GUEST OPINION: How Do Romances Get on the Shelves–Library Shelves by Sherry Thomas
In the summer of 2007 I picked up Shana Abé’s The Smoke Thief and The Dream Thief from my local public library. I loved them so much that I immediately went out and bought those titles for my home library. Around the same time I also bought the paperback release of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Match Me If You Can. I’d been reading SEP a long time, checking out her books from the library. With Match Me If You Can I finally made the leap from simply reader into buyer. I bought her release, Natural Born Charmer, in hardcover. And just a few days ago, after reading and loving the library’s copy of Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, I purchased my own copy at Target.
The library is–for me and probably a good segment of the romance reading population–a great way to try out new authors and new books. It is risk-free. It is cost-effective. And if the first book I read of an author does not entirely work for me, I am much more likely to give the author another chance if his/her other books can be found at the library.
But how, exactly, does a romance get into a public library?
The Nuts and Bolts
First, not all libraries purchase romances from their book funds. "I’ve worked in a library that just plain didn’t buy them out of the book budget, and would only cull them from donations or purchase them with Friends of the Library money," recalls Tessa Dare, public librarian and debut author (Goddess of the Hunt, Ballantine, 2009).
Second, not all romances that find a home in library are catalogued. "Even when a title is donated to the library, it costs the system about $5 per copy to process it. We have to download cataloging entries, for which we are charged, from a national library cataloging database called OCLC [Online Computer Library Center]," explains Cindy Beno, fiction selector for Austin Public Library, which does catalogue all the titles in its collection. But because cataloguing is an expense, in some library systems romance titles available on shelves are not searchable in the catalogue. Library patrons must be physically present in a library branch to see what it has to offer.
But the state of romance collection in public libraries "is getting better every year" in the assessment of John Charles, reference librarian and fiction selector at Scottsdale Public Library and recipient of RWA’s first Veritas award. "The first break came in 1995 when PLA [Public Library Association] had a preconference on romance fiction. It was a day and a half and speakers included Nora Roberts, Joyce Saricks, a readers advisory expert, and Cathie Linz who at that time was RWA’s library liaison."
In 1996, in her address to the PLA National Conference in Portland, Oregon, best-selling author and former librarian Jayne Ann Krentz would exclaim, "Yes. Yes, a thousand times yes, romance has arrived."
For library patrons and librarians in the trenches building their romance collection, however, the most significant change that took place-‘besides the regular appearance of romance titles on best-seller lists–was the inclusion of romance in professional review journals such as Library Journal, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly.
Library Journal started with three romance columns in 1992. It now publishes six romance columns a year. Booklist made the leap in 1999, and reviews between 100-200 romance titles a year, according to John Charles, who reviews romance for both Booklist and The Chicago Tribune. Publishers Weekly has also been reviewing romance since the 1990s.
A full-time fiction selector in a 20-branch system often has a budget that runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars and must select several thousands of titles a year. It is humanly impossible to read that many books, therefore fiction selectors rely heavily on these aforementioned trade publications in the course of their work. The other major trade review source book selectors consult closely is Kirkus Reviews, which does not review mass market paperbacks, the format in which the vast majority of romance titles are published. Book selectors also read the New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, and Entertainment Weekly, to name a few, but given the relative paucity of romance coverage in mainstream media, those trade journals that give the genre regular column inches matter all the more.
Who Gets Selected?
Does a good review in Romantic Times matter to fiction selectors? The short answer is that a Romantic Times Top Pick does not directly translate into library orders the way a starred review in Publishers Weekly does. Do fiction selectors draw on RT at all in their jobs? Cindy Beno recently started subscribing to RT, because Ingram, the vendor that supplies Austin Public Library, uses it as a review source. (Ingram and Baker&Taylor are the two largest vendors for the library market.) Wendy Crutcher, fiction buyer for Orange County Public Library, does not use genre review publications much in her work, but finds RT useful for information on reprints.
What about an ad in a publication like RWA’s RomanceSells? Cindy Beno says, "In general, the advertising I pay attention to is what I come across in my normal review sources, such as a big splashy one-page ad in Publishers Weekly or New York Times Book Review." Wendy Crutcher has a slightly different take. "When I do receive material like this, I always look through it. A huge chunk of my job is staying on top of what’s in the works, and this type of material is helpful on that front. I can’t guarantee that I’ll buy your book just because you put it in something like Romance$ells, but it does succeed in putting your name in front of my face."
