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.