How Library Distribution Works for Indie Authors

We all know that having our books in a library is a good thing. More readers, a segment of readership we don’t always reach, and, in some territories,  income. But how do you get your books into a library and how does their distribution system work? These are questions we answer today in this post about how library distribution works for indie authors.

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Do you think libraries don’t buy books from self-published authors? Think again. In a 2016 survey conducted by US-based publishing service New Shelves Books, 92 percent of librarians reported that they regularly purchase from self-published authors and small presses.

Clearly, librarians are buying self-published books that fit their acquisition guidelines. And libraries are full of avid readers.

If you want to get your books into libraries, the first thing you need to know is that libraries don’t buy directly from publishers or authors, but from distributors. So your first step is to get your book into a library vendor catalog, by uploading your titles to the right book distributor.

Unlike bookstores, where purchases are often dictated by a head office, most libraries operate independently of each other. Each library operates its own policy, ordering stock from catalogues or by its chosen book supplier based on its community profile. And each has its own budget to spend as it wants, within broad parameters.

There are four kinds of library: public, academic, school, and special. Each has a different purpose and orders different types of books as follows:

  • Public: Government-funded local and national libraries serve the general public.
  • Academic: The college and university library market, although smaller, usually has more money than the public sector to spend on books.
  • School: With smaller budgets than public or academic libraries, school libraries are important for children’s or YA (young adult) writers. In the US, there are only two wholesalers selling into the school market. They sell library binding (heavy bound) books that hold up to the often rough treatment from school kids. If you’re serious about selling to the school library market, you’ll need to partner with and pay one of these two wholesalers for the coding and library binding system.
  • Special: Corporate libraries, usually privately run, are devoted to specific purposes, such as medical or law, with budgets from tiny to huge—significant for niche writers.

It’s easy to obtain a list of libraries through your local, regional, or national library association.  The next task is to understand which distributor supplies their books. Here is a list of the most important distributors of books to libraries, globally.

  • Overdrive for ebooks, audiobooks, and videos is the world’s largest library eBook platform, offering a procurement and checkout system for over 40,000 public libraries and schools around the world. Baker & Taylor, now owned by Follett, one of the largest distributors of both digital and print books worldwide to thousands of libraries, publishers and retailers.
  • Bibliotheca Bibliotheca’s digital lending platform, used by more than 30,000 libraries around the world, is called cloudLibrary. Ebooks are supplied through distributors and publishing platforms. There is minimal curation, mostly for technical aspects.
  • James Bennett, library vendor in the Australasian marketplace
  • Gardners in the UK, a wholesaler of books, ebooks, music, and film to retailers around the world.

So how do you get your books distributed by these companies and organizations. Indie authors use platforms like Smashwords, PublishDrive, or Draft2Digital to list their books on the library databases from which librarians decide which titles to acquire.

Here are the most library-friendly distributors with global reach which you can access directly as an author-publisher.

  • Draft2Digital, distributing ebooks via partnerships with Overdrive and Hoopla
  • Findaway Voices’ distributing audiobooks to retail and library distribution partners globally.
  • IngramSpark, distributes to more than 39,000 retailers and libraries for print and ebooks.
  • Kobo Writing Life is a sister company to OverDrive, the largest distributor of ebooks to libraries
  • Self-e Library Journal offering access mainly to US libraries, via its PatronsFirst delivery platform. Until recently Self-e was a free platform but is now exploring a paid model.
ALLi Watchdog John Doppler considers each of these library access services in more detail in
Choosing the Best Self-Publishing Services and Companies (which, like our guide to libraries and all our guidebooks and contract advice, is free to members of ALLi). In that book he says:

“It’s important for authors to recognize that these  services are not like for like. They offer different options depending on territory, career priorities, and marketing strategy. Authors must have a clear sense of what they hope to achieve from their book’s availability in a library system and choose accordingly.” John Doppler, Choosing the Best Self-Publishing Services and Companies

There are different distributors in different countries and a little research should uncover the information you need. For example, in Australia
ALS Library Services supports authors in submitting books for possible inclusion in their monthly promotional listings to libraries. Many libraries work with multiple vendor partners, and ALLi’s “go wide” best-practice advice applies to the library distributors as well: list your book widely, with as many  outlets as possible. If you have time to do only one, Kobo Writing Life’s arrangement with Overdrive gives wide access and the highest rates for a single-second the click of a button.

OverDrive is Kobo’s sister company, so you the exact rate you would get if you had a direct OverDrive account, (50% of your library list price), but without the added hassle of managing two separate accounts or any aggregator royalty cut.

Amazon and Walmart

Amy Collins from New Shelves Books reports that in the US Walmart and Amazon are in a discount war, each trying to get a bigger share of the library business. While a library can order a book through Baker and Taylor and get a 20 percent discount, that same library could order through Amazon or Walmart and receive a 32 percent discount. Collins says more and more libraries are saving money by buying from discount retail sources.

Wait. Are libraries allowed to buy through discount retailers? Not technically, as most are public entities supported in part or whole by their respective governments. They get around this by working through their Friends of the Library program.

