An Annoyed Librarian's Rebuttal
A public librarian explains why some titles don’t make the cut
By Linda May | Mar 01, 2019 - Originally Published in Publishers Weekly March 4, 2019
As the director of a small public library, I read the “Frustrated Patron” Soapbox—in which an author described his attempts to get his local libraries to order his book—in Publishers Weekly’s February 18 issue with a mixture of disbelief and irritation. As someone who ran marketing departments for reference, academic, and adult nonfiction publishers for over 30 years, my eyes rolled to the back of my head. This broadside epitomized the attitude of almost every academic monograph author I have ever met.
Public libraries serve their communities. That means that they always try to provide resources—both print and electronic—that residents of their towns want and need to enrich their lives. In addition to serving as gateways to the largest collections of e-books they can manage, libraries try to keep as many print books on their shelves as possible to meet demand. That last word is important: libraries respond to demand.
We librarians track circulation and interlibrary loan statistics to monitor trends and see what our patrons are calling for most. We read reviews and revisit what we already own to keep up with the best of what is out there, as well as to continue popular series and provide balance to the collection. We do all of this with no personal bias and only from a motive of service.
Just like bookstores, public libraries need to stock the latest bestsellers in fiction and nonfiction; reference books in gardening, cooking, crafts, and history; biographies; autobiographies; graphic novels; YA literature and children’s titles; and on and on. In addition, as much as possible, we try to always have the classics on hand, as well as the titles supporting the curriculum of the local schools. We curate our collections so that even as we acquire new titles from the huge number of books published each year, we retain older books that are of value to our patrons. We do all of this while constrained by budgets that have at best remained flat for years or in too many cases have been cut.
Libraries act as community centers offering makerspaces, educational programs, instruction, computer centers, speakers, and author signings. They subscribe to electronic databases as well as print periodicals. Librarians answer thousands of reference questions of all types each year.
So when an author who wrote a book titled Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914–1918 and priced at $107 drops in and tries to sell us his book, we may be courteous (librarians are always courteous), but we will have little interest.
The minute the author’s publisher put that title on his book, it was doomed to sales of no more than 150 copies to college libraries with a special interest in that very narrow topic. The publisher backed up that decision by pricing it at over $75, putting it out of reach of all but the biggest, most research-centric public libraries. Face it: this book—regardless of how well written it might be—is an academic monograph.
Further evidence of this can be found in the fact that it wasn’t reviewed by PW, Booklist, Library Journal, or any of the other review magazines serving bookstores and public libraries. It would be a waste for the publisher to even mail review copies to any publications save for academic journals and Choice, which serve college libraries.
For years, my marketing colleagues and I tried to beat this thought into the heads of academics who believed that they had created masterpieces that should be available everywhere and land them interviews on morning talk shows. Now that I am on the other side of the fence, in a public library, I have only confirmed the belief I held as a marketer: no way.
The author of Behind the Front, Craig Gibson, brings up the fact that he is a taxpayer and voter. Instead, he should be satisfied that his manuscript was published in the first place, by a company as distinguished as Cambridge University Press. He should be grateful that the publisher sent enough review copies out for it to get the reviews it got from Choice and the other fine academic review journals. And he should be happy that it is available in paperback for college classes and as an e-book for any interested scholars or researchers.
Maybe Gibson should give his local library a copy of his book. And keep paying those taxes so that it can keep meeting the needs of him and his fellow citizens in the many ways it is already.
Linda May, a former publishing executive, is director of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial Free Library in Waynesboro, Pa.