Do Libraries Acquire Self Published Books?

I recently stumbled upon an Internet discussion about how to "trick" libraries into ordering self published books. It was a great example of doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason, and failing at it to boot. Some self publishers fall in love with the idea of being underdogs fighting against the system, but authors who get libraries mixed up with the enemy should be forced to turn in their library card and watch televison for the rest of their lives. Libraries are the good guys, and, as it turns out, they do acquire self published books.

Library acquisitions peaked at around 40% of the book market in the 1960's, and have been going downhill ever since. With the exception of the decently funded university and research libraries, collection building has been largely replaced by an attempt to serve the immediate needs of the community. As an avid reader of classic literature I regret that libraries no longer mantain collections, but it turns out to be a positive development for self publishers. Yet, if you search the various Internet discussion groups for information about library purchasing, you'll often encounter definitive statements that "Libraries don't buy self published books!"

So what gives me the confidence to state that libraries do in fact acquire self published books, and that they appear to be entirely uninfluenced by the publisher of record? Rather than relying on anecdotes or conversations with part time employees at the checkout desk, I took a look at the numbers on Worldcat does not have access to the catalog of every public library, but several thousand libraries is enough to get an excellent sense of how the acquisitions process works. I spent some time this morning looking at the titles of various self publishers I know, and I didn't come up with a single one whose books weren't stocked in the collections of both public and university libraries.

Is the playing field really level, or do libraries stock books from the big trades in large quantities and books from self publishers only to please local relatives of the authors? In order to come up with an answer, I looked at the Worldcat numbers for a series of how-to books I authored for McGraw-Hill which sold over 100,000 copies through four editions. Worldcat currently shows copies in stock at 649 libraries. Then I checked my most popular self published how-to title, which has been acquired by 115 libraries in the Worldcat system. It turns out that my self published title can be found in library collections at a higher rate (proportional to sales) than the bestseller that I authored for McGraw-Hill. While it's probable that some libraries have eliminated earlier editions of the McGraw-Hill books from their collections, it's also important to note that I have never marketed any of the Foner Books titles to libraries.

I also spent some time searching the Worldcat listings to see how library purchasing correlates with the marketing efforts of the authors I know. It quickly became apparent that library purchasing tracks overall sales reasonably well. That makes perfect sense since the vast majority of library orders for self published book are triggered by a patron coming in and requesting the book. Those requests come as a result of whatever the publisher is doing correctly to sell books in general, whether it's initial marketing or great word-of-mouth. I didn't see any difference between the library acquisition rate for self publishers who primarily sell through Amazon and those who primarily sell through stores. Most of my own sales to libraries are handled by Ingram or Baker&Taylor, but a couple dozen have come by way of smaller distributors contacting us direct to purchase books.

Authors obsessed with where their books end up can also check, which catalogs and shows ratings for books from private collections (the books owned by whoever signs up). I don't spend much time on LibraryThing, and unlike the libraries, it appears to be skewed toward the collections of people who are interested in publishing and writing. Another interesting use for these services is to check the relative success of fee based publishers. Worldcat doesn't have a publisher keyword search, but the entire record is searchable, so with a little fooling around, you can get a pretty good idea of what proportion of a given publishing service's titles make it into libraries, but make sure you check the number of libraries that have purchased each book. If it's one copy per title, that's very likely the author (or author's mother) conning the local library into buying a copy.


Anonymous said...

I had my "Top 10" book accepted into distribution to the library market. I think the key to getting into libraries is to use the two little-known library distributors that do the lions share of the distribution to libraries: Quality Books and Unique Books (I think QB did a better job for me than UB).

I do think it helped that the title I submitted was printed via offset rather than POD. I think that created a more professional presentation and perhaps even made my book indistinguishable from a non-self published book.

I found that book sales via both sales outlets peaked about 3 months after I signed up with the distributors, and then fell to near zero (which makes sense - once the libraries that are going to acquire the books do, then the market is dead). I believe both companies even have traveling sales reps.

I supplemented the distribution with a program through IBPA (formerly PMA) in which I paid a few hundred bucks to have a flyer sent to about 3000 acquisition librarians. On the flyer was listed QB and UB as well as BT and Ingram as distributors. I think this helped the libraries to recognize the value of the book and order it through their favorite distributor.

All in all the above measures helped me sell about 150-300 books into the library market (rough guess). Not a lot of sales, for sure - hardly worth it?