If reviews in RT and ads in RomanceSells don’t make much of a difference where fiction selectors are concerned, then what does, other than hard-to-come-by reviews in trade journals? Sales. A book on the New York Times best-seller list will find its way into many public libraries. "To judge popularity, the New York Times best-seller list is our gold standard," says Cindy Beno. "If a book is a blockbuster best-seller, I will make sure that there are 2-3 copies for every branch in the system."
While it is reassuring to know that at least a part of the system is democratic, a spot on the New York Times best-seller list is far more difficult to come by than a review in Library Journal. What about authors who don’t yet have the numbers to land on best-seller lists and whose titles didn’t quite manage to catch the attention of the trade journals?
This is where the internet rides to the rescue, with its highly trafficked romance sites, devoted readers, and vibrant discussions. Cindy Beno reads TheRomanceReader.com and RomanceInColor.com. Wendy Crutcher does not read online reviews all that often, but does monitor "buzz." "If a book or author is generating a lot of discussion, I take notice and often times add them to our collection," she says. "Some examples from recent memory are J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series and Anna Campbell’s debut novel, Claiming The Courtesan.
An even more recent example is Joanna Bourne’s 2008 release The Spymaster’s Lady. The Spymaster’s Lady flew under the radar of most trade journals. But it was a sensation online–word-of-mouth at the speed of electrons–and garnered instant and passionate fans. As of this writing, according to WorldCat, the world’s largest bibliographic database, The Spymaster’s Lady is catalogued in 184 library systems worldwide. Compared to On the Way to the Wedding, the last in Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, which is collected in 765 library systems, 184 doesn’t seem too many. But it is a tremendous showing for a title that is for all intents and purposes a debut book. So yes, the old adage about inventing a better mousetrap still applies.
(Update: In January 2009, American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Assocation selected The Spymaster’s Lady as its Reading List winner in Romance. As of May 2009, The Spymaster’s Lady is catalogued in 329 library systems worldwide.)
Give Them What They Want
"There’s this philosophical divide among public librarians that’s often referred to as "give them what they need’ versus "give them what they want.’ Meaning, the first group focuses on building a collection for the ages, amassing a library with breadth and depth and not worrying so much about what’s popular. The second group is more of a “we’re here to serve the public now” mindset, and will spend more money on things like
bestsellers and duplicate copies and genre fiction," says Tessa Dare.
The librarians I have interviewed for this article happen to all share the "serve the public now" mindset. "We want to have on hand what the public is clamoring to read," says Cindy Beno. Wendy Crutcher agrees. "The minute my job becomes about personal taste is the day I hope I get fired. It’s not about what I think people should read. It’s about providing people with what they would like to read."
They are not alone. Reference & User Services Quarterly, the official journal of the Reference and User Services Association, the research arm of the American Library Association, recently published a guideline called Core Collection in Genre Studies: Romance Fiction 101, part of a series that honors the best in genre fiction. Librarians seeking to add to their romance collection these days have at their disposal romance-specific reference books such as Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance Writers (2006) by John Charles and Shelley Mosley and Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (1999) by Kristin Ramsdell.
John Charles and Shelley Mosley, both past recipients of RWA’s Librarian of the Year award, also conduct romance reader advisory workshops at state and national library association conferences and at RWA’s annual Librarians’ Day program. These workshops cover the basics: defining romance, defining the subgenres, working with readers, developing a collection, and marketing a romance collection to library patrons.
Marketing, you say? Marketing in our libraries?
Yes. Libraries too have bottom lines: circulation numbers. Municipal budgets are always tight and libraries compete with other basic services for resources. The greater the circulation number a library generates, the better to justify continued support and increasing funding.
"Smart library systems now realize how important romance fiction is and most larger public library systems now purchase romance fiction," says John Charles.
Despite romance’s dominance in the marketplace, it is not the most bought genre in libraries. That honor currently belongs to mystery, which generate the largest circulation numbers. But more and more romance titles are selected into library collections every day as romance gains greater respect in the library community.
"Having RWA create a library liaison position to work with libraries was a brilliant idea," says John Charles. "And their annual Librarian’s Day event has also helped to create more connections with librarians."
Even better, remember the old lament that winning the RITA doesn’t translate into sales? "I will order Rita winners and nominees, if they are not already in our collection," says Cindy Beno.
And that is something to celebrate indeed.
Sherry Thomas is a long-time patron of the Austin Public Library. Her third historical romance, Not Quite a Husband, hits the shelves today.