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Six Degrees Left: Tightening the Bond Between Libraries and Small Presses, Part One

 

It’s difficult to find small press or independently published books. Shocker, right? We know it. It’s no wonder either; without the giant budgets for publicity and distribution, or household name authors getting movie deals, there’s little chance of getting onto the bestseller lists or the shelves at the front of the chain bookstores. The average reader just doesn’t know what’s out there, and it’s not their fault. But it isn’t just readers who may never learn of great indie books.

Librarians are our front line for making literature of all kinds available to the public. But they can’t do it on their own. They can’t be expected to magically find every work and author of value and get them on their shelves. They need support–more troops, more artillery–and we need to get it to them. But how to do it? There isn’t much information out there on how small and independent presses and authors can get their books into libraries to fight the good fight. (Two we have found are this article from 1999 in The Laughing Bear Newsletter and this conversation at A Library Thing.) That’s why in this Six Degrees Left discussion we have tried to open the lines of communication between libraries and small presses. We can get more information online so that small presses and libraries can work together for the same cause with the same goal: to get great, new writing into the hands and heads of readers.

 

Thanks to Jefferey Lependorf, Executive Director to CLMP (Council of Literary Magazines and Presses) and SPD (Small Press Distribution), Sarah Houghton, Director for the San Rafael Public Library and author of LibrarianinBlack.net, Karen Gisonny, the Helen Bernstein Librarian for Periodicals at the New York Public Library, and Jamie LaRue, the Director of Douglas County Libraries, for participating in this discussion.

A child's garden of verses (1905)

 

The following conversation is conducted by Atticus Books publicity assistant Abby Hess.

 

To begin with, are libraries interested in small press books, and what do they hope to find in materials published by small presses?

Jeffrey Lependorf: Libraries (and librarians!) have always been friendly to small press books. They care about readers, and by extension, independent literary publishers (what we at CLMP/SPD officially call “independent literary” publishers). Many of the constituents of libraries are the very same readers that small press publishers publish for: those whose reading needs may not be met by larger houses who, by necessity, must publish for the widest possible readership. So, when it comes to things like poetry, or culturally specific writing, or work in translation–just to name a few examples–librarians know that small presses will supply them with what many of their readers come to the library to find.

Sarah Houghton: Libraries and the librarians who select their collections are absolutely interested in small press books. We have a history of selecting widely across both large and small publishers, selecting a cross-section of materials that meets our users’ demands–which are often for titles from small press publishers.

Jamie LaRue: Yes, and we have always purchased a smattering of them. The key advantage of small presses, historically, has been matters of local or regional interest. But I believe that the surge of ebook publishing will greatly expand the availability and interest in this category of literature.

Karen Gisonny: Absolutely–New York Public Library actively collects small press books. As the number of big publishing houses has dwindled and small presses are flourishing, it’s where the majority of new literature is published. Small presses are on the cutting edge of literary and social trends and play an incredibly important role in our culture. Libraries are definitely interested in collecting small presses.

Jeffrey Lependorf: I’ll pipe in and add that small presses publish more than 98% of all new poetry titles, and are a “first stop” for literature in translation, cultural studies, experimental work, culturally specific writing, and other aesthetic and culturally specific-focused writing not generally considered to be highly marketable (despite its literary merits). It’s probably also worth mentioning that when it comes to poetry, very little is available in ebook format—the changeable fonts and text flow of ebooks isn’t yet friendly to the typesetting that is intrinsic to so much poetry. Right now, the ebook format only really works well for left-justified, short-lined poems.

 

A child's garden of verses (1905)

Do you think that the goal of a library is more to provide materials that a patron knows she wants, or to provide materials that a patron would discover and enjoy once she has been directed to them within the library?

Sarah Houghton: The best possible world is a combination of the two. Most public libraries, in the face of shrinking budgets, have focused on the former (materials patrons request) over the latter (a broad, “who knows, someday someone might want this” collection).  However, most libraries still try to provide a balanced collection with materials of many types, from many viewpoints, that support a variety of interests and needs in the community.

Karen Gisonny: The NYPL has an opportunity to do both. The Branch Libraries (82 locations in Manhattan, Bronx and Staten Island) collect primarily popular and general reference materials. The Research Libraries (4 centers city wide) are responsible for collecting, preserving, and providing access to materials across a multitude of subjects for both today’s users and future researchers.

Jamie LaRue: The mission of the library, as I see it, is to gather, organize, and present to the public the intellectual content of our culture. In fact, we add about 150,000 new items to our collection each year (and remove about the same amount due to the limitations of space). By far the greatest USE of our collection is the big mainstream titles, and that demand drives additional purchases. A second category has been “perennials” –libraries spend a surprising amount of money on repurchasing popular titles that get worn out. Only then do most of us get to the independents and small presses. But again, as we move to a more digital environment, and as the publishing numbers change (roughly 300,000 new titles in the commercial world, almost that again in small and independents, and over that for self-published), clearly, our ratios of spending, and knowledge about these new streams will need to change. If not, we risk ignoring two thirds of “the intellectual content of our culture.”

