Liz raises a number of vital questions in her post from this weekend, Buying Your Way Into Libraries. Go read it if you haven’t.
I’ve been thinking about these two pieces she cites since both popped up. The second article caught my attention a couple of weeks ago with it first emerged: three library systems have recently purchased an agreement with Smashwords, one of the leading ebook/self-publishing services, wherein for about $100,000, each of the systems will acquire roughly 10,000 of the best-selling titles. Note that there are over 45,000 authors who use Smashwords and they do not know whether or not they are part of the Library Direct program until it shows up on their sales/payment report.
For anyone out of the loop, a number of the big publishers do not sell or license ebooks to libraries. Or, in the rare case one of these publishers does allow library ebook acquisition, there are either restrictions (such as no more than 26 total borrows) or the prices are inflated to the point that purchasing an agreement for them makes a huge financial strain on the library budget. That means the stock of ebooks available for libraries is limited, and with the demand going up, libraries are looking for ways to meet it. It’s not that they do not want to offer ebooks; it’s that their hands are tied and they can’t.
The Smashwords agreement looks like a fantastic option for libraries. It’s access to ten thousand ebooks for readers to choose from, fulfilling patron demand while also fleshing out a collection of books that are best-sellers. It also has the added benefit of not restricting usage and the cost spread out among each of the titles is low. The downside to this agreement, though, is that libraries don’t have control over what titles they’re purchasing. They’re relying instead on whatever best-selling titles are according to Smashwords (and as I mentioned above, even the authors who have books through Smashwords don’t know they’re part of that program either).
Buying into an agreement without control over titles isn’t necessarily earth shattering, but it does raise questions in my mind about collection development and what libraries are willing to give up in the name of providing a resource. In other words, to meet the demands and interest in pursuing ebooks, libraries are giving up the ability to build and sustain a collection built to suit the interests of their communities in the best way possible. More than that, libraries buying into agreements like this undermine the core skills and knowledge set the librarians have. It bypasses human knowledge — both of the classroom-gained kind and the touchy-feely kind acquired by being on the front lines of public service in a library — in favor of giving it over to a company who is interested more in making a deal than in connecting a person to a resource. They’re a business, not a public service.
One of the challenges about collection development that’s becoming a bigger issue is that of self-published works. There’s no doubt there are great self-published books out there, just as there’s little doubt there is a host of crap out there, too. Those who self-pub do so for any number of reasons. The problem, though, is that there are very few reputable review sources. Librarians who practice good collection development rely on trade reviews for purchasing decisions (as well as other factors, including awards or personal reading/knowledge, as well as blogs, consumer reviews on sites like Amazon, and other media sources). They read Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and other big name journals, depending on their specialty, and those reviews help them determine whether an item is a good fit for their collection. It’s true — a bad review in a trade journal can keep a librarian from acquiring a book, just like a good review can convince them to purchase more than one copy.
When it comes to self-pubbed books, there are few, if any, places to turn to for reviews. At this point, the only trade publication involved with reviewing self-pubbed books is Kirkus; however, it’s vital to note that Kirkus’s self-pub review model is based on the author paying for a review and then choosing whether or not that review may be published through the traditional journal (though they will make that review available on BN.com and other sites, including Kirkus’s website). You can read the way it works here. There are blogs that also review self-pubbed books, but again, it’s not easy to determine which are best resources for librarians to use for collection development. And the truth of the matter is, there is so much being published through traditional means that even delving into the self-publishing world in libraries is more than overwhelming.
Backtracking to the first article Liz mentions that popped up this weekend. Todd Rutherford created a system wherein authors — self-pubbed, primarily — could pay to have him and his team write glowing reviews of their books. Those reviews would then flood the internet, on big sales sites and more. As the article notes and Liz pulls out, “One of Mr. Rutherford’s clients, who confidently commissioned hundreds of reviews and didn’t even require them to be favorable, subsequently became a best seller. This is proof, Mr. Rutherford said, that his notion was correct. Attention, despite being contrived, draws more attention.”
Through developing these fake reviews and flooding consumer sites with them, buyers were left with the idea that these books were worth purchasing. And they were not only purchased, but they were purchased at times in such quantities that those books became best sellers. The article goes on further to talk about how these sorts of pay-for-review situations have shed a light on consumer reviews all together, with some questioning whether they can believe any sorts of reviews they read outside of a traditional source, including blogs and sites like Amazon, BN.com, and others.
By paying for fake reviews, authors were seeing sales.
By paying for fake reviews, authors were becoming best sellers.
By starting a way for authors to do this, Rutherford made a lot of money.
What Rutherford did was remove the middle man, that human-knowledge aspect of reviewing and promoting. It became a business, rather than a service. Through this business, many saw themselves achieving their publishing dreams, and, as has been rumored, it helped at least one self-pubbed author gain a traditional publisher and make their way to the NYT Bestsellers list.
Smashwords, in the business of making money in the self-publishing industry, is taking away the control from libraries of collection development by offering them books that are best sellers. Best sellers that may or may not fit a community’s needs or interests. Best sellers that may or may not be well-written, of merit, or, hell, even edited. A self-pubbed ebook priced at pennies over the course of a few days could sell hundreds of copies and become a best seller. A self-pubbed ebook priced at what would be a standard price could also sell hundreds of copies and become a best seller — through the services of people like Rutherford.
The more we want to reach out and provide, the more we’re giving up. I think in the cases of some libraries, it’s less about providing a true service to readers and instead, it’s about “sticking it to the man,” as it were. In other words, they’re entering agreements like this in order to show big publishers they’re not needed anyway.
Except, in doing that, they’re also removing any control over quality, over content, and over authenticity.
Beyond being frustrating and beyond overlooking the library’s greatest resource, the question arises again over reviews and what a valuable review is. For self-pubbed authors interested in getting their name out there, doing it quickly and in the best possible light, there are two options: work hard and hope for the best or pay someone like Rutherford to stroke your ego and get your buck.
As a reviewer and as a librarian, both of these stories made me stop and consider the purpose of both of these activities. The first because it’s clear that there are people making this a business and doing it at the expense of those like myself and so many others who make reviewing a thing of blood, sweat, and tears; the second because it’s unfortunate that there are other people in the field who undermine what it is that individuals bring to a library: their knowledge, their critical judgment, and their interest in serving their communities to the best of their ability.
Services, not businesses.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).