Guest Blog Post: How Libraries Choose Books to Purchase

A frequent question, especially among self- and small press-published authors, is how books get into libraries, and what authors can do to help. Today, guest blogger and public librarian Abigail Goben explains how libraries choose the books they purchase–and what authors should (and shouldn’t) do to play a part in that process.


by Abigail Goben

One of the many hats of your public librarian is book purchasing. We are allocated a budget and spend a fair amount of time trying to build a collection that is well rounded, appeals to a wide variety of people, mixes great literature with popular novels, and will meet the needs of our community.

In this day and age of budget cuts and calls for fiscal responsibility, it is not only harder to get published, but harder to get published books into libraries. As we’re trimming ever shrinking budgets, we librarians need to be able to justify the materials that tax dollars are being spent on. Libraries don’t have the resources to buy mediocre books, where there is not the demand of a big author or a classroom’s worth of little girls asking for it.

Still, we’re trying to make as much as we can available. Here’s how I do it:

Where I find books:

* Professional Reviews: I spend time diligently going through Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and other professional review journals. The majority of my selections come from there, and that’s probably what you’ll catch me perusing at the reference desk.

* Librarian Blogs: We’re a chatty bunch and love recommending things to each other. There are certainly better or worse blogs, but when it’s a review coming from someone whose blog I respect, I’m more inclined to consider a purchase. Librarians working with patrons every day know what goes well with their audience and what might go well with mine.

* Patron Requests: I’m fortunate enough to have a big enough budget that if a patron requests it, we can usually get it. I do verify that the requester belongs to my library system.

What sinks a book:

* A bad review followed by only ho hum reviews. If there is one bad review in four and the others are pretty positive, it stays on my list. If there is only one review and it’s bad, or the other reviews don’t make me believe–I’m not buying it.

* Bad cover art: Cover appeal is huge both with both children and adults. There is an extremely decorated and celebrated children’s author who prefers very stylized art on his covers. The majority of the kids I’ve attempted to booktalk/handsell it to didn’t like it, and so whether they were interested in the story or not, they didn’t take the book. You may not have a lot of input into your cover, but keep in mind that abstract doesn’t tend to go over well with the 12-and-under crowd, and that I, as a librarian, do consider cover art.

* Proclamations of the book being the next whatever–HP, Twilight, Grisham, Patterson, Kellerman…you name it, we’ve seen it.

What to do if you’re writing or have written a book:

* Ask for research help. Be clear that you’re writing a book and looking for sources. We’re here to help in person, by email or IM or phone, and increasingly by text message.

* Consider asking about a time where you could come in and meet with a librarian one-on-one. Your local public library may not have the staffing to do this, but it won’t hurt to ask, and it can provide an opportunity to work with a librarian without the pressure of someone breathing over your shoulder waiting for immediate assistance.

* Ask for suggestions of other things in your proposed genre to read. We are involved with these books on a daily basis, and chances are good we’ll have some ideas.

* Find out how you can partner with your library to make your book more available and sell copies. This could be a local author fair–with 5-10 local authors coming in to have their books on hand to discuss–or a book signing one afternoon in the lobby, or pairing for a program on your topic with books at the end. Libraries may or may not be able to pay you for your time and expenses.

What not to do:

* Don’t ask your librarian to edit your book. I might be willing to review a published book or an ARC for free on my own time, but I charge by the hour for editing.

* Don’t demand that we stock your book, give you a chance to do a lecture, host a program in your honor, buy fifteen copies, etc. You may suggest. We reserve the right to say no.

* Don’t treat us like your personal assistant. We’re here to help, but we have many other duties on our plates.

* Don’t offer a copy contingent on a positive review on the library blog or any bribery of that nature. We do like thank-you cookies, though.

* Don’t call repeatedly. I’d say “don’t call ever” but some people still take phone calls. I don’t. Mailed brochures get a cursory review. Email is probably the best way to reach me, but you should have a website in place before you reach out, and I shouldn’t be immediately able to tell that your family or students wrote the Amazon reviews. Don’t email everyone on the library staff–that just annoys us.

