Behind The Shelves

paula_thumb.jpgCockeysville Library in Baltimore County, with its glass enclosed front and neon section signs, is very much a “now” library. It must be. Even in today’s video crazed, Playstation nation, you can find it packed with students. The rows of computers are full and amidst the obligatory quiet is contained chatter – youthful and energetic.

If Cockeysville has secret weapons to explain its inviting environment, among them is Librarian, Miriam DesHarnais (what a cool name). Neither quiet or reserved, Miriam is the sort of librarian you’d expect to burst into spontaneous song. No shushing from this hip, library chick.

So who better to talk about how libraries can keep teen readers hanging at the P.L.?

Here are my three obligatory author questions. Every author wants to know the answer to these things:

On average, how many titles does your library purchase either per season or annually?

I don’t know how many titles, but according to my friend Liz Rafferty, BCPL (Baltimore County Public Library) purchases 350,000 new items a year, but some of those are multiple copies of the same title, obviously. We are a big library system and buy quite broadly.

With so many titles to choose from, what usually goes into deciding what books a library purchases? Is it reviews from trusted sources, publisher buzz/push, what’s the magic “it” factor?

Our library has a Collection Development department that selects our materials. In general, smaller libraries rely heavily on reviews in professional journals, but larger library systems with more money have more flexibility in responding to customer requests.

 Obviously, we buy bestsellers, but also a wide range of fiction and nonfiction materials that people need for their informational and recreational needs. Our library system even buys certain self published or certain small press items. We have standing orders with some vendors, selectors receive advanced reading copies and decide based on that. Other library staff routinely send in suggestions for additions to the collection, either specific titles or for a subject area, and we also accept customer requests.

What is the best way for a traditionally published author to approach a library about carrying their book? Does this approach change at all if the author is self-published?

We have a form that we ask authors to fill out and send to the Collection development department, along with a copy of their book. It’s called the Request for Materials Consideration form at BCPL. They would then review the book and decide if they wanted to purchase it for some or all of the branches.

However, the best method to having your book purchased is to have it reviewed in a publication. Libraries generally use Library journal, School Library Journal, Horn Review, VOYA, Booklist, and other similar publications. Obviously, if you get a review in the NY Times, that can help, but it is worthwhile to pursue review from local media, because customers routinely come in requesting books they read about in the Baltimore Sun or heard about on local radio or TV stations.

Sometimes internet promotion is enough. You can talk to Zane about that!! Even if you are self published, it’s less work to let the media do some of the work for you. Doing programs at local bookstores, libraries and festivals can be a good way to get your name out there.

On to the more youth-inspired questions.

Based purely on observational evidence, Fact or fiction – reading for pleasure/library visits fall off significantly when young readers become teens?

As far as my branch, the Cockeysville Branch of BCPL is concerned, that would be an emphatic NO! My library is so full of teenagers that on my first day there, I thought that a school had dropped off a busload of students for some special event. It took a week or two before I realized that my library was one of the two places kids and teens in the area tend to go after school. We have schools all around us and the PAL center is next door.

This is not to say that all of the teen library users are checking out books or even reading books every day, they use the library for many things; a social space, a gaming area, a hang-out, a place to do homework, etc., but a lot of kids do read comic books, magazines and yes, even books, while they are in the branch. One of the nicest things about working at my library is that I do get to do a lot of recommending of books to teen readers. Our young adult collection is one of the highest circulating areas in the whole library.

Barring a petition requesting schools decrease homework loads, what can libraries do to increase pleasure reading among young adults – ages 12+?
Understand that teenagers, like most of us, derive their entertainment from a variety of formats, and having a collection that meets library users halfway by both anticipating what they will want to read and responding to customer requests.

Libraries don’t need to buy only the “best” materials, because all readers (including adults) read for entertainment as well as intellectual stimulation, and that’s okay. It’s not a research library, it’s the public library and one of our goals is to give people what they want as well as what they need.

How can authors help?
By being true to your own voice and your vision for your book, rather than trying to create with a financial end in mind. Sometimes I see books that are jumping on different marketable trends and seem really hollow.

One genre that I think has been missing and has been in high demand for a long time are lighter reads that feature or include African American characters. If you are a teen reader and you like literary fiction, there’s Walter dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Sharon Draper, Angela Johnson, but if you are a teen reader who wants to read the equivalent of Gossip Girl but don’t see yourself reflected anywhere in that world, you’re faced with an insulting choice of choosing a ‘fun’ book, or choosing books with African American characters.

