Friday, March 09, 2007

The Ides of March, and an interesting dilemma

I haven't been blogging much lately for a couple reasons. First, I'm in the middle of deadline hell, with March 15th being the date in question. I have four reviews due that day, and one of the books is excellent, but slow-moving and only halfway read. It's also the deadline date for incoming reviews from May's HNR. Secondly, I've started making a concerted effort towards writing v.2 of my Historical Fiction series. I guess at this point it's fair to call it a series. (It won't be called a 2nd edition, because readers/libraries might be tempted to discard the first volume, believing the newer copy is meant to replace the older one - and it isn't.)

In working on the manuscript, I'm running into a familiar problem, one I also encountered while writing the first book. The books contain, basically, information and plot summaries/critiques of historical novels published over a given time period. The primary market is libraries in North America; secondly, general readers, researchers, prospective historical novelists, etc.

I mention this because it's not practical for me to include historical novels in my book unless a significant number of libraries own them. I use WorldCat to determine this (link goes to the public version, which is kind of neat to search). WorldCat, if you're not familiar with it, is an online catalog of library holdings worldwide. The overwhelming majority of libraries in North America have their holdings - or those of a shared library system they belong to - reflected in WorldCat. To me, a "significant" number of holding libraries is usually around 50... if fewer than 50-odd libraries for any novel are recorded in WorldCat, it's not worth including it, because library patrons will get frustrated that the book's hard for them to obtain.

(Yes, I know interlibrary loan exists, and it's a wonderful thing, but not all patrons want to wait - plus, my book's not meant to be a comprehensive guide to all historical novels ever published, only representative ones. Anyway.)

The frustrating part, though, is when I read/come across novels that are truly wonderful, but which only a very small number of libraries own. These are mostly small press titles, ones that have word-of-mouth popularity on Amazon and on blogs. I'm sure you know some of them. I'd love to include them in the book and help spread the word, but I can't. It's a Catch-22 of sorts, because they're often not in libraries simply because they're small-press titles and missed getting picked up for review by the major trade pubs like LJ, Booklist, PW, etc.

This has me thinking about a few different but related things. First, I wonder if many authors consider libraries as a market worth pursuing at all, because in some cases, these novels aren't even owned by libraries in the authors' home states/cities/towns. Many libraries will acquire novels by local authors even if there hasn't been significant (or any) review coverage. So why aren't those copies there?

On the other hand, because a lot of these smaller-press novels are word-of-mouth hits, I wonder if libraries need to make more determined efforts to acquire them, rather than simply relying on the traditional review venues. If you're a librarian reading this, do you ever purchase historical novels based on blog mentions, online reviews, Amazon recommendations, etc., or do you wait for a formal review to appear?

It seems to me there ought to be a way for these two solutions to meet in the middle. Not just for the very narrow purpose of my being able to include them in the book, of course, but so that these novels can be acquired by more libraries, and therefore reach more readers.


  1. David Blixt9:27 PM

    I'm right there with you on the deadline, and I'm feeling your pain.
    The Ides is a double-whammy for me - I'm playing Brutus for a week (the regular Brutus chose this week of all weeks to go on vacation with his wife), and my second novel is due to St. Martin's. Either would be murderous. Together, I'm insane with worry. Add stomach flu and a squirrelly eleven month-old, and you have my life.
    So, I suppose I'm saying, it could be worse.
    On the lighter side, my Kirkus review wasn't bad - in fact, from what I've been told, it was rather good. So that's keeping me going.
    As for your dilemma, it's as new to me as this whole publishing business. I've never considered how a librarian chooses what books to put on the shelves. So, ah, I guess I'm no help.
    I'll go now.

  2. Hm, yes, that does sound worse. My sympathies, and best of luck surviving all of the above.

    A "wasn't bad" type of review from Kirkus usually translates into a "very good" from anywhere else, so that's definitely a plus.

  3. David Blixt10:07 AM

    This is what everyone says about Kirkus. Which amazes me. What do they get out of owning such a reputation?
    And their review was 99% synopsis, 1% review. Is that normal?
    Anyway, thanks for the good thoughts. Back atcha.

  4. Add a chapter about Books Difficult to Find But Worth Reading, and besides presenting some gems, explain how small press books need the readers to find their way into libraries and stores.

    I fill out Book Wish forms for both the local library and the university library all the time. :)

  5. Re: Kirkus, I think it has to do with exclusivity... since high praise is so rare from them, when it happens it's a Big Thing. At least in some circles. Keeps publishers sending them books on that chance, anyway.

    They are often pickier than I, and snarkier, too.

    Yes, their reviews are almost pure synopsis, except the first and last lines. I read Kirkus online through a library database, but it has a 1-month lag, so I haven't read the one for Master of Verona yet. But given that they often give play-by-play descriptions of the plot, I tend to avoid them until I've read the book. I've been burned before!

    Gabriele - that's an idea, yep. There are really only a handful of books I have in mind for this, and given the book's organization, I'd rather see them in the main section - but who knows, maybe by late 2008 enough libraries will have bought them.

  6. Oh, and good for you for filling out the book wish forms. We get those a lot, and if people take the time to suggest titles we usually buy them. (Um, within reason.) Do you find they listen to you?

  7. Generally, we do try to get at least our local/state authors' works (excluding things like genealogies)if they fit any of our selection criteria, whether they have been reviewed or not. Some things will get a review in the local paper, many don't even get that. Patrons can make purchase requests through our online catalog, and HQ pays attention to those and usually is very obliging (within reason, of course!). Staff can make suggestions; I do from time to time when I see things in Amazon or somewhere that I think we should own in the system. In fact, I recently made up a small order of historical fiction titles we did not own that I got from looking at the Historical Novels Society website; most were reviewed, but they fell through the cracks somehow and were not picked up. Sorry for being so wordy!!

  8. By the by, that's great news about your doing another volume--the first is such a great source. Here are a couple of titles you might look at for possible inclusion this time:
    WHOM THE GODS WOULD DESTROY by Richard Powell (my all time favorite Trojan War novel) and
    A DURABLE FIRE by Virginia Bernhard (excellent fictional account of the early years of Jamestown up through 1622).
    Hope you don't mind my sending you these through your blog--just thought of them. I recommend them to you if you haven't read them & have an interest in either subject.

  9. Mike, thanks for the info on how you make HF purchasing decisions. I'm glad to hear you used the HNS website as as source, too.

    Reminds me I need to get some late summer/early fall books listed there.

    I love getting suggestions for the book (and for my own personal reading), so thanks! I'll take a look as I haven't heard of either.