* Do not abuse the Patron Request. We’re sneaky and smart and networked. We’ll know and we’ll tell everyone we know. If you don’t believe me, you can find out about the efforts of one author here.

Let’s be realistic:

* It is extremely rare that I will purchase anything from a vanity press. It’s not impossible, but the items purchased tend to be of the local history, local celebrity nature rather than a pedantic children’s chapter book, poorly self-illustrated picture book, or a church collection of recipes.

* Everyone writes WWII books. Please, if you’re interested in writing historical fiction, choose another time period. I see an average of 4 “escaping the Nazis” books a month and while we certainly don’t discount Holocaust literature, there is so much more out there that would also benefit from time in the limelight, and it’s more likely to catch my eye for not being WWII.

Most public libraries will happily consider the donation of a copy of your book if it meets the criteria of their collection development policies. However, we are under no obligation to accept even a free copy just because you live down the street and got a vanity press to typeset it for you. We will also weed it if it doesn’t circulate. Public libraries are not, generally speaking, material repositories, and everything has to earn its shelf space.

Abigail Goben is a public librarian and freelance medical writer and editor and MS Access designer in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She blogs about her adventures with libraries and books at Hedgehog Librarian and about knitting and her extremely spoiled cat at Hedgehog Knitting. She’s an active member of the Library Society of the World.


  1. Do librarians really attend library conferences? Do they make buying decisions based on what they see in the exhibit halls? I recently learned about a company called The Reference Shelf that for a fee, will display your book at a library conference expo booth and include it in their list of books. They then supply you with a contact list to follow up on leads/make the sale if attendees express interest.

    I'm considering doing it at the Texas library conference as my book is about Super Commuter Relationships and the highest number of super commuters are found in the Dallas/Houston areas. Over 230,000! It would seem a book of interest to patrons, but I'm not sure if this really is a smart, cost-effective way to get my book in front of the librarians who would purchase? Thoughts?
    Megan Bearce, LMFT

  2. To Anonymous:

    "Does the frequency of people reserving and checking out my book increase the likelihood that the library will purchase additional copies?"

    The best answer is "it depends." Many libraries have a certain trigger ratio, over which they'll purchase another copy budget permitting. The ones I know about were usually 5:1 or higher. It's unclear if you're talking about public libraries or academic libraries as to where you've donated them. Each library is different and again–it's still based on what they can afford. I saw a library that spent a huge amount of chapter book budget on Harry Potter 7 only to have the books languish after a year. The selectors have to decide if something has long term demand for their community, if their community can access the book through holds, if the circulation cycle (3 weeks?) plus the hold cycle (does it have to travel to another branch, etc) warrant another copy.

    I'm not sure what you're asking about as to 'what if my book is perpetually reserved' That just means it's constantly circulating, which is no bad thing.

    If you see something where it will be 6 months before your hold comes in, you can always ask if they can purchase a second copy. The answer may be no, but you may have an opportunity to express your interest in other music theory books.

  3. Abigail,

    I wrote a book of music theory instruction for a particular musical instrument. I have donated copies of my book to several libraries. Does the frequency of people reserving and checking out my book increase the likelihood that the library will purchase additional copies?

    From experience, unfortunately, I am guessing the answer is no. There are music theory books at my library, some very well known, where there is only one copy at the main library. It is difficult for me to reserve and then wait six months to pick up that book. In the same vein, what if my book is perpetually reserved?

  4. You can also, if you write well, get a following by getting your books in jails or prison libraries. People in there have nothing but time to read, but the story should be well edited and hold the reader's attention.

  5. Do you consider using the recently published lists that are added to the State or National Libraries?
    These are made up of legally deposited books.

  6. I don't know what all the fuss is about. I always donate a book to the library. Note I said Library not librarian. I do research there, I check out books there, I purchase books there. Why not return something. If people read it fine. A local author should be welcome whether it be a library or book store. Someone in the community may recognize the name of the author and enjoy reading something by a local. I don't look at it as future sales but rather as a donation.