The reasons I DO believe it is worth it are severaL:

1. You hit a whole different audience - perhaps those who don't use the internet - and since my company phone number is printed in the book, I have had many people call to order books from me saying they first saw the book in the library.

2. Sometimes kids go to the library to research school projects, and I like the idea of my books getting exposure through being cited this way.

3. I have to assume that library shelf life is quite long and my books will be physically sitting somewhere taking up space and available for checkout for quite some time.

4. Other misc. reasons I'm not going to type.

I know that libraries continue to pick up my books quite often. Here's how I know: I do a google search every once in a while for my name + book title and limit search results to the last 30 days to see what kind of stuff is popping up on the web related to me or my company. At least once a month I find a library website in these results, and they list my book as a "new arrival" for that month. Nevertheless, QB and UB no longer stock my titles (they make it a habbit of discountinuing titles after the market is tapped) so I'm not sure where or how libraries are hearing about or ordering my books, but it may be some sort of market momementum and/or possibly customer requests.

Anyway, that is my two cents. I just published a new book I believe will be a good candidate for library distribution ( ) and I'll probably go the same route with this book. I can't say the library sales route was a smashing success but it may have helped my company out a little bit and for all I can tell it was easy and painless enough and didn't really hurt me.


Morris Rosenthal said...


I thought that Baker&Taylor was far and away the biggest library distributor, but I don't remember why:-) Maybe somebody can chip in with the numbers if they know them.

I'm tend not to agree on the specifics because the devil is in the details. The distributors you mention ring a bell as having contacted us over the years for direct purchases, I believe one had so much paperwork that I told them to order through Ingram, and the other wouldn't pre-pay, but my memory is far from perfect.

What I was trying to point out in this post is that if you are a successful at selling books, you don't have to do anything special to get them into libaries because patrons will come in and order them. If you make a point of trying to sell to libraries, you should get a burst of sales as you saw when the distributor makes a push, but I don't see it as a business plan.

And, as you mentioned, you went offset with that title so you could give the botique distributors the discount they demanded. I couldn't do that (legally) without changing the terms I give all distributors, which would cost me a fortune.


Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Fascinating blog!


Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if the discount one sets, which is presumably lower (possibly a lot lower) than libraries (or bookstores) are used to getting plays any role in them refusing to buy a book. Is that a factor? Is, say, a 25% discount unrealistic as far as libraries or bookstores are concerned (but assuming one does most of one's sales via the Internet)? I'm very interested in your thoughts on this, Morris.

Morris Rosenthal said...


I haven't seen any relation between discount and library acquisitions. They buy books primarily because their patrons request them, discount isn't a factor unless they can't order the book through their standard sources or the final price exceeds some internal guidelines.

Most of my library sales are completely hands off, going through either Ingram or Baker&Taylor. I have no way of directly tracking these since they end up on my Lightning Source statement with all other print sales. However, I do get a steady dribble of orders from small distributors who primarily service libraries. My terms for them are the same as the terms I give schools who order direct. Prepaid, 35% discount, free shipping over 10 books. Libraries never order 10 books so those distributors end up paying for media mail.

I don't jump through any hoops or fill out paperwork for these specialty distributors, they buy on our terms or they don't.


maggie said...

I have sold 7000 copies of my self-published children's book to schools, but would like to get into the libraries. I contacted Ingram and Baker and Taylor, but they wouldn't accept it because I only had one book. I have been told by more than one prospective client that they can't do business with me unless I have a distributor. My book is a hard back and has brilliantly colored illustrations. My book is Lunch at the Zoo, by Brenda Cartee Lee if you would like to take a look. Any suggestions for a distributor who will consider me?

Morris Rosenthal said...


Did you lead with the sales volume when you called Ingram? They are constantly changing their small publisher program, but they'll usually accept books with strong enough sales.

At the 7,000 volume, I don't think you'll have any problem finding a distributor, the question is whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing, as a specialty distributor may want 70% of the cover price, and make you jump through hoops as well. If you're going to give up that much money, you might consider contacting a few of the major children's publishers first and seeing if they are interested in acquiring the book (their volume might make up for the low author royalty) or whether they'll distribute for you for a cut.

The 7,000 copies for a self pubished children's book without distribution is very impressive, don't be shy about letting distributors or publishers you contact know you understand how well you are doing.