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Kim Tomsic

Monday, June 5, 2023

5 Answers That Demystifying How Librarians and Book Stores Choose Books

Demystifying the Book Selection Process: Featuring Tattered Cover buyer Stephanie Coleman, and children’s books librarians McCourt Thomas and Ida Olson

Have you ever wondered how books get chosen for bookstores or libraries? In a gathering of authors, librarians, and book buyers, attendees enjoyed the rare opportunity to hear the inside scoop - how are book buying decisions made at the corporate level? 

Our panel of experts included Stephanie Coleman, McCourt Thomas, and Ida Olson. At the time of the meeting, Stephanie served as Director of Buying at Tattered Cover Bookstores which has four brick and mortar Denver locations plus airport stores. McCourt Thomas is a librarian whose title is Head of Youth Services Lyons Regional LibraryDistrict. Ida Olson is a writer, freelance editor, and served as a middle school librarian in Cheyenne Wyoming. Each panelist talked about the book buying process, what factors influence their decisions, and what authors can do to help their books have the best chance at getting noticed.

McCourt Thomas Head of Youth Services Lyons Regional Library District McCourt was introduced first. She explained that libraries often have book selection committees, however she is the decision maker at her location in Lyons. She has a policy she must follow when making a purchase: to identify two justifications for every book she requests. Justifications can include things like popular appeal, starred reviews, good reviews in respected sources, and/or that she read it herself and strongly recommends the book.
⭐Kirkus Starred review THREE PENNIES by Melanie Crowder
McCourt finds books by reading sources like Publishers Weekly, KirkusReview, ALA Booklist, , and others respected publications. She also reads AudioFile Magazine and often checks the Earphone Award. She likes referencing magazines that provided themed lists (a themed list might be books about construction trucks, books about inventors, or even books about underpants). 

McCourt says another way she discovers books is through publishers’ webinars featuring upcoming releases. She watches those to see what grabs her attention. Furthermore, she attends conferences like ALA, PLA (Public Library Association), SCBWI, and she receives galleys from publishers or she requests early reads on Netgalley (Netgalley provides e-galleys of books to vetted readers).  

McCourt’s buying decisions are also influenced by user requests, popular relevant subject matter, and what moves off the shelf (e.g., action books move more than “issue” books).  Lastly, publishers constantly send out blurbs about their frontlist. "Frontlist” books are newly released books, or re-released older books but with new covers.

McCourt reads through to see what fits the bill. Space at her location is constrained, so she has to make informed decisions and she typically stocks only one copy of a title.
"Can the text and art of my
picture book cut through the noise and caputre
kid's attention when the primary audience includes
doezens of two, three, and four-year-olds?" BITTY BOT by
Tim McCanna and I HAVE A BALLOON by Ariel Bernstein
do just that!
McCourt’s big advice for picture book writers is to think of story time in a library, school, or bookstore, and then ask yourself, “Can the text and art of my picture book cut through the noise and capture kid’s attention when the primary audience includes dozens of two, three, and four-year-olds?” McCourt says writers should cut out the wordiness and think about strong word choices, sounds, and page-turns—they matter!
McCourt explained that librarians often buy their books through large distributors like Ingram or Baker & Taylor.

Stephanie Coleman-Director of Buying, Tattered Cover Books

Stephanie agrees with McCourt’s sources for discovering books and adds that sales representatives from the publishing houses also influence her buying decisions. When a sales rep is excited about a book, the bookstore gets excited about a book. Sales representatives are often the publishing houses’ gatekeeps. They talk up their favorites, send specific links from Edelweiss (Edelweiss is an online source that carries all publishing house catalogs), share the book specs, plus they share their markup notes(i.e. if there is a movie coming out, if there are a lot of marketing dollars behind the book, if the author is going on tour, if the author has any high profile interviews in the works, like being featured on NPR or a talk show).  When making a buying decision, Stephanie also considers how an author did in their stores in the past and/or how comparable titles performed in sales. If the bookstore doesn’t have a track record on a particular author or illustrator, they plug a comp title into their computer and tally up results to see if they believe a similar title will generate interest. Sometimes the buyer loves a book and is willing to put in time to make sure it gets noticed through good in-store handsellers.
When Tattered Cover is enthusiastic about stocking a title, they purchase three to five copies of the title (as a general rule). Stephanie noted that she finds it interesting that sometimes a book in one region is a smashing success while in another region it isn’t a hit, but there’s no standard answer on why this occurs (other than the obvious being if a book is released in the author’s hometown or if marketing specifically targets a region). 
Whereas librarians make their purchases through Ingram or Baker & Taylor, bookstores buy directly through the publishers (the receive better pricing, plus they can return with publishers).

