Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lessons for Writers from the Library

Pardon me. I've allowed myself to get a tad distracted for this post. We won't be discussing Bird by Bird today. I had my last day at the library on Friday (to be a full-time writer again). Working at the library gave me a fresh perspective on readers and the book industry. I wrote earlier about working at Barnes & Noble at Christmas. This was very, very different. More relational. A whole new breed of reader for me. Loved it.

Keep in mind that I worked at a branch located in a blue-collar area hit especially hard by the recession. Our patrons don't fit any stereotypes. We serve college professors, teachers, homeschoolers, high-school dropouts, the mentally disabled, and everything in between. In general, they abhor eReaders, either because of the cost or for reasons of principle.

So here's what I learned at the Clifton Branch of the Mesa County Public Library District:

1. Old cowboys never die. They read westerns, exclusively.

They check out tall piles of books by Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, and Max Brand. When I suggest newer titles, they are polite but resolute. "No, thank you. I prefer the old stories." One man systematically works his way through our western collection, and when he comes to the end, he starts over again. What he and his compadres prefer are stories set in a society organized around codes of honor and justice. The heroes are semi-nomadic wanderers, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter, never a farmer (sodbuster).

Since I'm not an avid reader of this genre, I'm not sure how true-to-mid-19th-century life they are, but westerns probably satisfy a need in the older male reader as romances serve the female reader--a suspension from present reality and pure entertainment, some better than others. If you're thinking about writing for this under-served reader group, hurry up! From my observations they're an aging group. I hope I'm wrong about that.

Next time you're in the library, open a western to the inside cover. Cowboy readers will "brand" books they've read. Yes, it's vandalism, but it's the code of the west.
2. Genre fiction rules!

Library patrons do not pass go. They do not peruse general fiction. They go directly to the mystery, romance, horror, and science fiction/fantasy shelves. They can be distracted by the new book display but only to find books in their favorite genre. It is my unscientific observation that mysteries are at the top of the heap with the widest range of readers. In fact, you'd be surprised what some grandmas will snuggle up to at night. When asked, they say that it's figuring out whodunit that keeps them coming back for more.

Most of us rely on cover art to identify genre, but this can be unreliable. A book that oozes romantic images may be shelved in general fiction. A book's genre designation depends on how the publisher registers the book with the Library of Congress. Look on the copyright page of a book. If it's nonfiction, the Library of Congress assigns it a Dewey Decimal number. If fiction, it will say "Dewey Decimal Classification: F" At least, sometimes it does. Then come the subject headings. These are what the library catalogers use to decide which genre a book will be in their system. Sometimes they get it right; sometimes they get it wrong. Pictured here is Seaside Letters. The subtitle is "A Nantucket Love Story," and yet it's not considered a romance in our system. But you can bet that if a man with impressive abs is on the cover, that's romance. Go figure.

3. People who frequent libraries seldom purchase books.

Patrons who ravenously read library books have beat the system, and they're quite proud of themselves. They pay taxes and they read all the books they want. Is there a better use of tax dollars? I think not.Our little library saw a 16% rise in circulation last year. For those who are saavy with the Internet, there's no limit--almost--to what they can acquire to read, watch, or listen to. Our patrons go online to reserve materials from all over the state of Colorado (a fantastic service to a largely rural state) and have them sent to their home libraries. And we feature downloadable eBooks, eAudiobooks, eMusic, and eVideo as well as conventional materials. One Young Adult reader assured me she saved $1200 the previous year on her entertainment. She comes into the library several times a week to check out books, DVDs, and CDs. I think her estimate is low.

How does this help authors increase their sales? First and most importantly, libraries buy a lot of books and usually multiple copies. Plainly put, libraries are good customers. In some cases, they base their purchases on a book's circulation numbers. If a book is popular, the buyers are more likely to purchase more books from that author. Also, patrons use their library cards to try on a book, sometimes purchasing a particularly good read for themselves. More often, patrons let their reading experience influence their gift-buying. If you're not marketing to libraries, you should be. And I just came across a patron who doesn't buy books for ecological reasons. There's probably more of her kind out there.

