As a writer, I’ve dealt with a lot of rejection. I don’t let it get me down. You can’t if you are playing the long game and want to be successful. I learn from it and move on.
That is, until I was rejected by my public library.
I am someone who makes routine trips to the library like I do the supermarket or gas station. Our local library dates back to the 1800s. It’s a beautiful building and I love it. I love the smell of it, the view from the reading room, the stained glass windows in the magazine reading room. It is the place where I spent my early days as a writer, before I had an office of my own. The place where I came to learn from other writers, where many of the librarians know me by name. My kids went from crawling on the colorful carpet of the Children’s Section to browsing the shelves on their own.
That’s where it happened. The children’s room.
In 2020 I published my first picture book – MLK & LI: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Long Island. If you’re reading this on my website, you know what I’m talking about. I researched the contact information for Long Island librarians, sent emails with links to the free book. I knew that once they read it, they would want it. There was nothing else out there on the topic. How could they not?
My local library responded to the email. It was the only one. They said they would look at the book and my website. I told them I was heading to the library that day (which was true) and would drop one off.
Then I heard nothing. So on my next trip I told them I could take the book back if they didn’t want to shelve it. I had my daughter with me so they had to be nice.
They said they read it and enjoyed it and the book was getting a plastic cover to be shelved in the Local Authors section.
“What about non-fiction, with the other books on civil rights history?” I asked. To me, that seemed like the proper place for it. No kid is going to look in Local Authors for a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. Kids don’t even know that Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Long Island, that we have our own civil rights struggles. Mine is one of those books they will find on the shelf while they are looking for Martin Luther King, Jr. or civil rights books. Finding new and interesting books on the subject you came in for – isn’t that the whole point of the library?
“We can’t,” the librarian said.
“We don’t put books in the non-fiction section that don’t come from a publisher.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, they have certain standards that their books have to meet.”
“Like what?” I wanted to learn as much as I could from this librarian. She’s jolly and great with the kids – I’ve seen her there countless times. I thought I could win her over.
“Well, like fact checking. I can’t put your book in non-fiction because I don’t know if it’s accurate.”
“I see.” I showed her the bibliography at the end of my book – two pages of primary and secondary sources. I also told her that I worked with leading Long Island historians on the book, and they all gave it rave reviews.
“We can’t go by reviews.”
“So how do you decide which books to buy?”
She told me they only order from certain distributors. They do not order from Amazon, which of course was where my book was sold.
I asked her again if there was anything I could do to make her (or her boss) feel more comfortable with the “accuracy” of my book. She said it’s library policy.
I went over to the Local Authors section. It wasn’t for local authors. It was for local self published authors, including children who made books as part of the library’s picture book competition each year.
I told her these were wonderful books and I didn’t know this section even existed, but I was annoyed. Why should the self published books be shelved separately? Does this librarian realize that very few publishers will publish a picture book about local Long Island history? In the traditional publishing world books must be for a wide audience – that is what sells – not niche. Writing about MLK’s trips to the tiny island we call home is pretty niche. If libraries want these stories out there, they’ve got to support independent authors like me.
As for her accuracy comment – I get that she can’t fact check every self published book that comes across her desk. But I did everything I could to make the book historically accurate, and the book reflects that. What author would not do this? Again, her point of view reflected a distrust of independent authors. What I didn’t tell her is that I graduated with honors with a history degree from one of the top history departments in the country. I know how to do history. I also graduated from one of the top law schools and practiced law for fifteen years. I know how to do facts.
After this experience, I didn’t bring my next book to the library. I did get my book into a distributor I’m sure the library orders from (Ingram), but honestly I don’t think that will do much to convince them. I could make an appointment to speak with the director to plead my case, but is it worth my time when I could be focussing on selling books online. We all know that’s where the readers are.
Or do we? Something tells me the library hasn’t gotten the message. While they turn their noses up to self published books, libraries tout their adoption of new technologies – rows of tablets, online offerings, participation in ebook services like Overdrive, technology classes, even classes on digital content creation! Our library even had a 3D printer on loan for several weeks.
Yet they are behind the times in their core function – books on the shelves!
Are kids coming to the physical library for books? Not many that I can see, and I am at the library a lot. When I do see kids at the library they are there to play, learn about community service projects or do crafts. I rarely see kids browsing the shelves or taking out books. My children have been in elementary school for a while now, and I’ve never heard them say their teacher wants them to go to the library to take out a book. When they go to the library in school they come home with graphic novels, if they come home with a book at all. Yet my children love to read. I take them to the library and they get books. They browse the shelves. When they get research projects, we take out books from the library even when the teacher says online sources are sufficient.
If libraries want to be relevant, they should remember where they started – with books on the shelves. They will not survive as community gathering places or play rooms – there are plenty of those already. They need to embrace the innovators in their own field, authors telling the stories publishers will not invest in. There is excitement in the independent publishing world – excitement that can breathe life back into the dusty library shelves and maybe even save libraries.