I’ve actually seen a real change for the better in the last year where publishers are finally catching on to the fact that there is a huge demand for series fiction and other teen books that focus on dating or friendship or sports or day to day life that are by African American authors. I think that this is an example of the system ignoring certain types of books or certain authors to the extent that those authors created their own means of promotion through self publishing and the internet and generated enormous buzz from readers and potential readers (the best example of this is urban fiction) and then publishing companies caught on and either re-released some of these self published books or designed lines of fiction designed to look like urban fiction, like now Snoop Dog and 50 Cent have their own urban fiction imprints. I think the end result of this is something really positive; that mainstream publishing, including young adult and children’s presses, are finally starting to publish a wider range of genres with multicultural characters.

Describe your dream library program/event?
We had a very good program when you visited the branch. Talking for a few minutes about what it means to be a writer, having the kids brainstorm about what makes a good chapter, reading a chapter of your book and letting the teens take turns writing sentences to make a chapter of their own worked so well. Having prizes, taking pictures with the kids, a few even asked for your autograph – made it very interactive. When they left, they seemed really energized and excited by what they had accomplished. They were also asking to check out your book and if we had anything else like it. Also, no program is complete without snacks!!

Are there any books your young patrons are asking for that aren’t currently on the market or maybe aren’t enough of on the market?

In addition to what I said above (lighter genre fiction that appeals to girls with more multicultural characters), I also think that more mystery, suspense and sports stories that appeal to boys and feature multicultural characters are needed.

I have some younger readers who really like urban fiction. As a librarian, it’s important to respect what the reader is looking for, but I wish there were more titles that combined the grittiness and quick readability that they are looking for with characters and issues more appropriate to the readers’ age.

What do you think libraries should/can do to stay appealing to teen readers? To continue to draw them into the library as a community center?

Currently our library doesn’t have a teen area, and we need one. Also, how library staff treats younger customers needs to be consistent and fair. Some libraries in our system have established teen advisory boards, where teenagers provide input on how to improve the library’s environment for teens.

In the spirit of meeting teens where they are, interest wise, many of our libraries have been using grant funds specifically for creating gaming clubs/tournaments for teens after school. We also check out video games and have recently made it easier for teenagers to check out DVDs and games.

Basically, I think libraries need to recognize that teenagers may use libraries differently than users of other ages, and that’s okay. We make adjustments for babies and seniors, but since teens are traditionally viewed as difficult, we try to get then to adjust their behavior rather than adjusting library rules/spaces.

Behind The Shelves will be a recurring blog post featuring children’s literature industry professionals.

8 thoughts on “Behind The Shelves

  1. I told Miriam people would likely think I paid her to say that about the need for popular fiction for black teen girls. I’ve been on my soap box about that for four years. 🙂

  2. Hey Paula, Thanks for this information. A follow-up question: I’m hearing that more publishers are marketing direct to consumers via bookstores, supermarkets, big box stores (Wal-Mart, Target), etc., as opposed to libraries the way they used to. For one, is this true, and if so, how has this affected librarians, and what are libraries doing to keep the attention of publishers. How does this trend affect multicultural books, if at all?

  3. Don, good question. I’ll pass along to Miriam and see if she or Elizabeth will stop by to answer that from the industry perspective.

    I’m willing to bet, though, that libraries don’t mind not being courted. I work for a city government, so I’ll apply how we acquire/purchase with that of a library – when I need design, graphic and printing services I don’t have to court anyone, people are always at the ready to put in a bid because government money is “guranteed” money.

    And once you’re in, it’s easy because I’m more likely to keep purchasing from you so I don’t have to go through that whole bid process everytime.

    Since libraries have a set budget (though likely shrinking) publishers know it’s no sense in courting them, per se because the library has so many choices to help round out that budget and they’re not likely to buy more than a dozen or less of a title, anyway. And that’s may be per system, not per library.

    Their time is much better spent courting those who have not traditionally been a distribution center (Wal-mart or grocery store) or get a vendor (indie bookstore) to exapnd their usual order.

    I think it’s a funny relationship. Publishers wouldn’t want libraries to stop buying, but then libraries can’t, since they exist to disribute books. At the same time, knowing this, publishers also don’t have to put in any extra work to get a book on the shelves. Not really worth the labor to court someone who may buy one or two copies of a book.

    Typical marketing strategy.

  4. Very informative interview. When Miriam said she was looking for “lighter reads” with AA MC’s, I was thinking that’s what we’ve been talking about for so long. I’m glad she said it. Yea!!!!!

    Thanks for the interview.


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