Wanna Write a Good One? Library as Publisher

Envisioning a new model outside the Big Six

June 25, 2013


Children’s departments began to appear in public libraries around 1900. Today, it‘s hard to imagine a public library without one. In many libraries, children’s materials account for more than a third of circulation.

Now we have dedicated children’s librarians, children’s acquisitions people, and children’s programming experts. We have a host of early literacy specialists using the latest brain research to help make our nation smarter, if anyone can (and if anyone can, it’s them). I’d like to suggest a new role for public libraries. I believe that 100 years from now, we will consider this role just as necessary, as indispensable to the mission and functioning of the modern public library, as children’s departments are now. It’s time for the library to step up as the nurturer of content creation.

There are several reasons public libraries might want to move in this direction. The first is pure opportunity. Once a library invests in the infrastructure to manage ebooks directly from publishers (see the article by Rochelle Logan), it finds that the same infrastructure allows it to be a publisher. That discovery, in turn, begins to suggest solutions for current business problems. A big one is the unwieldy explosion of self-published content and the lack of tools to manage it. Another might be the celebration and archiving of local history. Yet another might be the disappearance of local newspapers, and the possibility of the library as an alternative news outlet.

The focus of this article, however, is on the first issue: creating new systems to discover, encourage, improve, and assist in the marketing of local authors.

Recruiting the author

Imagine this banner on your library’s website: “Do you want to write a book? (If so, click/touch here.)” Here’s what I have come to believe: Everyone wants to write a book.

So the patron clicks it. Now there’s a new message: “Wanna write a good one?” That’s different, isn’t it?

Suppose the patron goes one level deeper. Then the message looks more like this: “Good for you! The world needs good writers. But like everything else, good writing takes time and attention. If you’re serious, the library can help.”

Then the library provides a road map to writing, complete with resources. There would be lists of current books (in multiple formats), magazines, articles, videos, writer databases, blogs, and newsfeeds. The road map would certainly include lists of local writers groups, because nothing makes you improve faster than the incisive critique of your work in public. It would also include lists, rates, and rankings of local editors, because nothing screams “amateur” like poor spelling and grammar. There would be information on book-cover design (and directories of designers and rates) and schedules for workshops, author events, and lectures.

What happens when, after thousands of diligent hours, authors move from “Start here” to “My book is done”? Then they give—yes, give—a copy to the library! And why would they do that?

  1. The library helped them write it.
  2. The library will help them get it reviewed.
  3. The library will attach some level of copy protection to the file (if desired). Copyright remains with the author.
  4. The library will display and make it accessible to the local community.
  5. The library will buy multiple copies based on demand.
  6. The library will make it possible for others to purchase it from the library catalog.

And why would the library do all this? For one thing, it would share in the profits of such purchases—let’s say 10% of whatever price the author sets.

Recently, I met with a group of authors to try to flesh all this out as an experiment Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries (DCL) could conduct in 2013. At first, they were thrilled to find a way to break into the library market. But then I explained that first we had to talk about the issue of quality. If the library suddenly started adding amateurish schlock to our offerings, that would make both of us look bad. How could we ensure at least a minimum standard of acceptability?

I was also quick to point out another problem. We can’t afford to pay people to serve as full-time local book critics. (Moreover, considering the burgeoning growth of self-publishing, there aren’t enough librarians in the world to do that anyway.) But perhaps this wasn’t so much a problem as an opportunity. What if we asked for help? What if we invited our whole community to join us in exploring and defining the most exciting time in the history of literature?

Community-sourcing acquisitions and review

There’s an old joke: Why do people rob banks? Punch line: because that’s where the money is. Why would we appeal to library patrons for help in assessing more books than we can possibly keep up with? Answer: because that’s where the readers are.

Every public library in the United States has a core group of “power users.” These folks swing by the library once a week or more. Often, they have commanding knowledge and insight in their areas of interest. In other words, we already have local expertise—people who are already investing the time to stay on top of new content. We just haven’t harvested their labor.

There’s another wrinkle. As documented in many places (see OCLC’s report “From Awareness to Funding”), libraries have seen a steady erosion of support even as their use has risen. Why is that? I think, in part, it’s because we haven’t asked for that support in ways that engage funders’ hearts and minds. We ask only for money.

By appealing directly to local constituents to help us do precisely the things that most interest them—read, rate, talk about books—not only can we find new strength in a changing publishing environment, we can also grow an articulate and committed network of advocates.

Again: Our old process—reading professional reviews and making purchasing decisions on that basis—simply won’t work with the flood of new self-published content. So let’s flip it.

