Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Keeping the Gate: How One School Librarian Buys Books
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Scalespeeder
So…if you are a middle grade author (or any kind of author, probably, but I mostly know the middle grade variety), I’ll bet that you’ve had at least one sleepless night worrying about how to get your book “noticed.” Maybe you are trying to get your book noticed by an agent. Or an editor. Or maybe you’ve made that sale (congratulations!) and have moved on to fretting about getting your book noticed by readers themselves. It never ends!
If you look online to figure out what works, it’s an overwhelming mess of responsibilities. Blog tours! Twitter! Events! Giveaways! Swag! Interviews! Contests! Where to begin?
In a recent discussion with my agent, I can’t tell you how relieved I was when she said that she’s not all that convinced that any of that stuff—blogs, Facebook, events, swag—actually makes a difference in numbers of books sold. Maybe it does for YA—teens are online more and have their own money—but not for middle grade. My agent, bless her heart, thinks it comes down to word of mouth. And word of mouth for middle grade generally starts with…The Gatekeepers.
(You know the gatekeepers. The parents, teachers, and librarians who tell the kids about the books, who buy them for them, who place them in the kids’ hands?)
Well, as a middle grade author with a book coming out in 4(!) months, this conversation was both terribly relieving and terribly terrifying.
YAY! It’s okay if I can’t get off of work to handcraft one-of-a-kind bookmarks that I’ll hand-deliver in my own independent tour of bookstores!
YIKES! What if no one talks about my book!?
My agent, being the great agent (and kind person) she is, assured me that they WILL hear about my book. She also said that I already know what those gatekeepers are looking for—after all, I am one.
Hmmm, she’s right. (She's a smart agent, too.) I AM an elementary school librarian. I choose books and put them in kids’ hands every single day. So…what makes a gatekeeper “notice” a book?
Well, in my little corner of the world, there are generally three different ways a book finds its way into my library:
1) It is part of my school’s curriculum. This is the main mission of my library, so if I come across a new book on insects—and I know second grade does a huge insect unit, or I read about a novel with themes on individuality—and that is something that the fifth graders work on, I will buy it for my library.
2) It is a book I know my students will elbow each other out of the way to get it. To me this is really an addendum on #1 because part of my school’s curriculum is teaching kids to read. Well, you only become a reader if you actually spend time reading. So if there’s a Lego Ninjago book or a Taylor Swift biography or a cheesy movie tie-in novel, I will buy it for my students. Because it’s not true that if you only have great literature in front of kids, then they will read it. The truth is, kids are very willing to sit there and NOT read. So sometimes you need the junk to get them started.
3) Professional reviews. This is a tricky one because it’s really overarching. If a book meets the criteria for #1 or #2 but has terrible reviews, I won’t buy it. But there are books that find their way into my library through reviews only. These are books that don’t feature Star Wars characters or fit perfectly with the third grade unit on simple machine. They’re books that simply tell really good stories. I buy those, too. A lot of them.
So how does this help you, the author who is freaking out about how their little book will be noticed? I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t. So much of it is out of our control. But I’m looking back at my list now with my author hat on and it’s got me thinking. Not so much about how I can shout louder about my book, but how I can make it more appealing to the gatekeepers. Some things I can’t change. At this point, my premise is set. My book’s about a talking rat, not Selena Gomez or farting dogs. But maybe I can make it more curriculum-friendly with a book discussion guide that pulls in some of the topics that fourth and fifth graders cover...hmmm.
As for the reviews? Well, I suspect there still may be sleepless nights ahead of me.