4. Electronics are a magnet.

True confession time: Not all patrons care that there are books in the library. In fact, those pesky books make getting to the computers a bit like running a maze. These patrons sit at the computers, sometimes for hours, to use the computers or to check out their limit in DVDs, which at our library is ten. This isn't all bad. Yes, the computers are used to play computer
games and to access social media sites, but they're also used to fill out job applications (increasingly exclusive to the Internet), communicate with faraway loved ones, research ancestry, and so much more. And many families are forgoing the expense and intrusion of cable or dish television for the chance to choose more deliberately what is available to watch. That's what I keep telling myself, anyway. One of our die-hard video gamers did check out a SciFi book last week.

5. Readers can be a tad unforgiving.

I've heard something like this many times: "I won't be reading that author again." The offense? The author had the audacity to write a different type of story. This drives me insane.
I really, really hope I'm attracting the intolerant patrons to my check-out station. Egads. It's tough to hear, but I thought you should know all that talk about branding might be grounded in truth. Grr.

6. Readers love, love, LOVE series.
Writing a series full of relateable characters is a sure-fire way to make readers happy. I spend a lot of time each day helping patrons find the next book in a series. I rely heavily on What's Next, a search engine that finds nothing but series. Here's the link:

This is getting too long. Thanks for hanging in there with me. I learned a few other things that may pop up in future posts. For now, I'm asking myself what there is to learn from my experience. Basically, will I write differently? If I wanted to make a lot of money, I would learn how to write mysteries with a love-her-to-death main character. I wouldn't mind making a lot of money, but I don't particularly like mysteries, so that's out. Will I write a series? If I come up with a concept and characters that rock my world, sure. Otherwise, probably not. Will I be careful to stick within my brand? I'm trying. According to my agent, I write about complex issues with tenderness and humor with a touch of quirkiness. I think I can come up with a few stories that fit inside those perameters. I don't want readers mad at me, but the artist in me bristles at this a bit. On the other hand, mention a successful (monetarily) author and you will have, at least, a general idea about what s/he writes. There's always a psuedonym, I suppose. Sigh.

Let me end by saying that I've loved my time at the library. The staff love the patrons. They go to extraordinary lengths to meet their needs. And the patrons have rekindled my hope. The best? I issued a 26-year-old mother her FIRST library card. Now, she comes in regularly to check out books for her daughter, and she asks me for recommendations. That's good stuff.

Do you have memories of your library? What role did it play in you becoming a reader and/or a writer? What do you like about libraries today? What would you change? Do you believe libraries have a continuing role in our society? How often do you avail yourself of library services? Any questions? Do you think libraries will endure the digital revolution?

We'll return to our book talk of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott on the 17th. Unless I get distracted again. It happens.


Anonymous said...

Westerns will never die, despite the moaning to the contrary, but that market is shrinking due to a large chunk of the readership aging but also because westerns are built around morals that are absolute and we are a society that no longer likes that. (case in point, I was flabbergasted that no one on a discussion forum had problems with Danny Williams of Hawaii Five-0 and his ex-wife committing adultery.)

The other big difference about those old westerns is that authors like Zane Grey weren't afraid of description and there are some of us out there who DON'T have ADD and want some meat on our stories.

Finally, I don't read the newer westerns, but if they are anything like the modern western films, they are a very bad imitation. Because of the "code" that you mentioned that appears in the old westerns, these books had you walking away feeling hopeful about society. All the modern western films I have seen are dark and gloomy and even the friends don't stick together (ie. Appaloosa--yuck, what a terrible movie.)

I love the old westerns. I re-read Zane Grey's Forlorn River at least once a year.

BK Jackson

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for your insights. Most enlightening! Great post.

Patti Hill said...

Thanks for expanding on the western genre, Anonymous. I couldn't agree more. What resonates most is the absence of hope in the newer stories. But that's postmodernism. I'm checking out Forlorn River today.

Thanks for stopping by, Donna!

Anonymous said...

That link to What's Next comes from my district library!

I have very fond memories of my hometown library, and still check out as many books as I can carry.

some chick said...

OK, so I *have* to giggle at where you wrote "In general, they abhor eReaders, either because of the cost or for reasons of principal."

I suppose reasons of "principal" would be the same as reasons of cost. : )

Homophones aside, I LOVE MY LIBRARY! We go once or twice a week.

We homeschool (I think the librarians are finally on to us), so my kids are both usually maxed out at their 50 book limits. Once I get all the books we need for school for the week, their only instruction for what that can check out (I have veto power, of course) is that they have to be able to carry the books themselves. My eight-year-old is usually *staggering* back to the car under the weight of her tote bag! I've even started taking a suitcase.

