Multnomah County Library is setting a powerful example with the Library Writers Project

What happens when you take a world-class public library system, mix in hundreds of indie authors, power up with Smashwords, and use OverDrive to top it all off? You get Multnomah County Library’s Library Writers Project.

As I have researched the issues and realities of indie authors in libraries, I have found that the intersection of indies and libraries is potentially a much nicer place than I had originally thought. The technology and distribution problems have been solved, and the solutions comes from reliable vendors. No doubt there will be new developments, but existing technology and distribution systems are more than adequate to empower libraries to add indie ebooks to their collections and to promote them to their patrons.

Libraries can work with indie ebooks, and indie authors can work with libraries. And they can work together using the software and other tools that they normally use in their writing and librarianship. Everything is in place. Some libraries already have active programs to encourage local authors and to acquire their printed works. And on the ebook side, indie authors who have fed their books to Smashwords have done all that they need do to make these books available to most public library collections.

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Let’s take a look at a hugely successful library project that brought indie ebooks books into the library collection and then promoted them so that they generated significant numbers of checkouts.

But, before we look at the actual project, we should ask what the likely stumbling blocks would be. What things could doom such a project to failure? I can think of four to begin with. These are the four problems that librarians often cite when I talk with them about adding indie ebooks to their collections.

MaRC records, the lifeblood of the ILS, must be dealt with. If the books don’t come with MaRC records, then how will the patrons find them in the catalog? Unless the library uses an ILS that can run on ONIX metadata, the books will not go into the catalog. And if the books do not go into the catalog, then how will the patrons find them if they are locked away in a separate information silo that patrons may not know about?

The second big issue is curation. No library wants to load its collection with a burden of poorly written or otherwise inappropriate materials, whether in print or in ebook format. Librarians want to be proud of their collections, so they are wary of accepting donated books without at least glancing through them. Since books from local authors usually do not come with reviews, how is the library to select the ones that meet its standards while avoiding the others, and manage it all within the limits of its staffing?

The third issue is patron usage — circulation. I have heard of libraries that acquired large numbers of indie ebooks, but the books did not circulate. Why not? Either the library did not promote them in ways that reached their readers, or the books were duds. In one case, the books that were included in the collection that the library bought were all selling well to the public, so they were not duds. The problem was with how the library promoted them. The library needs a way to promote the indie ebooks that actually works. It needs a way to get those books in front of the eyes of the readers.

The fourth issue is cost. Can a library afford to purchase indie ebooks on top of Big Five bestsellers and popular nonfiction? Given the high cost of Big Five ebooks, can the library set aside a little money for indie ebooks before the Big Five blockbusters devour the entire budget?

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Now, to look at a massively successful library project involving indie ebooks, let’s turn to Portland, Oregon—home of Multnomah County Library. Portland is a magnet city for young creatives, and perhaps that explains why its library was able to do what many have said was impossible. (Many thanks to Kady Ferris, Electronic Content Librarian and indie ebook superhero at MCL for kindly providing much of the information in this article.)

The Multnomah County Library Writers Project began two years ago with an idea borrowed from Seattle Public Library. In that first year, MCL opened the project for submissions for a period of four months, during which time they received approximately 150. The submission period spanned NaNoWriMo and was designed to allow the librarians to use their local author events to get the word out about this new project. This timing was important because it allowed the Library Writers Project to piggyback onto already successful events.

Volunteer librarians dealt with the curation issue. At least two librarians looked at every book that was submitted, and for at least one hour per book. Volunteers were drawn from the Information Services (aka Reference) Department. They read on library time. The HR department allowed for this, so the curators were volunteers, but paid volunteers. They did not read the entire book (unless it really grabbed them, and then they got it after the library acquired it) but they did look at it enough to decide whether it was worth acquiring. The mechanism they used for this was Smashwords’ free preview feature, which allows authors to give away the first 20% of each book. Thus, the library did not have to purchase review copies, and neither did the authors have to donate them. This made the curation process very smooth, and budgeting money for review copies was not a problem.

Of the books that made the grade, the library began by purchasing five copies of each, and adding them to the catalog. MaRC records were not a problem because OverDrive provided them via their free MARC Express service. MCL added a local subject heading to each MaRC record so that patrons could search for books that were part of the project. Here is a link to how that search looks. So, the library got the books and the MaRC records through their normal vendor, and making them discoverable by patrons was easy. This solved the MaRC record and discoverability issues as well as putting the books into a format and an app that patrons already knew. Very easy. Very smooth. This worked for the library, for the authors, and for the patrons.

