My Life As A Book-Getter

Actually, I believe my official title is “Vice-Chair and Book-Getter, The Reading List Council,” which itself is part of the CODES (Collection Development and Evaluation Section) section of RUSA (Reference and User Services Association), a division of ALA (American Library Association).

For obvious reasons, I answer to “Book-Getter,” or else, y’know, my name. It’s easier that way.

My job involves being the point person for our dedicated team of librarians, all volunteers — which, I’d like to emphasize, means that they do this for free, because they love books and especially helping other people find books to read.

This stalwart band uses its combined professional knowledge and expertise to identify titles in eight different fiction genres that readers will hopefully LOVE. And, while doing this, the members keep in mind that some readers might be die-hard fans of a genre and that others might be curious about a particular genre but not know where to start. Anyway, once they identify these books — through trade reviews, through galleys and ARCs, through word-of-mouth, through blogs and the facepages and the twitters, from their own personal knowledge of genres and authors and books, and (most importantly) by hopping on their Scooty-Puff, Jrs. and putt-putting their way through the infosphere until they find the goods …so that you don’t have to, if you don’t want to  — they add them to a spreadsheet, from which I compile a list.

I take this list, I contact the publishers, and I ask them please, please, please if it’s not too much trouble would you mind sending along review copies so that our whole committee can read and evaluate these books?

After all, we don’t want to fall prey to the trailer trap the way moviegoers do — you know how some books seem like they’re going to be really awesome when you read the promotional copy or you’ve noticed that Famous Author X has contributed a blurb praising this ” really…good…novel, with sequential pagination and…a plot and characters.” And then you read it. And then you think WTF? Srsly? And then your readers think, WTF? Srsly? And then no one is happy.

For the most part, the publishers are very, very helpful and gracious. They go to great lengths to support our work and seem really enthusiastic about what we do.

But sometimes they’re not. It’s rare, but it does happen.

I’m not talking about the totally understandable stuff, like books getting lost in transit. (Curiously, these books often have titles that include the words “lost,” “missing,” or “gone.” Make of that what you will.)

No, I’m talking about the awful semi-rejections*, which are are usually variations on a theme, that theme being you’re not important enough to be worth our time.

Hurt feelings aside, I think they’re mistaken.

One of our council members recently told me that “Nancy Pearl (on NBC) said that if the publishers did not care enough to send the books, they aren’t serious about getting on the list.” I can’t verify this quote because I don’t have television, and Googling got me close-but-no-cigar, but it *sounds* like something Ms. Pearl would say, and if so…

Well, she’s got a point.

There are, after all, plenty of amazing books out there. I know this for a fact, because every year we have passionate debates about which books should or should not be included — and, really, nobody’s right or wrong.**

(It reminds me of dating, a bit: why would you waste your time pining for the enshrined, unobtainable love object who will, in all likelihood, turn out to be a superficial jerk…when you could instead get with the kind, intelligent, interesting, maybe not as popular person who’d ultimately make a much, much better partner? Is it a status thing? Or do you just secretly hate yourself?)

So every time a rep from one of the Big Five tells me “Well, Amazing Author So-and-So doesn’t really NEED recognition from your little committee. He/She is doing just fine,” my initial reaction is “Fine. Screw you.”***

(Also, I do start to hate myself, just a little.)

I admit, I’ve been having this reaction quite a bit lately, and I’ve had to expend considerable energy beating this uncharitable impulse down before it makes its way into an e-mail.

The worst part? In many cases, I AM NOT EVEN A FAN OF AMAZING AUTHOR SO-AND-SO. I might happen to think that Amazing Author So-and-So is kind of overrated, mentally supplying with a list of authors whom I believe are vastly superior and sadly overlooked. But I still have to send the e-mails saying please, please, please — even as I privately think, “Why am I wasting my life in this epic struggle to obtain a book I don’t personally give a $#!+ about written by an author I don’t even think is that talented?”