We are definitely series lovers! My daughter is adamant that she always start at the beginning on any series and work her way through. I'm the same way, in that I love to start with an author's first work and read through in the order their books come out. Even my four-year-old does this with the graphic novels! I think he's checked out out every children's book in the system on both Batman and Ironman.

I'm a shelf-browser, so I like going to different branches to see what they have. I could go on and on, so I'll stop there.

Love the library!

Embrace said...

I loved reading this post. I too worked in a library. I laughed at the western comments because here in my town that is exactly TRUE. I found truth in every one of your lessons learned.
I never bought books before - only used my library system. I am slowly trying to change that as I am attempting to become a writer. Which means, someday I would like people to purchase my books. So now, I borrow them from the public library. If I like them, then go out and buy it for my church library. I figure that is a win-win???
I am just like you though in writing against the flow. In our library romance and mysteries were by far the most read. And series, too! Often our patrons were angry if an author didn't write in series. One woman said if they are going to write more than one I don't have time for them.
However, I have to write what is on my heart and after seven MS I haven't found the need to do a book two yet.
Thanks for the fun post. I really enjoyed it.

Patti Hill said...

Some Chick: Boy, is my face red...or read? By "principle," I mean they want to hold their books, smell the ink, and turn the pages.

We have many homeschoolers for patrons. They order so many books that we have hold shelves just for them.

Thanks for commenting.

Diane Marie Shaw said...

I love libraries. When I was in Junior High I stood in the fiction section of our library at the beginning - the letter A - and said to myself that I was going to read through to the Z's. Needless to say I haven't made it but I do read over 200 books a year.
I try new authors by checking out a library book and then will find myself looking for that author at the book store. I have a personal library of over 1,200 books.
I like to read and I am also a writer, is that a surprise?
Thanks for the wonderful information in this blog.

Anonymous said...

I love this post, Patti. It's very informative, and I think it's fun to have an inside track to what happens in the local library. One thing is for sure: it's a great place to hang out and people watch.

I've always been a big fan of the library. I'm glad you had such a good experience working at yours, but I'm so glad you're back to a place where you can write full time.

Judy Gann said...

Great post, Patti! Couldn't have said it better myself. :-)

Authors, Patti's correct, you're really missing a terrific opportunity if you're not marketing to libraries.

The Novel Matters ladies may slap my hands for this, but I offer library marketing news & tips on the Library Insider(TM) FB page at Or check out our website at

Judy, the shameless library promoter

Bonnie Grove said...

Judy: We'd never slap your hands! You're a hero for readers and writers alike. We love you!

Patti: Great post. I felt like an insider! Mwah!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I owe my library so much money for overdue fines I can't show my face within its doors.
Thanks for the inside scoop, Patti, it was fascinating and enlightening. I am glad you are back to full time writing. I hope you also saw the library as a safe place to compose stories.

Patti Hill said...

Jodi: Thanks for your thoughtful additions to the conversation. Happy to hear my lessons are shared. I love your idea about loving a book and then buying it for your church library. That is a win-win.
Diane: Reading from A to Z, why didn't I try that? I know why. In a library, I'm like a cat pawing at dust motes. Oh, there's one I like. Oops, no, I like that one better. I've read Teen, JF, and adult fiction in no particular order.
Sharon: The patrons and the staff MAKE the library. It's a real community, meeting vital needs. The people who come there have taught me so much about looking at the heart. I hope I came away from the experience a better person.
Judy: No slapping of hands from us. I should have mentioned your service. Folks, follow that link to reach libraries all over North America. Thanks for stopping by, Judy.
Bonnie: You're a deary.
Henrietta: Run, don't walk to your library. A good librarian doesn't hold fines against you. It happens. Say your sorry. Perhaps make payments, if needed. We always welcome back patrons. If your library staff doesn't, shame on them.

heavenlygurl said...

Oh my! I hadn't thought about my childhood library in say...40 years? It was smaller than my house, which is 1200 square feet! It was a tiny, pristine building, white with black window trim. There was one door at the front and one at the back. It was straight back like a shotgun house and had sparkling clean wood floors. The lone librarian, sitting by the exit in her perfectly pressed cotton dress, handled the books like they were golden treasure, which is ingrained in me even today.

