Visit Page
Skip to content

Libraries and independent authors

Posted in Distribution, and Just for Writers

Kansas City Public Library (my old hometown)
Kansas City Public Library (my old hometown)

As a courtesy recently for my local library's director who wanted to understand more about how she could get indie authors into her library, I put together an overview document for her which I thought I might share here.

This is entirely from the perspective of an old IT entrepreneur turned indie author, not a library distribution insider. But I've seen plenty of business model disruptions in my career, and I think some trends are likely. We'll see… 🙂


As an entrepreneur who has spent her entire career building and running small and medium-sized software-related businesses with Fortune 500 customers, I am excited by the rapidly-evolving world that is the independent author movement.

As an independent author with a single-author publishing business (Perkunas Press), I consider libraries an important component of my business.

Many of us (independent authors, aka “indies”) are deeply informed about the publishing industry from the author and publisher perspective, but much less so about the library portion of the industry, and when we speak with our library colleagues, we find that they are also less knowledgeable about the indie movement.

I’d like to change that. This little document is a gift to the Director of my local library, in case she or her colleagues might find it helpful.

I will generalize with a broad brush, concentrating on those indie segments which are the leading edges of opportunities to work together. My own knowledge of library procedures and constraints is limited, and I apologize for any errors there in advance.

The publishing world today


What is now typically referred to as the “traditional publishing” industry is in the middle of a classic business model disruption event, similar to the one that hollowed out the popular music industry a decade previously (c.f., the excellent “Ripped” by Greg Kot ).

Like most such events, the incumbent industry is still in denial and unsure of what is happening to them. The upstarts, however, are very clear about what’s occurring.

While independent author publishing has a long history (e.g., Samuel Clemens), it’s only since about 2010 that a combination of online retail vendors, ereaders, print-on-demand (POD) vendor/distributors, and other components have come together to form the basis of an explosive new growth area of books written, edited, covered, formatted, printed, and distributed in print, digital, and audio formats by standalone authors and their partners, without going through any of the traditional publishers, either the “big 5” or the smaller presses.

These books are sold in print, but largely online rather than in bookstores, and are thus invisible to Bookscan. The majority don’t have ISBN numbers, and are thus invisible to Nielsen or Bowker. In fact, the industry measurement tools of the traditional publishing industry, weak as they have always been, can’t see them at all. They are invisible to the standard metrics.

For quite some time, the traditional publishing industry has refused to believe that this shadow world was any threat to their businesses (how big could it be?).

This is a classic feature of business model disruption – the old industry tools and metrics can’t see it.

Metrics – AuthorEarnings

Circa 2014, an independent author (Hugh Howey) and his anonymous data tech partner (Data Guy) began a process of creating new metrics to see what impact the indie movement had on the overall publishing marketplace, and began publishing quarterly reports at Author Earnings.

They began by taking Amazon as a proxy for the majority of the US market, and the US as a proxy for the world market. They have since expanded to multiple online retailers, and multiple countries, as well as over-time comparisons. The data comes from massive screen-scraping of the online retailer book pages for the top books in the bestseller lists by category – you can read about how it’s done in detail on their website.

Indies, and recently the traditional publishing world, have given their results and analyses high credibility.

Though the focus of Author Earnings is just how much an author earns as an indie vs as a traditionally-published author, getting to that includes direct comparisons between the two worlds that has illuminated the entire publishing industry. For a quick overview, see their keynote presentation to Digital Book World 2016, or their most recent report, for general industry statistics.

Hybrid authors and the mid-list

From an author’s perspective, contracts from traditional publishers have been degrading for well over a decade and are continuing the downward trend. One of the things that has spurred the explosive growth of the indie movement has been a large and growing group of what are known as “hybrid” authors – those who made their careers as traditionally-published writers and who have begun exploring indie alternatives for new books and started reclaiming their moribund backlists from their publishers.

The savvy end of the mid-list author community has accelerated a pull-out from their traditional publishers, first on an experimental basis (now that indie was possible), and then on a mounting dissatisfaction basis with their current publishers (backlist, control, earnings). Once Author Earnings began illuminating a comparison of what an author could make, the dam broke.

Big mid-list names are turning hybrid, bringing new books to market as indies and reviving their backlist there. At the moment, only a (highly visible) technophilic group have turned down this path, but the trend is clear – the traditional publishers, already chasing the best-seller save-the-company events, are seeing an acceleration of the hollowing out of their mid-list.

Classes of independent authors

Yes, a large percentage of indie books should probably sink without a trace. But then, look at the celebrity books and adult coloring book trend-chasing done by the traditional publishers. Each segment has a significant amount of junk in it. Happily, it doesn’t matter.

The Author Earnings metrics make it perfectly clear that the upper end of professional indie book products, both as ebooks and in print, are now indistinguishable from the equivalent products of the traditional publishers. Even on the print front, where POD books are of lesser quality than standard print runs, the traditional publishers have turned to POD for many of their book fulfillment requirements as a cost-cutting and flexibility measure.