  7. I was invited to attend the Ontario Library Association Super Conference a few years back for a book signing. Included in the invite were seminars of choice (so long as they were not booked solid)
    My eyes were so opened up to what Librians really do, who they really are and how very committed they are to their career and learning.
    Most of the seminars went right over my head but was fun to attend them none the less.
    I have to say, I'm so happy to see the importance Librarians do put on the illustration quality of a picture book. Often times, even though the illustration contributes to at least half of the story, the illustrator is in the background, the author in the foreground. Certainly an illustrator needs a great story for their art to be inspired but without the pictures in picture books… well they would just be books:)
    Thanks Abigail.

  8. @Karin

    The win of an award certainly can positively influence acquisition. Award winners are more likely to be asked for by patrons. If nothing else it hopefully gives the title more awareness and awareness helps lead to acquisition. It's more of a "can" than "does" (we can't buy every award winner-lotsa awards out there) but I can't see where it would hurt.

    I asked around and none of the librarians who responded said they would turn down a donation because of cataloging. Your mileage may vary and it may be because a library has outsourced cataloging, and so doesn't have someone on site. I'm not sure there's a good way around that, but it seems to be uncommon at least. Most reaffirmed that donations that do not fit a library's mission are not accepted into the collection.


    It's an amazing writer who probably wasn't always given carte blanche on covers, would be my guess. It's been more of the author's recent stuff, so the reputation for good writing was already there.

    Insofar as adults vs kids choosing, it's a challenge. Awards tend to be given by adults (Newbery, Caldecott, etc) but librarians need to appeal to all kinds–that balance between great lit and short fluffy series. Trying to justify all the "fairy" series that the 3rd grade girls check out by the case to adults is sometimes creative.

    Libraries are a significant portion of the US market–Barbara (see a few comments up) mentions in her article that we're 40% of children's book market? So, not as high as Canada but certainly influential.

  9. >There is an extremely decorated and celebrated children's author who prefers very stylized art on his covers. The majority of the kids I've attempted to booktalk/handsell it to didn't like it, and so whether they were interested in the story or not, they didn't take the book.<

    Victoria, great topic/post and Abigail, facinating to hear the many factors Librarian's take into account when purchasing their books.
    As an Illustrator, the above info caught my eye. What amazes me is, if so many of the kids are turned off by the more stylized art, how the heck do these authors BECOME decorated/celebrated? Is it that adults WANT children to be exposed to such books, rather then allow the children to chose what they truly enjoy at their age?
    I'm one of those that enjoys a less abstract style of art (leaning toward cartoony) when it comes to picture books but many publishers still seem to be drawn to the more painterly or abstract styles that will appeal to the adults who purchase the books purhaps.
    In Canada, few if any published authors would donate their books to the Library. I believe Library's here are expected to purchase most of the Canadian children's books published, so the Libraries and Schools are the largest markets for Publishing here. Without either of these markets, I doubt our Publishing industry would even exist. Not sure if it would be similar in the US?

  10. This librarian has the most inflated ego and air of self importance I have ever seen in my life. That aside, good advice!

  11. Abigail, thank you for the informative blog. I wonder if you could speak to two things. First, does a book's win of an award from a reputable organization sway an acquisition decision? (For example, a romance that wins an award from Romance Writers of America, or a LGBT book that wins an award from Lambda Literary Foundation?)

    Second, I've heard that donated books are often placed in the Friends sale because it's more expensive for PLs to catalog them than it is to acquire them. Is there a way a donation can be accompanied by cataloging? Do you think that would help?

    Thanks again for the information.

  12. Sexywriter,

    Frankly, given how so many libraries have been so very happy to collude in Google's massive theft of copyrighted books–only complaining that the books are not sufficiently available for patron piracy and use without paying the copyright holders–I no longer give anything whatever to libraries. Nor do I, or will I ever again, vote for giving any funds to libraries or support them in any way whatever.