The thing I loved most was the smell of all that ink and paper in that small place. Wow! I was definitely one of my influencers for become a writer. After nearly 50 years of denying it, I now love saying... I'm a writer! *Sigh* LOL!

Ur blog is always an inspiration to me. Thanks for all you do!

Chris Jager - Baker Book House-fiction buyer said...

I have always loved my local libraries. (Yes plural when I was younger) When I took the job I have now, the librarian called my house to make sure I was ok as I stopped almost cold turkey going to the library. She was sure they would have to close the doors. (LOL)

Working in a book store I hear a lot of the same things you hear in a library. It is a bit different, but readers taste in books are about the same.

Short side note - Winning back a reader who has one book of yours they don't like (as long as it is not the first one they ever read) is a bit easier than it sounds. I can't name one author I have read and liked that doesn't have at least one book I didn't like. Unless it is a problem with morals/beliefs I usually give several tries before I stop reading them all together.

Lori Benton said...

Patti, can you tell the writers who come in from regular folk? I often wonder what the check out librarians think of me, when I haul home a stack of books on rifles, pistols and 18th century warfare one week, then every book under the sun on wood working the next, then everything they have to offer about the Shawnee and Cherokee, fiction and nonfiction, a month later. No one ever asks. :)

And while I'm at the library at least once a week, I do purchase plenty of books too. Because I need so many books, I get as many from the library as I can, then buy the rest. Sometimes I'll check out a library book and like it so much (novel) or it proves so indispensable (research), I'll buy my own copy even though I could have kept checking out the library's.

So, now I have to head out to the library because I think I have a stack of about 10 books waiting on me. Everything the library has to offer written by Eric Sloane.

Patti Hill said...

heavenlygurl: I should say your childhood library made a big impression. From your description, I can see it perfectly. Thanks for sharing!

Chris: I had to laugh about the library calling you. We have "dailies" too. If they didn't show up, I think the walls would fall down. And I'll take your word for it about winning readers back. You would know.

Lori: I think there's a librarian code of etiquette that says we're not supposed to comment on patron's materials. That never stopped me. I especially let kiddos know when they make good choices. And if someone were to come to my station with a plethora of gun books, I might say something like, "I'm noticing a theme here." And then the patron fills me in. I did not comment on books about mental health or dieting.

Honestly, the hardest were the people who maxed out their limit of DVDs on a regular basis. I said things like, "And would you like a book to go with that DVD?" or "You should read the book before you watch the movie. It's so much better." or if the kiddos were young, I'd say, "Now, here's how it works: Watch some of your movie, then run in the sunshine. Watch a little movie. Run in the sun. Watch. Run. That's the library rule." They thought I was crazy.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I'm a library regular, but not to check out books. If I don't get called in to work on the days my kids are in daycare, I drop them off and go straight to the library to sit and work on my novel all day. There's something inspiring about sitting surrounded by so many books. No distractions, either. Unfortunately I've been working quite a bit lately, but I usually manage at least one day a fortnight.

Patti, I'm glad you've wrangled things so you're able to get back to full time writing! You must be over the moon. :)

LiberryLady said...


Thanks for the library "shout out!" You're going to be missed.

Nikole Hahn said...

I go to libraries to use the computer or to study and rarely now check out books. I've been doing a lot of reviews and then my husband has been buying books that snag my interest. My favorite memory is walking to the library (actually running down the block because a man tried to pick me up in his car) and down into the lower level where they had a dark amphitheater. I could sit on the carpeted steps and feel safe while my mind ran over old Hans Christian Anderson stories.

Amy T. said...

Just de-lurking to say this was such an interesting post! I love our local library system. My kids and I will do things like place a hold on every version of The Gingerbread Man (we can reserve books from several branches and have them delivered one place), read them all, and compare contrast. Sometimes the fox helps him cross a river and sometimes they are just standing there. Great fun.

Patti, I also just finished reading your book The Queen of Sleepy Eye (which I checked out at the library) and I loved it! I think your agent describes your style well. :)

BrendaB said...

There are a few new Western writers I like, but they are writing about the new West. That is why the Western genre readers like the old West stories better.

CJ Box is a good example. He writes a series about a game warden who deals not with the old Cowboys and Indians, but with the hunters, poachers, lawyers, judges, DOW and landowners--a whole new world of settling the West. Plus he always starts his books with a "grab 'em by the throat" beginning to get your attention.

As always Patti, it is a pleasure to hear your words.