Thursday, May 18, 2006

Do libraries have to always promote the bestsellers?

I came across this at Stephen Abrams' Stephen's Lighthouse blog, where he writes about "Bestsellers, Best Borrowed, Most Collected." He is referring to a talk he listened to given by Ms. Beth Jefferson of Bibliocommons. I found interesting this observation:

"She made an interesting point. Many libraries have lists of bestsellers on their homepage or upfront. She went through dozens of library sites and showed how libraries were promoting bestsellers. She then showed the real end-user experience. This was of course finding out that most, maybe all, bestsellers in the library inventory have hundreds of holds on them and the wait is months long. Now, is this a great user experience? Clearly not."

As a library user as well as a librarian, I have to wonder as well about this. Now, I don't work at a public library, so having anywhere from a dozen to forty copies of the latest Harry Potter is not an issue for me. I am one of the librarians who would question the expense and effort to put out forty or so copies of a transient book (even if they are leased), but let's not go there now. I will note that I do use my public library, and I have been to libraries that have all those copies of a bestseller, and you still have to wait in line. No wonder a lot of people would just not bother and go to Borders. Here is what Mr. Abrams asks, in the context of discussing poor retail practices and comparing them to library practices:

"Why am I mentioning poor retail practices? Are we doing the same thing? Is it bait and switch to advertise bestseller and have few really available?"
There is probably the reason that the library loses users. When they go to their large bookstore, they know they will be able to get their copy of the latest Dan Brown. If for some strange reason, the bookstore is out, ordering it usually takes a few days rather than some obscene waiting time. A lot of this is a matter of expectations, for good or bad. So, I do like the idea that maybe the library should be promoting a few other things that are good, but not as well known instead.

I should say that I personally do not read bestsellers. I sure keep myself aware of them, but I am more of a long tail reader, so to speak. Mr. Abrams asks if bestsellers need more promotion from us. I would venture to say they probably do not. I am not saying public libraries stop displaying the NYT Bestseller list or similar lists, but I am saying they probably should be doing more in terms of promoting other cool books in their collections. If they did that, they would probably find better circulation figures for certain items. The bestsellers are always going to move. I think we should help a few other items move along as well. Mr. Abrams' post does provide some food to have an interesting conversation about what libraries collect and promote.


Barbara said...

There's something troubling about library sites promoting bestsellers and, to a lesser extent, making lists of which books circulate the most. We seem as a society to be obsessive about popularity as a measure of value. American Idolatry .

As an academic librarian, I don't have to worry about providing multiple copies to meet popular demand. (None of our books are all that in demand! and we place higher value on having as many perspectives as we can afford.) But as a public library user I find myself bothered if I can't find the midlist book I want because the library is trying to satisfy mass tastes rather than offer divesity. I have nothing against trying to give us patrons what we want, but I'd like libraries to satisfy as many different wants as they can afford, rather than feed the self-fulfilling popularity contest.

If we're looking for good retail practices, how about imitating the independent booksellers who "hand-sell" books they love rather than books that have a big marketing budget. That's not a practice you find at the big chains, which get paid to move particular books by charging for placement.

By the way, the large chain bookstore can afford to offer lots of titles as well as endless supplies of bestsellers. They treat the midlist like wallpaper - they can return any books that don't sell, so it's attractive decoration that gives the impression of depth without any committment to it.

Joe said...

I see two very different things here. On the one hand, I agree that best sellers, almost by definition, do not need libraries to promote them.

If we want to add value to our constituents, we'd do a lot better to work on Readers Advisory. People who like Rowling already know they want to read the next one... but while they're waiting, let's see if they'll try Lloyd Alexander or Garth Nix.

On the other hand, books are for use. I have no problem at all with libraries (of any stripe) spending money on duplicates which circulate instead of originals which gather dust.

This is not a binary situation; we can use a huge stock of leased bestsellers (or, in the academic world, course reserves) to draw people in, and publicize our long tail collection and expert services at the same time.