  13. I can attest as a former acquisitions librarian at a major university library that donating free copies of your vanity-published book to the library doesn't mean it will end up in the stacks. Our bibliographers generally declined to include any vanity-press book in the library collection, even if it was written by one of the library's own professors. (and we got a lot of those). Instead, these donated books were dumped in the "Book Sale" stock which the library sold off twice a year to raise $$ to buy legitimate books.

    I have gifted my authors' copies of my own books to my local library and they always add them to the collection. But these books are commercially published and also get reviewed in the mainstream review press.

    Jill Elaine Hughes (aka "Jamaica Layne")

  14. I'm a librarian (in an academic library) and a writer and did a piece for Library Journal in which I tried to channel public librarians and publishers. According to a survey I did in connection with the article, reviews in traditional media (especially PW, LJ, and SLJ) remain very important as selection tools. And though publishing outside of traditional channels has exploded, there hasn't been a good filtering mechanism to help librarians and consumers identify the good stuff that is as unbiased as the old reviews, and they can't afford to spend their public dollars (or their limited time) trying to make choices, now that these non-traditional publications vastly outnumber the large number of traditionally published books.

  15. @Frances

    Personally, I've never worked with B&T, I just know they're one of the big ones. Interesting to hear from a small press side!!

  16. @Anonymous

    Cover art–and influence by the author–seems to depend on the publisher. Certainly there are times when the author has no say. I've heard all kinds of things from different authors re cover art especially with the two recent kerfuffles with Justine Larbalestier's Liar and Magic Under Glass by Dolamore.

    I'm sympathetic but still thinking about what will appeal the library patrons.

  17. Abigail– Thanks for the info. You do realize we don't choose the cover art ourselves, don't you? That is, self-published authors probably do. But for a mainstream author, what you're looking at is the kind of cover his publisher prefers to put on his books.

  18. Abgail,

    Thanks for your helpful comments on distributors and on reviews. Re distributors: We sell to two wholesalers, Ingram and Baker & Taylor. The only distributor we have used is Quality Books. They specialize in carefully selected micropress books, which they carry for the first year or two after publication. I believe our account with B & T may no longer be longer active–we have not actually terminated it but we quit filling their orders for reasons explained below.

    As I'm sure you know, wholesalers such as Baker & Taylor and Ingram fill orders, but don't actively market to generate them. Ingram is quite efficient from our point of view, but many micropresses have problems with B & T. Simply put, their payments are incredibly slow, and require insistent, frequently repeated dunning. In our experience, up to several years ago when we quit filling their orders, B & T was taking 9 months to pay us. And then only if we withheld all future orders until they paid all their overdue invoices. For a while we had them on a prepayment, no returns basis, but then they started calling to set up credit again. We just didn't bother to return their calls. From what I hear on micropublishing e-lists, their payment time to some micropublishers is now about 18 months.

    We're certainly not so broke that we need all our invoices paid immediately. But, it's a great deal of unpleasant and time-consuming work to constantly dun a wholesaler. I suppose we could contact them again and reiterate, we'll still fill your orders on a prepayment, no returns basis, but we just started to feel, who cares? We have Ingram, and libraries are said to order from Amazon.

    My point is, a great many micropresses feel the same way about B & T. So if you don't find a micropress book in B & T's database (or they say they have it listed but can't fill the order), you may very well find it available at another wholesaler or at a distributor, or be able to order it through a library jobber.

  19. I sent copies to many libraries and others bought copies. Some of my books are in libraries I've never heard of, but most are in my three state area. It's hit and miss. The last I read about Kirkus Review was that they were charging something like 500.00 for a listing. Kind puts small publishers out, and everyone knows the majors are the last word on quality (Ha-ha). Some major publisher books today are worse than vanity books. Quality has taken a dive in all sectors.

  20. Great post! I completely understand why the cover art is so important. Especially with a children's book. The artwork has to be appealing and draw you into the character/characters in the book so you'll want to read it.