Jeffrey Lependorf: This is an answer best given by a librarian, but I hope the answer will include a bit of both. If libraries only fulfill the mandate of giving people what they want, and if most of what people may want is largely informed through what is marketed at them, then most people by definition can only want bestsellers. There are certainly many excellent books that are indeed marketed to and enjoyed by millions of readers, but there are equally as many small press books that would likely be of even greater interest to individual readers, and the way these readers might best find out about them is through thoughtful librarians offering suggestions about titles (and likewise, purchasing books beyond the bestsellers based on what they know of their own constituents). Particularly when it comes to less commercially viable genres, like contemporary poetry, or literature that speaks to focused, culturally specific communities, being able to find books like these in a library strikes me as vital to our culture.

 

 I think all of us are on the same side.

 

How does a library choose to purchase its books differently from an independent bookstore? Do small presses have more similar interests with libraries than bookstores?

Jeffrey Lependorf: Assuming that both people who work in indie bookstores and librarians are first passionate readers, and that on a certain level they are both “hand-selling” the books they have selected, there might be less difference between librarians and independent booksellers than one might initially think.  Whether they are in a store or in a library, book buyers are much more diverse in their choices than consumers of other kinds of media.  While there are of course bestsellers in the book industry, and they do matter, the economics of books as a whole suits books to the “long tail” phenomenon much better than things like movies, music, and the like. As far as having more similar interests with librarians than bookstores, that’s likely true. At a certain level, bookstores must have a bottom-line in mind when making their selections, which included current demand and thoughts about shelf-space, whereas librarians, though they may still have budgets and shelf real estate to consider, can likely think more about serving and preserving culture & literature—and the long term needs of their own constituents—despite the number of people who might want be reading any given book right now.

Sarah Houghton: Libraries rely heavily on two factors for choosing what to purchase: review sources and patron requests. I think in that way we are similar to any bookstore, whether large chain or independent.

Karen Gisonny: I think that independent bookstores have to consider sales in a way libraries do not. Small presses and research libraries share a similar mission–to publish or build collections of–primary source literature, cultural objects, works that give voice to the under represented in society and that document our social, political and cultural life.

Jamie LaRue: We actually employ several people who hold jobs at both the library and the local independent bookstore. We team up with them for author visits, promotions, and programs. So I think our interests overlap more than they differ. Moreover, I think the role of the public library as marketer, curator, and promoter of ideas is on the rise. We’ve adopted a lot of display ideas from the bookstores; they’ve adopted a lot of our focus on early literacy. I think all of us are on the same side.

 

Next Monday, the discussion gets deeper into the steps small and independent presses can take to open communication with libraries and what librarians are looking for.

Participants

Jamie LaRue has been the director of the Douglas County Libraries, headquartered in Castle Rock, CO, since 1990. He is the author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges, and wrote a weekly newspaper column for over 25 years. He was the Colorado Librarian of the Year in 1998, the Castle Rock Chamber of Commerce’s 2003 Business Person of the Year, and in 2007 won the Julie J. Boucher (boo-SHAY) Award for Intellectual Freedom.

 

Jeffrey Lependorf serves as the shared Executive Director to our nation’s two national nonprofit organizations serving the community of independent literary publishers: CLMP—Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (http://www.clmp.org)—providing technical assistance and advocacy, and SPD—Small Press Distribution (http://www.spdbooks.org), the only nonprofit distributor of literary books in the country. Also also active as a composer and performer, his Masterpieces of Western Music audio course is available through audible.com.

 

Karen Gisonny is the Helen Bernstein Librarian for Periodicals at the New York Public Library.  Her collection development work centers on the Library’s extensive collections of books published by independent literary presses, small and alternative press periodicals, and zines.  She curated the NYPL exhibit New American Literary Magazines and for over ten years has collaborated with the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses to host Periodically Speaking and Magathon at the NYPL, programs which highlight these collections.

 

Sarah Houghton is best known as the author of the award-winning LibrarianInBlack.net.  She is also the Director for the San Rafael Public Library. Sarah is a big technology nerd and believes in the power of libraries to change lives.  Combined, they make a fearsome cocktail.  Sarah has been called an iconoclast, a contrarian, a future-pusher, and a general pain in the ass.  She takes great pride in each. Her first book came out in 2010: Technology Training in Libraries and she is a frequent speaker for online and realspace worldwide events for libraries and other institutions.

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About Abby Hess

Abby Hess is a publicity assistant for Atticus Books.

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