As the books began to circulate, Kady added copies to keep the holds ratio at 2:1. She had them featured on the MCL Library2Go site. (Look! Quick! You might see a Library Writers Project title featured, right now!) This solved the promotion problem. The indie books got the same treatment as Big Five bestsellers, and predictably, they performed at that level. It showed that patrons respond to library promotion, and an indie ebook by a local author can hold its own against a Big Five title backed by a Big Five marketing budget. As I write this article, I see Night Falls in the Gorge by Myrna Daly, and I note that the library owns forty-five copies and each copy has three holds on it. That is, three people are waiting for each copy.

This brings us to the questions of cost. Are these books affordable, and will they circulate? Three patrons waiting for each of forty-five copies sounds like better circulation than most books get.

In that first year, the most popular book was The Gifts We Keep by Katie Grindeland. This book circulated over 700 times in the first few months after MCL bought it and featured it. Since it cost only two dollars per copy, the dollar outlay for the library was minimal, but reader happiness was sky high.

In the second year of the project, Kady cut the submission period to two months, and this brought in seventy titles—roughly half the number submitted during the four month period of the first year. Working with twenty-eight library staff reviewers, the Library Writers Project examined these seventy submissions and selected nineteen for the collection. Since buying five copies of each title had turned out to be inadequate during the first year, Kady bumped the number up to ten for the second year, and then acquired more to keep to a 2:1 holds ratio. For the titles that she featured on the library OverDrive page, she bought up to thirty copies.

Year three of the Library Writers Project is about to begin. The submission window will run from mid-October for two months, so it will again overlap with NaNoWriMo. Now that the project has run for two years it has proven to librarians that it is manageable, and that the books do circulate. To indie authors, it has proven that a library that cares about them can and will purchase their ebooks, and that the reading public will eagerly read them. This last point probably means more to the authors than anything else. It’s hard to build a name as an author without publicity support from a major publisher, and being featured by a library can make a huge difference for these indies. Let’s hope that the indies of Portland will have their books ready to submit in a few weeks, and that the project will continue to grow.

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Now, I want to think about how other libraries could follow this model. What about possible stumbling blocks? What could get in the way? If a library wants to support its local author community, then this must be one of the best ways. Smashwords handles the heavy lifting of turning the author’s Word file into an ePub book. OverDrive handles the process of providing the book to the library patrons. At the librarian’s behest, OverDrive and the ILS/Discovery Layer handle a lot of the promotion simply by featuring the titles. The library manages the project and curates the book. I suspect that, the concept could scale down to even small-town libraries.

If the library were small then the number of submissions would be small, too, so there would not be the need for a lot of staff volunteer reviewers. MCL serves a population of roughly 750,000. Since they got seventy submissions, that equates to less than one submission per 10,000 population served, so curation looks manageable.

An option that might work for very small libraries is simply to give each submission a quick skim and then to accept the book, rather than risk offending the author by rejecting it. Small town life can be very up close and personal, so this would probably make the most sense as well as be the easiest way to go.

Clearly, Multnomah County Library’s Library Writers Project should inspire similar projects across the country and even around the world. The technology is available in many libraries. The foundation of local author events is already in place, too. Add a little enthusiasm for local authors, and you’re ready to go!

Have you, as a librarian or an author, done or attempted anything similar? If you have, I’d love to hear about it via the comments section.

4 thoughts on “Multnomah County Library is setting a powerful example with the Library Writers Project”

  1. This is a great article about a great program at Multnomah. It is very encouraging to see libraries taking a proactive approach in engaging their own writing communities and this is an excellent role model.

    Just to share with others investigating this idea, we are proud to be in the fourth year of our partnership with Library Journal and others to create a scalable and cost-effective way for any library to do this, even those lacking the staff and budgets of a library like Multnomah. We have programs that are built strictly for discovery and others that pay authors to make their books available so we are completely flexible in how a library wants to approach their local author community. And, of course we have Library Journal staff to help with the skimming and curation.

    We have also found that geolocation makes these local ebooks available to all local residents, rather than just those with library cards. It becomes super easy for authors to market the availability of their books on social media and email and it creates a multiple of usage that is great digital marketing for the library to expose other digital services to local creators and readers.

    http://biblioboard.tumblr.com/post/165013412931/geolocation-authentication-amplifying-community

    Thanks for your work Peyton, continuing to tell this important story.

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