Here’s the draft process we came up with:

  1. First, we recruit acquisition editors and reviewers. We run ads in the paper, in the library, and on our website. We require a résumé, cover letter, and something about applicants’ reading tastes. We interview them. If they meet our criteria, we bring them on as part of a volunteer team.
  2. We train them. Working with experienced agents, we provide a mandatory workshop, then give our volunteers checklists to tell them how to (a) decide if something is worth putting in the catalog, and (b) create a short review and ranking.
  3. Acquisition editors agree to handle some number of submissions per week—each typically consisting of just a key chapter and an outline or abstract. Eligible submissions come from someone who has a library card with us (hence, a local or regional author).
  4. Within some time frame, acquisition editors ensure that the submission meets our standards: in English, proofed, and correctly formatted. There might also be some guidelines about unacceptable content: We won’t accept medical works by people without medical credentials; we won’t publish hate speech or libel. (Welcome to the new Wild West of intellectual freedom challenges.) But if someone is rejected at this point, we might offer the author a way to appeal.
  5. Once the work is accepted, the author is directed to add the title to our catalog, either by direct upload, or by partnership with an e-publishing retailer.
  6. We create brief records using a combination of metadata worksheets completed by the author, full-text indexing, and minimal professional review.
  7. We add digital rights management, unless the title is distributed to us as Creative Commons.
  8. Now the item is routed to community reviewers, preferably matched up with their own reading interests (mysteries to mystery fans, etc.). The reviewer is asked to read the entire book and compose and post a three-sentence review, a ranking (of up to five stars), and any “read-alike” information (that is, “If you love Dick Francis, you’ll enjoy this horse race–related suspense story”). Reviewers, who may themselves be ranked by the community, sign their names. A combination of all this enables our built-in recommendation engine to suggest titles of likely interest.
  9. We incorporate these titles in a “stream” of local authors. That is, patrons can browse electronic carousels on library displays or through library apps to see what the community is creating. Alternatively, through subject and tag facets, this local content can be interfiled with other content.
  10. Annually, the reviewers grant “best of” awards. Best New Author, Best Adult Fiction, Best Children’s Book. Or perhaps, Best Book Cover or Best Editor. The library hosts an award ceremony, with prizes. One prize might be support for national promotion of the ebook. In this way, we begin to boost our best writers up to national prominence. The next bestseller might come from our own backyard. The success story of 2012—Fifty Shades of Grey—didn’t originate in the commercial world. That’s why some publishers are now announcing their own self-publishing ventures. But why shouldn’t libraries create stables of promising new talent too?

Many of our readers will be content to sample broader cultural offerings. Others will be keen to see what their own community is thinking and writing about. Still others will make the move from consumers to creators. But in all these scenarios, the library is in the center, deeply engaging its community in intellectual content.

Backing up: How we got here

I have presented this vision as fully realized. At DCL, I think we really can roll this out in the coming year. But in truth, this represents the final step in a three-phase process.

Before a library can adopt this new role, it must first:

  1. Establish a technical infrastructure. There are at least three approaches. First, a library might choose some vendor to host and enable the discovery of local content (Autographics has announced such a project). But do we need a middleman? Second, a library might choose to invest in its own hardware, software, and telecommunications capacity to do that. This is the Douglas County model, which is up and running, and Queens (N.Y.) Public Library is launching its own version of this. Third, libraries might team up to invest in such a setup together. This is what the consortium Marmot has done in Colorado, and Califa has done in California. For libraries that already operate their own servers and networks, this is a significant but not prohibitively expensive task. For libraries starting from scratch, the assistance of state libraries and federal grants may be necessary. In any case, I think this phase is the work of at least a year.
  2. Build new systems of publisher relations, acquisitions, and workflow. DCL has contracted for the development of an acquisition system to better integrate the compilation of catalogs from mid-list, independent, and small publishers not currently carried by our distributors. We’re beta testing it. When it’s complete, we hope other libraries will adopt it. We are eager to share all the data we have already harvested or created. But working directly with publishers is different than working through a distributor. It requires the thoughtful reconsideration of many longstanding processes. It’s fair to say that this deconstruction and reconstruction of workflow is worth a year in itself. But some of it may run parallel with the first phase.
  3. Manage demand. To date, libraries mostly respond to demand, and that demand is dictated by the advertising budgets of the Big Six. But it seems clear that the annual output of new titles by independent and self-publishers is already at least twice that of mainstream commercial publishing. If libraries want to stay in the game of sampling the intellectual content of our times, we have to find a way to acquire far more than our current budgets allow. I believe what’s likely to work is a combination of the process I outlined above with a broad outreach to the small and independent publishers eager to work with us.

Opportunities ahead

Over the past year, my staff has spoken with hundreds of authors and publishers. The times are changing. And of course, there’s more to content creation than just books. There’s short-form fiction and nonfiction. There’s local journalism and local history. And there are endless vistas beyond print: music, video, collaborative projects yet undreamed.

Nonetheless, there is a burst of enthusiasm in the publishing world outside the Big Six—a chance to embrace the disruptive change, the creative destruction, that always precedes the establishment of a new and more inclusive order. In such a time, like the libraries of more than a century ago, we have the opportunity to claim important new status in the influence over and the curation of our culture. Will we take it?

JAMES LARUE is director of the Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries and a member of ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group.



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