DISPLAY:  Which books get faced out?
There’s not a clear formula for this answer, however local authors often receive a front faced
display as do authors who are offering a signing and authors with “important” books or popular appeal books. Tattered Cover also has staff who make “Staff Picks”. Under special circumstances, publishers will send a “dump” which is a display case designed specifically for a particular book because the bookstore plans to buy quite a few.

Ida Olson: writer, freelance editor, and middle school librarian in Cheyenne Wyoming.  Email: idaedits at gmail dot com
When Ida Olson isn’t winning the Sue Alexander award or writing hysterical tweets @IdaOlson, she’s a busy junior high librarian for seventh and eighth grade students. Ida acquires 300-500 titles per year for her library. She noted that signed books are a big deal to students. When making buying decisions, she agrees with McCourt and says she is obligated to find justifications such as reading the book herself or finding review sources through School Library Journal, Booklist, etc.

Like McCourt, Ida purchases through Ingram, Baker and Taylor, and also Follett (they provide books plus library management software). These websites provide useful vetting tools, for example, when considering a particular book these websites list all of the reviews in one spots: reviews from School Library Journal, The Horn Book Review, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, etc.  can all be seen on a single page so the research is easy to compare and consider. Ida admits she tends to buy books that have stars, but she also wants to know “what the people really think” and she visits Amazon reviews, too.
One thing Ida says that bothers her is when reviewers say a story is cliché, because really, “How many things are cliché to a twelve-year-old?” Though it is hard for self-published authors to land in libraries, self-published authors now have a better chance to capture librarian’s attention by meeting the required justifications of positive reviews, since Kirkus now offers unbiased paid-for reviews. If a self-published book gets a star or a positive review, librarians are able to use that as a justification.

Ida is passionate about advising librarians to “select broadly”—books need to represent everyone and help showcase various viewpoints.  Ida’s library choices represent a broad range of colors and experiences. As far as displays go at her library, she rotates to make sure everything gets displayed as eye candy for kids. She also creates seasonal displays, back to school displays, sports displays, Halloween and holiday displays, and displays to promote what the reading teacher is working on in their classrooms.

1.      How IMPORTANT is a book cover in the buying selection process?
The answer was unanimous: it’s HUGE!
“Cover is key,” Stephanie says.
Titles: It seems like there are 50 generic one-word title, but that’s okay. Titles don’t influence as much as covers do.
Staff recommendations also influences buying decisions.
McCourt advises to avoid the curse of the brown cover and says you should check out some of School Library Journal blogger, BetsyBird (Fuse 8) to see what she says about sepia or brown covers.
2.      What about ARCS (Advance Reader Copies)? How often do you receive/read them; how do you feel about authors reaching out to you with an arc; do you have more than you have time to read?
Stephanie from Tattered Cover says they receive ARCs all the time. She considers then extremely helpful. Though she doesn’t have time to read every single ARC, she does pass many to the Teen Advisory Board or she puts them in the staff break rooms and also gives to bookstore volunteers.
McCourt says she can request ARCs through Netgalley in order to receive online copies. She often reads picture books through this source and makes fast buying decisions. Book bloggers can sign up to read ARCs through Netgalley and if approved, they too can receive preview copies to read on phone, tablet, or e reader.


Are there any factors that influence your book buying habits that might surprise  authors?
Author’s should know what the summer reading program is going to be and see if their book is a fit. Also, check out “Friends of the Library” to find out the yearly, nationwide collaborative theme. Collaborative themes for 2017,2018, and 2019:  construction (2017); music(2018); space(2019).
Authors who are willing to come do story time, author event, or teen event influence a buyer’s decision.

4.      At what point do you choose to take a book off your shelf/remaindered books
IDA: 10 years old; looks at how many times book has been checked out. Considers if a book has a niche value. Even if it is not checked out often, she considers if the book represents an unrepresented group and has an important reason to stay.
STEPHANIE:  twice a year the bookstore does returns. It’s important for a bookstore to stay fresh. Diverse books they keep in stock for a long time. They keep a core backlist.
Has to do an inventory count once a year.  Stephanie says they wait six to nine months and if the book has absolutely no activity they stop ordering completely (they do cycle counting). If books are part of a series, they keep the first book of series and the most recent release at minimum.
MCCOURT – deselection is based on if a book is damaged, has no checkout activity, or gut decision.

5.      What else should we know?

Parting fast tips: Common core is moving out and narrative nonfiction as well as STEM are the new hot thing.
Parents come in and ask for themes (bulldozers, underwear, unicorns)
Story time attracts the four and under crowd. Use catchy phrases and alliteration to keep their attention. Read your manuscript out loud and see how it sounds, then ask someone else to read it to you.  

Write a funny and a scary book!

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