The Friends of the Library programs operate fundraisers throughout the year. They’ll raise anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, then “donate” that money to the library. Only what’s starting to happen is the library, rather than receive the cash, will hand over their wish list to the Friends of the Library, who are then free to go and purchase the books on the wish list at the best price they can find. And yes, that is often via Amazon or Walmart or other discount retailer rather than the usual distribution partner.

How You’ll Get Paid

When you do get your book into one or more libraries, you’ll get paid through one of two models. OC/OU and CPC.

  • OC/OU is “one copy, one user” and is the standard library model, mimicking that of physical books. Libraries purchase a single copy and can loan it to one library patron at a time. When one person has your book checked out, no one else can “borrow” the book until the first person has “returned” the digital book. If a library wants to be able to loan the book to more than one person at a time, they’ll have to “purchase” another “copy.” Payment to authors under the OC/OU model is usually three times the list (retail) price, however it will be a single payment at the time the library purchases your title.
  • CPC stands for “cost per checkout.” This is sometimes referred to as “simultaneous use” and it means libraries can loan the digital book product (eBook or audio) to many readers at the same time. Payment to authors under this model is 1/10th the list price per loan. So, your payments will be smaller per reader, but there is the potential for payment with each reader. This model also promises greater exposure for your book, simply because more readers at a time means more people talking and recommending your book to others.

Public Lending Rights (PLR)

The PLR is the legal right that allows authors and other right holders to receive payment from government to compensate for the free loan of their books by public and other libraries.

Jim Parker, Coordinator of the PLR International Network says:

As of 2018, there were thirty-three countries with PLR systems.1 It’s been recognized in the EU since 1992. In 1946, Denmark was the first country to implement a PLR, quickly followed in 1947 and 1954 by Norway and Sweden. I 1973, New Zealand was the first non-European country to set up a PLR system. Australia and Canada followed in 1974 and Israel in 1986. Poland’s PLR system is the most recent to begin operating, with the first payments to authors made in 2016.

In most cases, PLR payments do not come out of library budgets, but are funded by regional or national governments.  There are a few cases where libraries pay for PLR, for example in the Netherlands, where public libraries are independent entities. PLR is managed in one of three ways.

  1. By a collective management organization, as it in in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania, and Slovakia.
  2. Legislated and administered by a government body. This is the case in the UK, where PLR is administered by the British Library.
  3. Funded directly by government without underlying legislation. Canada, Israel, and Malta all operate this way.

Different Approaches to PLR Payments

Payments to authors will vary, depending on the country’s PLR system and how many times a book is borrowed. Payment-per-loan approaches are found in Finland, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands and the UK. Payment-per-copy, in which the payments are determined by the number of copies a library holds of the book, is the approach employed in Australia, Canada, and Denmark. Other PLR approaches match payments to book purchases, such as in France, where in addition to government funding, publishers contribute whenever they sell a book to a library. To qualify for payment, applicants must apply to register their books, audiobooks, and ebooks.  (Non-print material does not qualify for registration in the Irish PLR system.)

Maggie Lynch: Working with Libraries

headshot of Maggie Lynch

Maggie Lynch

Maggie Lynch, longtime ALLi author member, is the author of 20+ published books. Her fiction tells stories of men and women making heroic choices one messy moment at a time. Find out more about Maggie on her website maggielynch.com 

So far, I’ve found that the best approach to libraries is twofold:

  1. Offer to do something for them so they get to know you and your reliability and skills. e.g., a virtual author meeting (or in person when COVID is over); host a panel; have a variety of things you can speak on that a library appreciates).
  2. Send an email with a one-sheet about your book to the librarian on record for acquisitions in your genre, or the head librarian. Not everyone appreciates getting the one sheets, but my experience has been that only 10% completely ignore them. It helps to include information about which libraries already catalog your books (ebooks or print). It is easier for them to say yes when they know others have already purchased.

Libraries are a hard nut to crack, but they are slowly becoming more open to indies with a track record. What most of them will NOT do is accept a free book to be cataloged, or an obvious email with multiple libraries listed and a direct request for them to purchase. Like everything in life, it takes time and effort to build a list of current librarians and then approach them one by one with information that is interesting to them. 

Finally, by participating in the cost-per-circulation (CPC) option in ebook library distribution (offered by Overdrive, Bibliotecha, and Hoopla) it is easier for librarians to take a chance on new authors because they don’t have to purchase the book at full price without knowing whether it fits what their patrons want to check out. CPC allows them to pay a portion of the price with every checkout (usually about 10% depending on the vendor and licensing). In that way, they can show a larger catalog of potential ebooks for library download without committing to paying full price for any of those books. For those authors who think: “I’m not going to allow them to only pay me 10% or less of full price.” I implore you to think again. Once that book is checked out 10 times it will have paid for the full price AND any subsequent checkouts is above the full price they would have paid for a one time forever license for one book (which used to be the old way of doing ebooks just two to three years ago). It is the old way that kept most libraries only ordering bestsellers because they knew they would circulate.

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