Local Authors Can Be Friends

By Susan Froetschel -- Library Journal, 2/15/2010

Public libraries can make a local author feel like a hometown celebrity or a major public nuisance. With total book output up and the rise of self- publishing, local authors are no longer rare in many communities.

These days, authors actively court libraries, and I detected a new hesitancy about local authors this year after publishing my third mystery novel. For each of the three novels, I resided in a different community: Henrico County PL System, Richmond, ordered my first novel, Alaska Gray, and invited me to speak at its 1995 annual meeting. New Haven Free PL, CT, ordered the next book, Interruptions, and asked me to run a mystery workshop.

The latest book, Royal Escape, received the best reviews of the three, and yet Takoma Park Maryland Library and nearby Montgomery County PLs expressed no interest to offers of a free program, nor did they purchase a copy. It's puzzling that 26 miles away in Fairfax, VA, eight branches ordered copies of Royal Escape, steadily checked out throughout the summer, according to WorldCat, and I was invited to speak twice at libraries in Frederick County, MD, about 30 miles away.

The need for policies

Local authorship is a common criterion for library selection, along with demand. To handle the onslaught, more institutions enact local-author policies. For example, the policy of Alamance County PLs, NC,begins on a hopeful note: “The Library wishes to recognize the literary efforts of local authors by including their works in the collection when possible.” But it also discourages debate: “Due to limitations on staff time, we cannot discuss individual titles with authors” and warns, “The Library bears no responsibility for the marketing of the author's work. The Library will not act on the author's behalf as a literary agent, reviewer, proofreader, publisher, editor, publicist or bookseller.”

One can only imagine the demands prompting this list.

Other libraries must fend off author donations. Some, like Prince George's County Memorial Library System, MD, ask that authors submit reviews with potential donations. University City PL, MO, has guidelines for print-on-demand or self-published books: “the library is not under any obligation to add to its collections everything about Missouri,” and “In most cases, the library will not purchase self-published materials that are not reviewed in established review journals.”

Specific rules can limit options. Self-published books, often amateurish, can also be the best available on a local topic, and so Tom Cooper, director of Webster Groves PL, MO, recommends making decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Tapping local potential

Innovative libraries find ways to use the growing ranks of local authors as a valuable promotional tool for programming and fundraising, inspiring local readers and writers, or creating new connections. For example:

•Local authors judge writing and bookmark contests sponsored by Catawba County Library System, NC; Friends of the Hull PL, MA, and Hull Garden Club teamed up to present flower arrangements inspired by favorite books, including those by local authors, and sell raffle tickets; and fundraisers in Burlington, VT, and Anaheim, CA, have featured signed books and character names as auction items.
•Libraries co-opt local authors into Big Read programs: Tompkins County PL in Ithaca, NY, relied on author Philipp Meyer for John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath; I led a workshop on Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC.
•Recognizing that local authors are taxpayers, and vocal ones at that, some libraries design programs to kill a lot of birds with one stone. Juneau PLs, AK, hosted the state writer laureate and more than 20 local authors in March. Branches of Cuyahoga County PL, OH, hosted a local-author fair in October, asking that ten percent of any sales go toward a Friends program. In December, Nampa PL Foundation, ID, sponsored a holiday reception for the state author in residence and its annual crop of writers.
An opportunity to connect

In the end, 15 libraries in neighboring counties and beyond tapped me for programs on Royal Escape, though my own did not. A local librarian urged persistence, but, as I suspect most authors would do in similar situations, I simply turned to other locales.

With tight budgets, libraries can set limits and still remain lively, welcoming centers for local readings, workshops, discussions, or Q&A sessions about getting published. All this can be accomplished with some public space, initiative, and not much more publicity than quick mention on a community web site.

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