  21. @Kaz

    I don't think anyone has the perfect digital answer yet. Right now, I would say that most of our digital collections are duplicates of our print collections. I'm the regional selector for Overdrive and if none of us on the committee (statewide) have a book on shelf, it's unlikely we'll buy a digital version.

    That's going to change. How soon, I'm not sure. Sooner probably for business/web/tech books than popular fiction. We're in a huge state of transition though…


  22. @Jennifer

    I haven't read Romance Sells, but I'm not an adult fiction selector. We do get, and I do read, Romantic Times. That's personal interest more than professional, though I've been called on for read alike suggestions.

    It's from RWA, which in my opinion is in it's favor. I look to RWA for award winners–so their recommendations would weigh with me. I've put my name on the mailing list.


  23. @Rebecca

    Congratulations on your book and such excellent reviews!! Starred reviews are few and far between and three of them is fantastic!

    I would contact your local libraries via phone or email and ask for the adult fiction selector. Explain just what you did in your comment: you're a local author, you've published with Macmillan, you've gotten starred reviews, you'd like to donate a copy. Ask what their policy is on donations. With that kind of support (good reviews, big publisher), you're more likely to find receptive librarians.

    You probably can send a general inbox email, asking it to be routed to the appropriate selector. If you email, go ahead and include quotes from the reviews. That way they don't have to go looking for them. My library just booked a local-ish author for a summer program by contacting us via email about a book my supervisor had reviewed in one of the prof journals.


  24. @Jennifer

    It depends on the policy of your local library.

    When a donation comes in, generally speaking, I will take the time to consider adding it to the collection.

    The book needs to be of a quality I'm willing to put on our shelves and needs to be applicable to our collection. I am as responsible for it whether I paid for it or not–good stewardship is a huge part of collection management.

    As Frances mentioned, we are not required to keep donations nor add them to our collection. One author whose books I recently considered asked that we return the books if we didn't add them to our collection. We were able to do that. Not all libraries can/will. So your donation, if we feel it doesn't have a place, may end up directly in our booksale.

    Whether it's better to try and sell the book first is up to you if you have a website in place, a good marketing plan, etc– but annoying your local librarian won't win you any brownie points. Don't show up unannounced and attempt to sell me something. You'll get the "no vendors visit" speech.

    Most libraries have faced very serious cuts. They may be more willing to look at donations to help keep collections fresher. But keep in mind with those budget cuts are coming staff cuts and those who are still there have less time to get everything done.

    🙂 Abigail

  25. Hi! Abigail here…will try to answer a few questions that were raised in the comments:


    Regarding Distributors: It depends on what we get from them and the quality of the distributor and how much time we have when materials come at us. I wasn't familiar with Quality Books but signed up for an account with them today. Honestly, I wasn't impressed with the website. The only way for me to find something was to page through unclear categories or have a known item that I'm looking for–which isn't effective for browsing and discovering new materials.

    Am I more likely to buy from a distributor? Probably, if they've sent me a catalog (QB doesn't have a print catalog)–their inclusion of a self/micro press title I would hope means they think it's worth my time and I am happy to discover new things that way. That being said–my library has a policy (and many libraries do) that we do not do vendor visits AT ALL. So if the distributor's only method of getting it out to librarians is doing face to face visits with photocopies of book covers and lists of titles, it'll never reach me. That might be something to ask a distributor with whom you'd like to work.

    Absolutely vanity and self-publishing are different and I probably should have indicated both–but in either case, I'm usually looking at the end product-the book in hand. The quality of the writing, artwork and the final product needs to be excellent to get my attention. Such is not to say it can't be, or isn't, and that who you're working with isn't quality–but it's worth being extra careful.