On the ebook front, many traditional publishers do a shoddy job with their ebook editions – missing covers and descriptions, formatting glitches, OCR text conversion issues, and so forth. A good indie ebook edition is often superior to a product from a big 5 publisher.

And on price, there’s no comparison. Traditional publishers have been slow to budge from their position that their most important editions are the hardcovers, and that ebooks should be priced so as to encourage the growth of hardcover sales rather than compete with them. This results in ebook editions that are absurdly priced for readers, who then turn to high-end indie product instead, as the Author Earnings reports demonstrate.

After all, without the terrible author contracts from traditional publishers, an indie can afford to price ebooks at $2.99 – $7.99 and still make tremendously more on a per-unit basis than they would get from a big-5 publisher for an ebook priced at $14.99.

The rest of this document assumes that “indie” means “high-end, professional independent author”, the sort who typically has a publisher imprint of their own, and may use ISBNs for all their editions (but not necessarily). They certainly have ebook editions, and almost certainly have print ones, too. Many have audiobook editions.

These indies have different degrees of hands-on comfort with all the aspects of doing their own publishing, and often work with cover and edit and format partners. They mostly start with Amazon — some of them remain exclusive with Amazon, while others branch out widely. Behind them, a rapidly-growing infrastructure is providing worldwide distribution in both print and ebook.

And they talk to each other. A lot. Unlike traditionally-published authors who are muzzled by their publisher contracts, successful indies share data all the time, both at the financial level, and at the how-to level. When a new distributor enters the market, they all hear about it.

This spreading of the word will also happen as library channels become more available and more suitable for indies to penetrate. For many of us, it’s the last frontier.

What indies look for from libraries

In my opinion, the high-end indies fall into four classes regarding library participation. There are some concerns about DRM, but indies are sympathetic to non-DRM arguments and many, possibly the majority, offer their retail ebooks DRM-free. (The folks at Author Earnings would actually know the answer to that question, and will respond if asked.)

1. Leave me alone – I like being exclusive to Amazon

Enough said. Amazon is such a large percentage of an indie’s earnings that the temptation to remain exclusive for ebooks can be hard to overcome. It’s a constant debate area in discussion groups.

While print is not exclusive in the same way, few authors with ebook exclusivity on Amazon bother to distribute print editions widely either.

For audiobooks, this can be complicated. ACX/Audible (owned by Amazon) has both exclusive (and sometimes subsidized) and non-exclusive contracts. Because of the expense of an audiobook production, some authors who are not exclusive on Amazon for their ebook editions may still be exclusive for their audiobook ones.

2. My books in libraries would compete with my retail channels

Some indies don’t see libraries as a separate channel from retail and worry about the competition of a “free to the reader” product. This is another debate area in discussion groups, but since the library channels aren’t mature yet for indies, it’s a background issue.

3. I’d love to be in libraries, if they’ll pay me

While ebooks have no per-unit cost, print editions cost money to produce. Audiobooks are complex: streaming is digital (no per-unit cost), but CDs cost money.

Opinions here range from “I’d like to recoup my out-of-pocket expense” to “pay me the retail price”, with variations.

NOTE: There does not seem to be any widespread call for an amortization model, with an inflated price for a library edition or an expiration after a certain number of checkouts. Indies, when they first hear of these practices from traditional publishers through their library channels, are much more typically outraged than envious.

4. Libraries are free marketing for me

A certain class of indies looks at libraries as a marketing channel and is happy to provide free ebooks widely to libraries. In many cases, these indies are also happy to provide actual print and audiobook editions to a small group of local libraries, as a marketing expense/community donation.

How indies get into libraries

Wholesale Distributors

Library distribution is still a very immature distribution channel for indies.

Today there are excellent print and ebook distribution partners for indies, and it’s only getting better. Audiobook partners (for the minority which are not exclusive to ACX) have a more limited reach, but that’s growing.

As far as I know, access to libraries today is solely through wholesale distributors such as Overdrive and Baker & Taylor. These companies do not deal with indies directly. To reach them, an indie must first be distributed by someone else who partners with them, such as Ingram, Draft2Digital, Smashwords, and others.

I haven’t heard of anyone who’s getting any useful traction here. Occasional sales will turn up in reports, but the author can’t tell who the purchasing library is, and has no impact upon the marketing.


Indies who donate ebooks to local libraries discover that the libraries have no way to integrate them into their systems. Even when indies donate print editions, we know that some libraries send them straight to their library drive sales bins without ever entering them into the library system (libraries and bookstores are still sometimes healthy bastions of “who wants an indie book?”).

Library Journal SELF-e

One new venture has entered the market: SELF-e.

Good overview articles are here and here. The comments are illuminating about indie opinions and library assumptions.

From an indie perspective, this falls into the “free giveaway” model for ebooks and thus only fits the last of the four classes listed above. That makes it controversial for some indies.

From a library perspective, I believe there is a one-time cost for the service, but I’m not sure if there is a cost for the ebook. The books which are accepted are curated, providing a useful quality filter for libraries.

