This article, written by Edie Claire, is from the September 2019 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Ever since Smashwords broke into the library market in 2014 by distributing self-published ebooks to OverDrive, library access has only gotten easier. Now indies can get their ebooks listed on OverDrive through a variety of distributors including Draft2Digital, PublishDrive, and Kobo (now a sister company to OverDrive, under their Rakuten parent). But merely checking that little “distribute to” box isn’t likely to result in actual sales. There are multiple—and largely invisible—hurdles between self-published authors and acquiring librarians, and overcoming these obstacles will require some dedicated effort.
The Bad News, part one: Discoverability
For a glimpse into how librarians make ebook purchasing choices, I interviewed Mary Lee Hart, the collection development librarian at my local library. As expected, the primary goal of library acquisitions is to anticipate which books will be most demanded by patrons. Hence, the largest part of the purchasing budget will go toward bestsellers promoted by the Big Five. The ranks will be further filled out by books receiving positive reviews in the tried-and-true print media with which librarians like Hart are already familiar. But while some of these discovery vehicles (such as Kirkus Reviews and Ingram’s Advance catalog) are open to self-published works, the playing field is far from even. Paid reviews are generally designated as such. Sponsored slots in Ingram’s print catalog are relegated to the back under the dubious heading of “Publisher Selects.” And even those vehicles supposedly devoted to the underserved, such as Foreword Reviews, have terms incompatible with a commercial self-publishing model, such as requiring submission of a manuscript for review at least four months before its release. In fact, the whole traditional model of library acquisition, built around buying new releases while they’re hot, is a poor fit with the slow-build, long-tail pattern of professional self-publishing.
Acquiring librarians do reserve a portion of the budget for books other than current bestsellers. But librarians have little motivation to search specifically in buckets devoted to self-published titles, particularly when most individuals lack an understanding of the difference between a hobbyist writer and a professional self-published-by-choice novelist. For the same reason, any author attempt at direct marketing to librarians is highly likely to wind up in the trash bin.
The Bad News, part two: Ease of Purchase
While libraries can purchase ebooks from a variety of vendors, the reality is that around 90 percent of U.S. public libraries source their ebooks from OverDrive. OverDrive seems preferred not only because of the breadth of media in its catalog, but also because of easy-to-use apps, which libraries rely on for digital lending. The company’s main competitors, Baker and Taylor Axis 360, Bibliotheca, and Odilo, still command only a minor slice of the pie. But while self-published authors can list titles with OverDrive through various distributors, authors cannot see how those titles are being presented to librarians because OverDrive’s library “Marketplace” is not public-facing.
Curious whether my own titles were as visible as their traditionally published counterparts, I consulted Hart. In accordance with OverDrive’s TOS, the library could not offer me a firsthand look at its dedicated interface. But I was provided with some general information. Like most online catalogs, OverDrive makes searching easy with a prominently placed search box. Yet, a search for my books brought up absolutely nothing, even though I distribute to OverDrive via both Kobo and a direct OverDrive publisher account. My books could only be reached by opening up a drop-down menu under the main search bar and then scrolling down to an option labeled “Self-published.”
Finally, a little good news
Publishing may have changed drastically in the last decade, but the motivation of acquisitions librarians has not: they seek to buy whatever materials best serve their patrons. Herein lies the single most powerful strategy for the self-published: patron recommendations. When I polled my Facebook readers about their library use, I was surprised. Many not only regularly borrowed ebooks from the library, but my readers also knew how to request titles for purchase. One reader informed me that he frequently made recommendations; so far his library has bought every one of them. Hart confirmed that my library system not only considers every request but buys the majority. If the author or publisher is an unknown quantity, the purchase decision may come down to price. But any ebook costing single digits is generally considered worth a shot.
Patrons can submit book requests through the same OverDrive interface they use for borrowing. Some libraries have a “recommend” option associated with their own local online catalog, others use a physical suggestion box with paper slips, and many use a combination. But in this case, OverDrive’s domination of the market is of significant benefit to self-published authors because a patron’s search for a book to recommend includes all OverDrive titles. With one click, your loyal reader can send a request straight to their acquisitions librarian—complete with a dedicated link to your book.
The distribution question
OverDrive customer support says it makes no difference how your titles are submitted to OverDrive. Yet, my own experimentation revealed certain variations. Considering the relative difficulty of using an OverDrive publisher account (which requires Excel-formatted metadata and FTP file transfer), I had hoped this distribution method might save me from the self-published dungeon. It did not, although rumor suggests that others might have had better luck. But one advantage a direct account does offer is access to OverDrive’s free merchandising opportunities, such as their e-newsletters and seasonal focus campaigns. Whether these are effective sales tools is an open question.
Another difference I stumbled upon was that the route by which a title reaches OverDrive affects whether or not that book is “available on Kindle” after purchase. It’s not a matter of providing a mobi file; when a Kindle-compatible ebook is borrowed via OverDrive, the borrower is rerouted to Amazon.com for the actual download. Rather, it’s a contractual matter. Books distributed directly through OverDrive show as Kindle-compatible. Ebooks distributed through Kobo (as their customer service confirmed) will not. Draft2Digital’s customer service asserted that its contract with OverDrive does require Kindle-compatibility, although D2D has experienced some delays in execution.
How much does Kindle-compatibility matter? Since Kindle Fires and other tablets can read ePubs in apps, the only devices affected are e-ink versions like the Paperwhite. Older Kindle ereaders (like my trusty 3rd generation with keyboard) can’t handle library loans in any event. When I queried the librarian who buys fiction at my local branch, she said that although she preferred Kindle-compatibility, lack of it wasn’t a deal-breaker.
Royalties on library purchases differ slightly among the distributors, with OverDrive and Kobo paying 50 percent of list price and Smashwords offering 45 percent. Draft2Digital pays 46.75 percent and offers the option of Cost per Checkout as well as One Copy, One User pricing.
And now, it’s up to your readers
Getting your books into libraries is a two-part process of distribution and patron action. My personal attempt at the second part involves a clickable “Read At the Library” button in the footer of every page of my website, combined with a downloadable PDF giving specific instructions on how to request my (or any other favored author’s) books. (Check it out at www.edieclaire.com.) I’ve told my readers that I’ve done all I could to make my books available for borrowing through libraries. Now, it’s up to them.