But I suck it up and do it anyway, because IT’S MY JOB, on multiple levels. And because it doesn’t matter what I, the book-getting librarian, think. It depends on what the readers want — and plenty of people *do* think Amazing Author So-and-So is the BEST author, whose books are the MOST EXCELLENT. And that’s fine. In fact, that’s why I persevere. I want you to have the book you want.

I’ll read anything. That includes cereal boxes and half-completed crossword puzzles and transit ads for personal injury lawyers; I don’t care, I’m just addicted to the printed word. But you, my potential reader, might not be — you might only be interested in certain, highly specific reading experiences now, and it’s my responsibility to fulfill that desire at your point of need. And so I fight for your access to these books, because I believe in YOU AND YOUR READING PLEASURE.

Secondly, I think of the authors. Who, when their book is selected for our List, are so f*cking happy. Who blog, tweet, and otherwise share the good news with everyone on Earth. Who have worked so hard to write this book, often with very little encouragement, and who will finally get a bit of well-deserved recognition. Who can’t wait to see their baby become part of library collections — because they do.

All of which is to say: I don’t do this for you, publishers. I do this for readers and for authors, and for READING as a thing. You are an accidental beneficiary. You are, hopefully, an ally. You are also, when you choose to be, a necessary evil.

And guess what? I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Librarians buy these books for their collections, if they don’t already have them in stock. And there are a lot of librarians building collections in a lot of libraries.

For example, did you know there are over 120,000 libraries in the United States of America? About 17,000 of these are public libraries, split pretty evenly between central locations and branches. Some 99,000 are in schools, k-12. About another 3,600 are academic libraries, including two- and four-year institutions. Oh, and this is kind of neat — about 275 libraries serve the U.S. armed forces (all branches). I’m not going to break this down too far, this is just an overview. My point being, there are a lot of libraries in this country and in other places, and nearly all of them offer reading material to their patrons.

Anyway, let’s assume that there is a minimum of 1 librarian per library (this is nowhere close to reality, but just bear with me). Now let’s assume that for each librarian there are three readers (again, this is SUCH an understatement, it’s laughable). If each of these librarians and her or his three patrons read just ONE book a year (another absurd number, but let’s keep going, I want to show you a thing), that is 480,000 examples of reading.

And what if, publishers, they read one of YOUR books? They might not all read the same book, but they’re still reading. Besides, whether or not they read one of your books, libraries are likely to purchase said books with the anticipation that people WILL read them. In fact, if the library is extra big and they think that patrons will like the book, they will order MULTIPLE COPIES!

I know, some people don’t come to the library to read. They come to check out A/V materials, or use the Internet, and apply for jobs, and all sorts of other services. But a hell of a lot of people come to libraries in order to get books. More than 3 per library, certainly. And this is why libraries have collections of materials, both books and (in publisher-friendly language) non-books. Some have very LARGE collections.

I’m just going to focus on public libraries for the moment, because that is where genre fiction is mostly likely to be found. Public libraries come in all sizes. The biggest (by volumes held) are the Boston and New York Public Libraries (and that’s not counting the boroughs — Queens by itself has a 6.5 million-volume collection, Brooklyn’s got about 4+mil), each with holdings of about 16-18 million books. Next comes Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, which is closing in on 9 million books. Some other notables: Detroit, Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Dallas AND Houston (Texas), Hennepin County (Minnesota), Philadelphia (Mine Own Ancestral City), Cleveland (THE CLEVE!), King County (Washington), Hawaii (as in, State of), Saint Louis (Missouri), Cuyahoga County, Buffalo & Erie (New York State), Mid-Continent…the list goes on and on and on, but I’ve decided to stick to a 3 million volume cutoff point.

All of the libraries mentioned, all of the libraries not mentioned, want to do right by their book-hungry patrons. They’ll consult our list, but they’ll consult a lot of other lists put together by librarians, by readers, by many people and groups of people who know what they’re talking about.