    I'm not sure what you mean by library fairs? Our professional conferences have vendor halls with publishers. I get to one conference per year: the ALA Annual Conference during the summer. Beyond that Scholastic is the only one I can think of who has librarian events and I've not been to one of their sales. Last summer I did go through the vendors booths at ALA, mostly just running a checklist in my head of "got that, got that, didn't want that, what's that, got that…" I can only think of one series that I came away determined to purchase: Historical House from Usborne. I did pick up a lot of catalogs and materials there that I went through when I came back. So while display doesn't hurt–I'm not sure how to quantify it's impact. We're moving targets getting a boatload of visual stimulus and checking our phones for incoming tweets…

    Yes, libraries purchase books through Amazon. I wouldn't say it's a huge amount–most libraries work with Ipage, Baker and Taylor, or Follett to fill print/audio orders-but if something is available on AMZ and not elsewhere or we need a superfast turnaround, we'll do it. At my library, I have a dedicated acquisitions person for children's, I don't actually click the shopping cart. I make the selections–he decides where we get it from.

    Getting reviews other ways is definitely a challenge. I would look to see if there are bloggers you can reach out to. Try to find out who in the library world is reviewing titles like yours. For children's books I'd recommend Kids Lit or Fuse #8 as somewhere to start but look to smaller bloggers too who might have a less obvious loyal following. Contact them, find out what their reviewing policies are. Some won't publish a review if it's not something they liked. You might also look into state library associations. Many of them do book awards if you live in the state. Find out who the contact person is and how to submit.( e.g. for WI ) I don't have a brilliant solution to that one, unfortunately.

    I hope that helps. 🙂 Please let me know if there is something I can clarify.

  26. To those thinking of donating to their local library: The conventional publishers' wisdom is that donating a copy to your local library doesn't get you anywhere much in terms of marketing. Often the book just winds up in their next Friends of the Library sale. If they keep it, you've spoiled your chance of selling to that library. Basically, you just need to reach more people. Again, I recommend reading John Kremer's 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, which is for both writers and small publishers.

    My mother, when she was alive, enjoyed donating a copy of each of my books to the local library soon after the book was published. They have a "local authors" shelf. However, this is a rural and small-town area and the shelf contains the works of all two local authors–a prolific writer of mysteries, and myself. In other words, I've got practically no competition for space on that shelf. I've never seen any sales or publicity results of any kind from those donations–I just gave the books to make my mother happy.

  27. Ditto to Alan! 🙂

    And I'd love to read your thoughts on Frances Grimble's questions.

  28. Very interesting article, Abigail. I don't think I'm alone in recognising how important libraries are to authors, especially those mid-listers trying to build their brand. Is this where digital authors lose out, however? I'm not in the USA, so I don't know, but is there an avenue yet (or developing) for digital authors to be heard in a similar way to print authors? It's a question that's been vexing me for a little while now.28773vhf

  29. Very interesting post!

    I'm also wondering if you gain any insight into ordering though Romance Sells magazine, which is supposed to go out to booksellers and librarians.

  30. My novel, A TRACE OF SMOKE, got starred reviews in Kirkus, PW, and Library Journal and has done really well with library sales (thank you all and yay!) but I haven't been able to work up the courage to donate one to my local library. Not a single library in my home state carries it though. Any advice on how to give them a copy

  31. What is your thought about donating a copy or two to local libraries as a sort of 'loss leader' to try and build readership?

    Is it better to try and talk the librarian into buying the book?

    Libraries here aren't buying pretty much ANYTHING and I was considering donating two copies…one to the library a block away and one to the central library…if I managed to get published. No matter how good it is, if the library is broke, they won't buy it :/

  32. Abigail,

    How much attention do you (and other librarians you know) pay to the sales efforts of distributors such as Quality Books? Does a micropress or self-published book being carried by a distributor give it more credibility, even if you purchase it elsewhere? (I assume you yourself know that in today's publishing world, vanity/subsidy press books and self-published-as-a-business books are by no means identical.)

    How much attention do you pay to the displays at library fairs?

    Are libraries buying many books on Amazon?

    Since the major pre-review publications prefer not to review micropress and self-published books on that basis alone, what are your suggestions for other good places to get reviews?


  33. Thanks Abigail and Victoria! I always wondered what the driving forces were behind library sales. Interesting to note that cover art matters so much to a library.

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