Saturday, August 11, 2018

Resources for Indie Authors at St. Louis County Library, with Sarah Steele, Reference Specialist

Article by Jennifer Stolzer

“A lot of people think about libraries in terms of resources for readers, but we have lots of resources for writers as well,” Sarah Steele said at the August 4 workshop. “Without you, there'd be no library!”

Sarah is a Reference Specialist for Reader's Advisory at the St. Louis County Library (SLCL) headquarters.

“Pew research data shows that those who use libraries are more likely than others to be book buyers and actually prefer to buy books rather than borrow them, especially those who want a book right away,” she said. According to a Library Journal survey, more than 50 percent of all library users purchase ebooks based on books they read at the library. So it's a great outreach program. She cited two ways the library can work with independently published and small press authors: the SELF-e program and the print collection.

SELF-e is a royalty-free discovery platform designed to expose your ebooks to more readers via public libraries locally and nationally, Sarah said. It's sponsored by Library Journal and will get your book into many libraries all over Missouri and nationwide, if it is chosen for that program. The SELF-e Select Collection offers nationwide distribution through SELF-e's platform. It takes some time, however. Once you upload your book, it will automatically be included in the St. Louis County Collection and the Indie Missouri collection, but going national might take some months. “Don't lose heart if you aren't picked right away. Click the box and just let it go.” Having a really well-presented ebook helps get your book selected for nationwide collection, and the library has resources to help you make your ebook look super awesome.

SELF-e is not for everybody, but it’s a good fit for unknown indie authors. “It'll get your name out there … people who wouldn't find your book otherwise will see it.” Indie authors who want to grow their following would also benefit from SELF-e by reaching new readers with previously published books, in addition to new releases. It’s also good for traditionally published authors who own the digital rights or have permission from their publisher to distribute through the program. This usually applies to authors' backlists or books that are old or out of print. Authors can keep these titles alive and reach out to new readers. Books can also be for sale or featured on other distribution platforms as long as SELF-e has permission to distribute it.

Most SELF-e authors are independently published, which gives writers a lot of control over how and where their book is distributed. SELF-e is a good place to experiment as well. “A trendy and also historic way to use SELF-e is to serialize your work,” Sarah suggested. “You can put your work up a chapter at a time to SELF-e to drum up interest and add intrigue.” Additionally, putting your book up through SELF-e will not prevent it from being picked up by most publishers if authors intend to continue querying it. “Publishers don't seem to mind too much if you're still hoping to pursue traditional publishing.”

Books intended for SELF-e need to be up in PDF or ePUB format, and ePUB is greatly preferred. It's easier for readers and is more likely to be picked up by the national collection. “ePUB allows the text to flow and allows for hyperlinks and that sort of thing,” Sarah said. ePUB book formatting must look as nice as possible and have all the bells and whistles. Some things about ebook formatting are different from traditional formatting, so pay attention to detail.

Among the popular options for getting your book into ePUB format are:
  • the free online converter (, which will code the file but limits the control you have over the final product, 
  • a free open-source software called Calibre (, which has a learning curve but comes with tutorials, 
  • and Adobe inDesign which is the professional standard. It allows the maximum amount of control. 
“You can book a trainer at the library to help you with this process,” Sarah said. “The Creative Experience Lab at the St. Louis County Library has all the tools you need to make your ebook. That would be an option for using Adobe without buying it.” 

“For a long time there was an unspoken rule that the library did not acquire self-published books, but that has changed over time,” Sarah said. SLCL buys self-published books both in print and on Overdrive, which is an ebook portal for the library. “One of the reasons we weren't buying self-published authors was there was no way to buy.” They were not allowed to buy books from private websites, but now a lot of self-published works fall within the acquisitions criteria. 

