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.


  1. Thanks for sharing. It's interesting to see what influences you as a librarian to buy a book for your school.

  2. I agree with Natalie. It's very useful to hear the thought process of a school librarian who actually has to make these book buying decisions.

    My own MG reader, my daughter, selects the majority of the books the chooses to read based on what I hear from friends on the internet, but that's a unique situation, because her dad is a writer. I suspect normal kids are influenced much more by what they see and hear at school.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post! My son practically worships his school librarian. :)

  4. Librarians Rock!! (Too bad our local school districts here in the Portland area are getting rid of them due to budget cuts.)

  5. I'd say your book being about rats doesn't hurt it at all. Many well-received books have animals as main characters and are received well. The WARRIORS series has had a long life, and so has REDWALL. Then there's this other book that has rats in it. I believe it's a series. Title rhymes with "Kite-Raid Pity." Can't quite put my finger on it. Some help, Hilary?

    1. Ha! You are so funny! I think you're thinking of Bite-Made Kitty! ;)

      Becky, I totally agree with your agent. I think on-line book tours, etc, CAN sell middle-grade books, but I think it's way more fruitful for YA, since so many teens are online and so many nine year olds are not! ;)

      No worries on the reviews front. THEY WILL EAT IT UP! :)

  6. This is why I think Indie hasn't arrived for MG yet - it's the way that kids discover books that's fundamentally different for them (as opposed to adults, and to a lesser extent YA). Someday, when ereaders are in the majority of kid's hands, will they discover books differently? I don't know - I think they still will look to teachers, parents, librarians to guide their reading. But the kids are becoming more tech savvy as well. My kid's school now has a system called Destiny Quest, which is basically Goodreads for Kids. They recommend books to each other, quickly, easily, and in a social environment. I think this sort of trickle-down will eventually have kids browsing the bestseller lists, just like adults.

  7. Here, here! I agree completely with what you've said. As a school librarian and blogger myself, I'm always on the lookout for books to recommend to my students and teachers. You never know when the right reader will come along and I believe in being prepared. I'm looking forward to reading your book, I'm a sucker for school stories, which is kind of funny considering I spend all day in one, you'd think I'd get tired of it. :)

  8. That's why MG remains the time-warp genre. Still not quite part of the digital revolution. So when you fail to get sales (as an Indie), do you bury your head and eat a gallon of ice-cream or trust in yourself to get as good a product as you can out there. Things will change, I'm sure of it, though the gatekeepers are always necessary and kids will want full colour, interactive ebooks, not just grey on white.
    Can you tell I write science-fantasy and live in a small bubble of hope--which frequently gets crushed--but oddly seems to re-inflate of its own accord.

  9. That's why MG remains the time-warp genre. Still need the gatekeepers and that mysterious word of mouth. Still need physical copies. One day kids will have interactive kindles and do it themselves but one day we'll have hotels on mars. All you can do as an MG writer is keep putting out the best quality you can and not eat too many gallon tubs of ice-cream when Mr. Despondency comes a-calling.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!