Amanda sent me this link earlier in the week. You should write about this, she said. I looked at the article, and thought a couple of things. One, I am not sure this is the whole story, and two, I’ve done that job… As I mulled it over in my head, I realized there are some relevant points for writers in the process of weeding.
Weeding in a library is as much an art as it is a science (So is weeding in a garden, but that’s a whole ‘nother metaphor). Sometimes it’s obvious that a book should come out of a collection. Especially in children’s books, where heavy use can leave a book tattered, worn, and with suspicious stains. It’s easy to say ‘ok, this hasn’t been checked out since before I was born, maybe it’s time for it to go’ (and the record for this in the small library where I was weeding was last check-out stamp of ’69. Alas, I no longer remember the title, only that it was a collection of anecdotes and essays on New England farm life). When you are weeding non-fiction, I learned, setting a rough criteria of last check out ten years previous was a good place to start. And weeding books on countries that no longer exist is good when you hit the World Geography section.
Once you have a stack of books off the shelf, you look at them again and decide if you need to replace them. Books on sharks for kids? Oh, yeah, we need those. Books on sharks for adults? Not so much, anymore. A lot of non-fiction isn’t going out of a library because the patrons can walk in, sit at the computer and google their topic of choice (and this is if they don’t already have internet at home). In no time they have more information than a small library can offer.
And it’s about space. The library where I worked was a lot larger than it had been when I moved to town twenty years before. Then, it was a single large room (maybe 20×16) crammed full of shelving to the high ceilings. It had been generously expanded a couple of years before I went to work at it, but it still wasn’t enough. Fiction, in particular, and the young adult section, was just growing too fast to possibly keep up with it.
And how, you are wondering, does this relate to writing and publishing? Well, here’s the thing. A topical book has a shelf-life, and so do covers, and as authors we need to anticipate this and roll with it. Topical is easy enough to anticipate. Covers? I keep hearing ‘oh, I never look at the cover, I just read the blurb’ and perhaps for a few that is true. But for the majority of people, and especially young people? That cover makes a huge difference. They aren’t going to readily pick up a book that looks old. They will instead reach for the new, shiny, slick cover of a new release. That classic copy of Black Beauty that was re-bound in dull maroon? It’s never going out unless a parent insists. The re-released book with a terrific art cover? Yes, little girls adore horsey books and you won’t be able to keep that thing on the shelf.
This goes for most adults, too, although I saw it more clearly with the children’s collection. So… as indie authors, your covers do matter, and it’s not about the art, it’s about marketing. Conveying a clear image that looks modern, bright, and clean. We haven’t seen it yet, but in time, I think I will plan to update my book covers every few years, to keep them in the trends. I’d rather not have prospective readers look at a cover and think, ew, that’s old…
Once they do pick up a book and start to leaf through it, another thing that will put them off is the old feel of the text. I had to fight my kids to get them to read some of the classics I had loved as a kid. Little Women, the Borrowers, Swiss Family Robinson… I grew up with them, being read aloud from them, and reading aloud myself when I was old enough. But my kids were more comfortable with the composition, pacing, and ‘feel’ of books like Harry Potter and the Magic Treehouse. They were bored and befuddled by the slow pacing and dated technology of older books. My SF reader put down Have Spacesuit and wandered off, and it about broke my heart. As authors, we need to keep this in mind. Write old-style, and it may not sell to the younger set.
One thing ebooks give us, as authors and readers, is an almost unlimited ability to expand our library. We don’t need to worry about shelf constraints. On the other hand, being able to find anything in there? When you are putting up your book on Amazon, you need to make sure it is properly keyworded. There is a terrific list for Science Fiction and Fantasy here, and you can backtrack for other genres. This is what will help your readers find you on those endless digital shelves (I have this mental image of a library with vaulted roof, shelves on every side, stretching off into the distance, little wisps of mist obscuring the far end…). As readers, it will take a little more effort to stay on top of your library if you are a Kindle user, as they haven’t yet bothered to make that an easy process. Maybe if we all ask for that…
As for your local library, and weeding –
it was one of the hardest jobs I have done. I kept having to resist the urge to take piles home with me to rescue them. We did use the option to keep a book ‘just because’ fairly often, and a lot of times would track down and buy a new version of a book with a nicer cover, knowing that if it looked new, it would start going out again. We created a display of books with a sign that read ‘read me, or I’ll be weeded! Rescue a book today…”
Understand that a physical library is torn between lack of funding, lack of space, and need to keep their patrons happy. Is the school in the original article doing something wrong? I’m not sure… It’s rough to see the shelves so empty, and to know as a former librarian the kids just aren’t using the library like they once did. But reality is that young people don’t read like they used to.
It’s not that they don’t read. It’s that they don’t read paper books as much. They are far more likely to tap a screen and grab the latest thing that catches their eye, than they are to pick up a worn-out copy of The Swiss Family Robinson. This isn’t a bad thing. And perhaps the old books, available free, will get some attention again, too.
Speaking of free, want to win a shiny new print copy of The God’s Wolfling? comment on this link and enter to win a signed, and possibly sketched copy. Winner will be chosen at random (not by snark level in the comment, as tempting as that is) and announced on August 2, the day after the book is launched. Good Luck!