They’ll purchase books, and — as collection budgets dwindle, which they do even more than those 14.7 oz (and shrinking) boxes of pasta at the grocery store — they’re more likely to go with the bestsellers and *gasp* the pre-vetted lists made by committees like ours, who might start to get fed up with being dicked around by NYC and start looking elsewhere, to publishers who frankly, do give a damn.****

If it were up to me, I’d support the PUBLISHERS WHO ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT WHAT THEY PUBLISH, as well as the PUBLISHERS WHO LIKE LIBRARIES (AS OPPOSED TO VIEWING THEM AS PARASITES). Like, exclusively.

Maybe you’ve noticed this: neither you nor I nor anyone we know is getting wealthier. For ordinary human beings, it is no longer possible to drop $15, $20, $30, $35 (…and don’t think the price won’t go up) on a book they’ve never heard of and at first glance. Even if they can get the money together (I used to calculate prices by how many hours I’d have to spend re-shelving junk and mopping up puke; I know I’m not alone in this), can they justify the purchase? Do they think they’ll read it more than once? Where will they put it? (Unless you live in the TARDIS, you WILL run out of room to store your books; and please, do you think anyone can afford a bigger house these days? Or ANY house at all?)

(Incidentally, the best e-mails aren’t the ones that say “Ok, fine. We’ll send the books.” The best e-mails are the ones that say, “Oh, I’m so glad you requested XYZ! I loved it sooooooo much and you will too,  because it’s so good! Also, have you read ABC?” and then the geeking out over books can commence.)

Libraries, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, are the future of reading.

And on that note, I am going to spend today chasing down errant, erstwhile copies of books from recalcitrant reps. I could be eating properly, getting enough sleep and exercise, maybe reading something for pleasure, and in general not stressing myself sick over this whole thing…but that’s not what I do, that’s not what librarians do.

As my relatives like to say, “No rest for the wicked, and the righteous don’t need none.”

Mind you, I’m properly neither, which is probably why I’m f*cking exhausted.

*…the ones where you don’t get a direct “yes” or “no” but rather a whole lot of whining — “What? You mean you want us to send books to you? But that’s SO MUCH WORK! OMG LIBRARIANS ARE THE WORST! Why are people always asking us for review copies, it’s not like we’re a major publishing house or…oh wait.” — followed by months of radio silence and the occasionally out-of-office auto-reply when you e-mail them to check on the status of a title.
**Ok, EXCEPT everyone who voted against Among Others. CRIME AGAINST READERS. Jo Walton, I ❤ U + ur book.
***FYI authors: if your name is recognizable to people who might not even read, YOUR PUBLISHER IS MOST ASSUREDLY BEING A WANG. I only mention this because I’ve noticed that it’s become kind of trendy for authors to profess their undying love for libraries and librarians. I just want to say that, regardless of your personal feelings of gratitude and affection, the giant media conglomerates who produce your books mostly want to destroy us as an institution, as a profession. True story.
****Because you know who *is* willing to support their own titles? Akashic, for one. HMH. Grove/Atlantic. Soho. Candlemark & Gleam. Sourcebooks. That’s just a very partial list, off the top of my head. There are plenty of others. And let’s not forget all the micro-indies — some helmed by a single individual — who will respond to my e-mails with a “YAY! Awesome!!!” before rushing off to print 12 copies of a book, seal them in mailer envelopes, hand-address them to each member of the committee, and haul the entire stack off to the post office before it closes for the day.
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One thought on “My Life As A Book-Getter

  1. Jenny OH says:

    FANTASTIC article. Big publishers are always whining about how libraries kill their business by buying a single copy and lending it out to hundreds of people. But I know – both professionally as a public librarian and personally – that the majority of people are not checking books out of the library and using all the money they didn’t spend on books to dive into like Scrooge McDuck. The library is the only option, unless maybe it’s a real favorite. So hey publishers, at the very least ONE copy of the book per library-served area is being purchased; more than likely (at least if your authors are any good) that one book is the gateway drug for a whole lot of people to get hooked on an author or genre and go on to become buyers.

    Also, “I’ll read anything. That includes cereal boxes and half-completed crossword puzzles and transit ads for personal injury lawyers; I don’t care, I’m just addicted to the printed word” could have been written by me, for real. You’re my people 😀

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