, they can be approached directly, and the discount they expect is modest or nil. (A sweetener to get the direct sale is to provide free shipping; then mail at the library rate, if you can figure it out and it still exists at sale time.)

We have used the IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Assn) public library mailing list for years. (They are the largest group of its kind in the U.S.) Alas, it’s now the Library Market E-Blast, but the targets are the same: 6 times a year they contact 5,000 qualified collection development librarians, and three times each year they contact the same number of (1) K-12 Libraries and (2) College Libraries. In each blast 15 titles are sent containing the book’s image (or cover), a description or key review, wholesale info, and a unique lead-generating link, plus another link to your website (where you can draw them to other publications you are selling).

It costs $199 and you must be an association member to participate, but the membership is an excellent investment and the ISBA publication, the Independent, is worth the cost alone. The blast goes to the largest, best buying libraries in the U.S. (many of which buy many dozens of copies for their branches). A general response rate is hard to evaluate but the mailing usually draws a 7-14% response (400-700 titles). They say that it is the most effective means currently used. They will gladly give you more details about the blast mailing.

We increase our sales by contacting library distributors, particularly Quality Books, and we also make the book available through Lightning Source (or Spark) and Barnes and Noble. The discount you give to distributors is much higher (about 55%). We post the names of all of our distributors on the IBPA flyer (and in-house fliers) so that libraries (or others) that prefer to buy from large distributors will place their orders there. (The distributors also do the one-by-one shipping!)

(An important aside: Don’t include fill-in lines or spaces in your library book, or ask the reader to somehow deface the book [like coloring or connecting the dots]. Once the lines or spaces are filled in, there’s nothing to do for subsequent users, so libraries won’t buy it. How do I know? After I had printed a fat batch of my How to Plan a Great Second Life masterpiece and sent copies to library distributors for a blessing and many sales, I was rather rudely informed that the book as is was unsalable to any library! Gulp. What did we do? Sold those printed books to bookstores and redesigned and reprinted a library edition, with its own ISBN, where we included some 15 pages of charts and fill-in plans, too small to fill in directly but each with a website link where the forms could be digitally copied at home, as often as they wished, and completed then.

Why is it almost impossible to even check out ebooks at libraries, much less get them to buy yours? Because the Big Six (or whatever the number is now in the current buyout flurry) just won’t sell or even rent them to libraries, thus they have nothing to lend to you. (Oddly, if you don’t sell through the huge houses you may still be able to strike up a local library deal. But don’t count on it.)

Here’s the best explanation that I’ve read about the mess. It’s from an E-Content Supplement (twice a year, this dated June 2014) from the American Library Assn (ALA).

** For starters, libraries have had lots of information in digital form for years, but when their users started asking to borrow ebooks they found that the ebooks weren’t available for purchase and lending. There was a business model muddle. Simply, five of the six largest publishers weren’t making their ebooks available to libraries under any terms. Until autumn 2011 only Random House and Penguin were making their ebooks available under the same terms as bound publications (perpetual ownership and reasonably priced). HarperCollins had just shocked all publishers when they changed their acquisition ebook terms by limiting the ebooks use to 26 circulations before the books had to be repurchased. Then all six pulled out, and most of the best sellers weren’t available under any terms at all!

The leaders of the ALA (and the AAP) met with the key publishers and found out that libraries and publishers lived in two different worlds. Much of the confusion centered on anti-trust laws. “As library leaders, we came from a world that generously shared success with one another. In the publishing world, sharing was at worst illegal and at best not a wise business practice,” said Molly Raphael in “EBooks” Getting There…But Not There Yet.” A small break came in the impasse when other groups besides publishers and aggregators began making ebooks available to libraries, like authors, author groups, agents, booksellers, and smaller publishers.

** It’s not as hard to sell ebooks in the school library market is the point of “School Library EBook Business Models.” The library/publisher relationship is more congenial too. The market is much more diverse, more centered (most items are bought for K-12 educational uses), much larger in sales than the library market, and the K-12 publishers aren’t the Big Six but rather smaller independent firms that work far closer with the school systems to survive. (My Education Communication Unlimited imprint is one of those K-12 niche specialists.)

I’m certain that most of you don’t sell in this venue, so rather than bore you, let me share the five different business models that make our marketing much stronger here: (1) unlimited simultaneous access, (2) one-to-one licenses, (3) pay-per-use rentals, (4) subscription services, and (5) online retailer platform models. Two more things are also involved in selling to K-12 buyers. Most of the successes are based on nonfiction books and there is more use of DRM.

** In Laura Clark’s “EBook Discovery: The library/publisher “sweet spot,” she talks more about libraries, publishers, and others in the ecosystem teaming up to find the best fit for their tastes.

Hers is a first-rate article that focuses on using the strengths of libraries themselves to determine and meet their own needs. That as brick-and-mortar stores disappear, the library becomes a physical space for discovery beyond the home and workplace. The library can be a magnet for ebook discovery and a distribution platform for helping authors self-publish… The article mostly broadens our awareness of how a library and its expert staff can help ensure that the right title finds the right reader at the right time—and how the considerable research expertise can help deepen and strengthen the research in the book.

** In “Beating the Odds: Building a Publishing Maker Culture,” Peter Brantley sees the library’s ebook position as improving, through persistence, p.r., and hard negotiating. But he sees the tremendous centralization of consumer traffic to platforms that want to monopolize the user ebook buying, like Apple, Google, and Amazon. He also sees strong selling from those who directly buy ebooks from niche vendors. “But integrating (your ebook selling) into library(ies) is not for the fainthearted.”

Brantley says our selling our bound wares is much harder because of the increasing trend to purchase goods online. If the physical bookstores fold (probably including Barnes & Noble) and the Big Six consolidate into a Big Two-and-a-Half, where will books get the number of visual impressions needed to create bestsellers?

On the other hand, our ability to ride the “open publishers” into free publishing and to emerge on Twitter, You Tube, and the rest opens huge opportunities for us. He stresses that big books can be restructured into shorter and probably more profitable novels, and those into novellas, and/or into serial segments. And that libraries can assume a pivotal role of local publisher-guide by creating community publishing initiatives that can integrate all book formats, bound and digital, into the larger library world.

Conclusion? We’re not selling our ebooks to libraries right now, particularly if we are being published by the big houses. But smaller publishers can get on library shelves, and my thought is that soon there will be grouping units that will do the linkage for us. If we rented our books by contract at $1/week or $1/borrower, a digital text widely used might zoom to the top of our income stream, without the books wearing out or having to be handled or shipped. So while a lot of what these articles suggest is discouraging right now, it’s likely that our ebooks will prevail. It gets back to marketing: we have to let libraries know that we have published something they need or want to know that is well written, looks professional, and is easy (and perhaps fun) to read. Library ebooks might ultimately (in a few years) become gilded providers.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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