Selling Books to Libraries

I think there's a collective memory functioning in the book industry of the good old days (circa 1960's) when library buying was at a peak and was on the order of 40% of all book purchasing. I wouldn't be surprised if it's under 10% now, including university and school libraries. As near as I can tell, the priorities for public library budgets these days are as follows:

#1 Latest bestsellers (paperback and hardcover)
#2 Children's books (hardcover) new and classic
#3 Replacement of worn-out and stolen bestsellers
#4 DVD and CD bestsellers
#5 Books requested by patrons
#6 Collection building
#7 Replacement of worn-out and stolen classics

This is my impression from 35 years or so of library patronage; I haven't done a survey. #4 might swap with #3 at some libraries, #5 jumps to the top at some libraries as a matter of policy. All of my library sales come from priority #5, books requested by patrons. What's interesting about the list of priorities, if you accept something like it, is how it plays into library budgeting. In a wealthy community with a well financed library, collection building may far outstrip the higher priorities in terms of the number of items acquired because there's plenty of money leftover after acquiring the must-haves and patron requests. But the golden days of collection building are long over. Many libraries are trying to reduce their collection size to make room for more computers, or simply open space, as the idea of what a library should be has been changing. A publisher with library sales experience or an inside track to a library review pub might make a living at it, but selling books to libraries is a risky strategy for a new publisher to bet all their marbles on. Obviously, a publisher can target both libraries and retail bookstores, but I've noticed in practice that most new publishers end up concentrating on a single market and give up if they don't break through in fairly quick order. A final note is that due to the low priority libraries hold in most city governments, library sales are more highly leveraged to the economy than direct retail sales.

We made an effort trying to sell books to libraries with direct mail a few years back. A co-op mailing cost $600 and we spent an additional $150 or $200 printing up 3,000 fliers for the general mailing on nice stock. One book was a collection of Hebrew translations, the other was a WWII ship history/memoir. Both books had been well reviewed in their respective fields, and review excerpts were featured on the flyer. Distribution was available through B&T and Ingram. One book was a hardcover, the other was paperback. Both were cover priced at $21.95, a 30% discount was offered for direct orders. One book had been in print for two years, the other for less than a year. The initial sales bump through reviews and other publicity was over by the time we did the mailing, the only ongoing sales the books were receiving was through direct mail-order and through Amazon. This means that the impact of the mailing was highly trackable for us, since we literally knew where almost every sale was being generated.

The mailing sold two books for us. The approximate cost, therefore, was $400 per book, or a net loss of about $390 per sale. This doesn't mean that mass co-op mailings are necessarily worthless, but I'd investigate any such deal carefully, talk to people who have had success selling books to libraries by mailings, and make sure that they have sufficient knowledge of where their sales are coming from to have a meaningful opinion. The press that recommended this mailing to us, on further investigation, turned out to have no clue how and where their sales were actually generated. Live and learn.

There are several possible reasons this mailing may have worked so badly for us. Library budgets were in serious straits a few years ago, many still are, so techniques that worked well in the 80's and 90's may be entirely irrelevant now. Our books may have been poorly suited to general library acquisitions. The other fliers in the co-op mailing (there were two others) may have been such a turn-off to librarians that they ignored all three. Our own flier may not have been tweaked properly for library sales. The season may have been wrong; if I recall, we did the winter mailing.

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