SELF-e creates marketing events that benefit both authors and libraries. For example, they’ve set October 8 as “Indie Author Day 2016” to help publicize individual libraries and authors. (I’m participating in one of these for a library near Pittsburgh, two hours away, because no closer library had SELF-e and expressed an interest in creating an event).


This initiative was begun by indie author Joe Konrath but seems to have hit some sort of delay and is still in beta. There are some authors who have been accepted into the system and are seeing sales, but the size of the rollout is unclear.

Konrath has a good handle on the problem from both the library and the author perspective (see his long article here). His summary: is trying to serve three groups: Authors & Publishers, Libraries, and Library Patrons.

Each requires special consideration to ensure the best overall experience possible.

Currently, there is no killer app in the library market. Every library, library system, or consortium, has to reinvent the wheel in order to offer ebooks to its patrons. With no standardization in the library market, and the few companies and publishers who offer ebooks to libraries doing so in such a one-sided, money-grabbing manner, libraries have been getting squeezed without getting fair and sustainable value when it comes to content.

The comments on the long post quoted above ably demonstrate the magnitude of the pent-up demand on the author side of the equation.


As ever more quality and quantity move to the indie side of the trad vs indie segments, the pressure to provide better solutions for library access to indie titles can only grow. It’s the last major channel to be addressed.

Indies and libraries can work better together

Acceptance procedures for donations

Print and Audiobook CDs – if the library can’t accept these into circulation, it should let the author know, since these are an expense to the author.

Ebook and Audiobook streaming – the library should have an acceptance procedure it can share with the author about digital products: formats needed, ancillary material (metadata, covers), and so forth.

Look into SELF-e as a possible approach, and see about integrating an author donation with that process. If that means the author needs to enter the SELF-e program (which not all will wish to do), provide an informational link.

If the standard platform used by the library (e.g., from Overdrive) can accept externally provided books, that is one approach. If not, and that is desired, it wouldn’t hurt to request that feature. If enough libraries do so, the platforms might change.

Retail purchase

In my opinion, libraries badly need a method of simply buying a book and circulating it. I realize that volume considerations (and to some degree curation) make that direct approach infeasible, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

There are two issues here: circulation/acquisition/payments platform, and library edition.

On the platform front, libraries seem to be dependent on the platforms they already have in place, and their features. Depending on what SELF-e offers for non-curated-by-them ebooks, such acquisitions might be able to be added to an existing platform.

On the library edition front, a best practice for authors could be introduced. I’m speaking now as an entrepreneur, and this is beyond the scope of any individual library.

Using Amazon, as an example, I don’t see why a “library edition” couldn’t be introduced as a format. Such an edition by definition would include certain contractual circulation rights. A book so purchased could enter into a (not yet existent) general circulation platform for the library.

Such a model presumes a per-purchase earning for the author, not a per-circulation one, and entirely bypasses the aggregator ecosystem in place today. But authors aren’t paid per-circulation now, anyway – they just receive a single less-than-retail payment today from the wholesale distributors like Overdrive.

Look how much has changed so quickly in the last few years. Something like this may well occur, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the first movers was Amazon. For them, it would be a typical “we’re nimble enough to innovate” approach to its competitors.


Subscribe to My Newsletter

...and receive a free ebook: The Call, a short story that precedes the start of The Hounds of Annwn.


  1. I’m letting the experts such as yourself sort out the library options – it would be good to be in libraries, though it might require a hardcover, or at least a library binding (?) to be usable by more than a few people (delusions of grandeur here).

    There are options for ebooks already, some of which basically ask you to give libraries you ebook for free (for exposure). Not a good long-term solution to get sucked into – unless the other publishers are doing the same, which they won’t be.

    At the beginning, we writers just want to be read. I’m sure that fades quickly if you sign the wrong contract – entrepreneurs don’t give their work away for free.

    I’ll be watching what you come up with.

    October 13, 2016
  2. This is a very useful summary and clarification. I hope it gets circulated widely! I’m an indie in category 4, but not only because I think libraries are a good marketing element. Libraries have been of central importance to my life since I was 6 and I would rather see my book on the shelf of a library than on the shelf of a Barnes&Noble, emotionally speaking. Although I’d be happier if the library had purchased that book :-).

    Toward that end, I would be happy to produce library editions, digital or analog, if I had guidelines for doing so. I’d be happy to follow through and place those library editions where libraries could reach them.

    Some of my books are on the shelves of my local library, who bought the paper versions after we communicated about something else and the librarian decided she liked my books. Very happenstance and impossible to repeat. I wish there were a catalog that librarians read that isn’t basically a mouthpiece for the tradpub industry. Only librarians could design such a catalog…

    Thanks again. Very interesting and full of things to think about and work toward.

    October 15, 2016
  3. Your post is an excellent review of the e-book issues. I arrived at your blog while searching for information on Self-e Library Journal and now understand (at least in part) its reason for being. Thank you.
    I now see Self-e as a marketing tool. My fourth novel has been nominated for the Illinois state library Soon To Be Famous Author Project. Librarians are campaigning for this four-year old library initiative to go nationwide. I hope the project’s relationship with Self-e provides more widespread access to readership and marketing for self-published authors such as myself.

    December 16, 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *