Channel Sales Growth Wisdom From the American Library Association’s 2013 Conference

Published August 2, 2013

The 2013 American Library Association Conference (#ala13) recently took place in Chicago at McCormick Place.  What unlikely series of events would cause a business strategy operations professional and aspiring author to attend a professional librarian convention to learn more about the marketing and sales process of books to librarians?

A few years ago I was a student in a fabulous Mediabistro Nonfiction Book Proposal class taught by literary agent Mollie Glick.  This course, which teaches the fundamentals of a great nonfiction book proposal, altered my life in ways I could never have initially imagined and in this article I shall discuss how the competitive titles section led me to attend the ALA Conference and discover potential strategic opportunities for growth of publishing distribution and sales of books in the library channel.

Mollie taught class participants that proposals that get sold almost always contain a well thought-out competitive title section written after reading other books and describing how their book will be different.  I read ten books to include in the proposal, initially intending to stop there.  However, the reading led to referrals to other older, high quality books that I read voraciously, eventually reading and researching over a thousand books on various nonfiction topics.  Doing a deep dive on competitive titles was a magical and transformative personal experience.

I accessed books from various sources: new books from publishers where I interviewed the authors, the Chicago Public Library, other local public libraries, The University of Chicago Library, and DePaul University Library.  I became fascinated with the fact that some books had fifty copies in the Chicago Public Library, while other bestselling books only had a copy or two with a long waiting list.  Other books were not acquired by some libraries at all, which indicated potential sales process variability.  My curiosity kicked in as I noticed the patterns seemed to be correlated to the publisher more often than the book title, subject matter, or author.  Given my passion for business operations excellence, I developed a hypothesis that this was due to variability in marketing and sales processes of certain publishers in the library channel.  Exploring this subject area was one of my primary focus areas while at the conference.

The first thing I noticed at the conference was that all that hype one hears about digital books on social media every day was certainly not present amongst attendees here. Stacks and stacks of early print format galleys were given out by many publishers.  Librarians from across the country eagerly gathered printed galleys from the publishers.  Some carried several huge bags full of galley copies of future books!  Will these titles eventually end up on the librarian’s “New Books” shelf back home at their local library in the future?  It seems that the relationships built in these hallways and the magic of the printed format does play a role in determining which books get purchased.

After all, people are typically more likely to buy when there is an emotional connection to the product.  It was a common sight to see attendees curled up on the floor at the end of an aisle eagerly reading a new title they had just picked up, seemingly oblivious to the thousands of people around them.  Even as a regular participant in conferences as an attendee and speaker, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this.

Certain publishers stood out as being the most active in giving out printed galleys:

Random House – At various intervals, giant pallets of books were brought out and unloaded onto a huge table and stacked high.  Books were whisked away at a brisk pace.  This was likely the highest-traffic booth on the floor throughout the show.  I shared a splendid conversation with the amazingly friendly Sharon Parker and Skip Dye about my library book observations and learned about their experiences building true relationships with the librarians across the nation to increase book sales.

HarperCollins – Their booth was almost as busy as the Random House booth.  I had a nice chat with Virginia Stanley, who invited me to a ninety-minute presentation about their upcoming books.  It was both fascinating and quite humbling to watch dozens of major books with large printings be discussed in rapid succession.  The importance of a good title and hook becomes better understood by experiencing such a presentation.  Another method for supposedly outmoded publishers to continue to compete in a changing market is to expand their modern marketing presence.  HarperCollins maintains an active blog called Library Love Fest and also has a new site to receive galleys electronically.

Workman – Every time I walked by the Workman booth, there was always a long line for a book handout or author signing.  I was impressed by their bringing a nonfiction author, Marci Alboher, there to give a session talk and then hand out several cases of her book, The Career Encore Handbook : How to Make a Living and a Difference During the Second Half of Life.

The hypothesis held, the publishers most active giving away galleys at this conference had a high correlation to the multiple library-copy phenomenon that I had observed over time.

Let’s explore a practical example.  The book Thinking Like Your Editor : How to Write Serious Nonfiction—and Get It Published (W.W. Norton), written by literary agents Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato in 2003, has 41 copies circulating in Chicago Public Library branches.  How much does that platform of deep library sales impact the word of mouth about the book and backlist book sales today?  It is still selling rather briskly, according to Amazon.  How does this impact the quality and quantity of the book proposals that they receive?  Based on the impressive recent sales on their website, one could make the assertion that it has a material impact.

As retail outlets decline in quantity, publishing company executives and CEOs should explore rediscovering the magic of the library sales channel and invest resources accordingly.  New books featured on new book library shelves create valuable platforms: opportunities for awareness of the book and potentially create highly desirable word-of-mouth conversations.  When more than one copy is in the library catalog database, it also creates validation that the title is important and creates more potential for word-of-mouth about the book to potential book buyers.  Several of the conversations I shared concluded with the observation that in a world of declining retail outlets, the library channel serves a more important role than ever before.

Is digital important?  Sure it is.  However, wise organizations maximize all of their marketing and sales channels rather than hyper-focusing on just a few.

What are your opinions?  What do your co-workers and friends think?  What do you think about the future of the library as a sales and marketing channel for publishers?  I want to hear your thoughts and create a vibrant conversation about book sales in the library channel.