So what is the library looking for? SLCL seeks books that meet current and potential relevance to community needs and local demand, interest, or significance. If it's got local significance, it doesn't matter how many sales the book’s made or how big the publisher is -- if people want it, the library will pursue it. Suitability of subject and style for intended audience will determine if it's appropriate for the library, especially for young readers. Reviews in professionally recognized sources add clout to your book, making it a better candidate for purchasing. “Getting reviewed is one of the biggest hurdles to jump to getting in the library collection,” Sarah said. 

Timeliness and/or significance of the subject will also determine its likelihood of being acquired. The library uses tax dollars to buy books for its collection. Since their policy requires the purchase of four copies of any print book, stewardship of money is a priority. The library also considers contributions to diversity, depth, or breadth of its collection when selecting books. Books in niche or sub-genre topics or that fill a specific need are always being sought. 

When you upload to SELF-e, you have an opportunity to include information that will help readers find your book by including accurate metadata (subject headings, age ranges, abstracts, etc.). Make it as easy for readers as possible. 

All books submitted should also have high technical quality and formatting in both ebook and print. A book must have an attractive cover, especially in ebook or audiobook. Self-published authors are competing with the professional cover designers of traditional publishers. “With SELF-e, you can select an option that will create a generic cover for you, but if I were you, I would not choose that.” Books submitted to SELF-e must be in English. 

Cover design also includes interesting jacket copy. For ebooks, book blurbs replace the back-jacket. “When readers hover over the book and read the blurb, you want that blurb to catch them,” Sarah said. Like the library, they do not have time to read every book, so they rely on jacket copy and reviews when choosing what to buy. 

Suitability of format for library circulation is also essential. Many books, especially children's books, come with add-ins that can't be circulated. “There's no way for the library to keep track of tiny pieces,” Sarah said. Books that come with stickers, notes, or toys will be separated from them because they are impossible to distribute, and some books like James Cameron's S will not be accepted at all. 

At other times, the authority and competence of the author or the publisher’s reputation will determine whether a library will take a book, especially for nonfiction works. But if library patrons can get the same information through the library or its online systems, it is less likely to buy a new self-published book on that topic. Librarian objectivity helps ensure that purchasing funds are spread evenly across many different authors and books. 

Finally, acquisitions should fit the library’s mission of providing learning resources and information services that support and improve individual, family, and community life. Therefore local media coverage plays highly into the desirability of books for acquisition. “We buy what people in St. Louis want to read!” Sarah said. “If you can get into local media, it’s a good way for people to find out about your book. In some ways, it's even more important than getting a review in a big literary journal.” Not to say that reviews by national-level journals are not highly regarded. Submitting to entities like Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal will net you esteemed reviews. 

Make your book easy to buy. “One of the reasons we didn't buy self-published books before is because we have specific ways we are allowed to buy books.” The first is through print distributors. The biggest one they use is Baker and Taylor, but they also use Midwest Library Services, Brodart, and Ingram, which allows self-published distribution. The library uses Overdrive for ebooks, so if you want your book to be bought by the library, you're going to want it to be listed there. On very specific occasions, they are able to buy through local bookstores. “It's usually about St. Louis history,” Sarah said. “We really can't buy books from your website. I would definitely recommend going through the print distributors or Overdrive. Unless there's a high demand, we won't buy through local bookstores.” 

Encourage readers to request your book from the library. A great way to do that is with the Suggest a Purchase form on the library website; Another option is the Book Discussion Kit. “We aren't allowed to get a Book Discussion Kit for a book that isn't already in the collection, but once it's there, you can suggest it,” Sarah said. The librarians choose the discussion books three times a year. A ballot of collected titles is assembled and the library book group leaders pick from those selected titles. To get your title in the running, get readers to suggest a Book Discussion Kit at The St. Louis County Library also has an author visit program, but your book has to be in the collection already to qualify for that, as well. 

So with so many rules and regulations to meet, it seems difficult for authors, especially independent authors, to get their book in the stacks. The good news is that the library is also the place to go for learning new skills. “One of the joys of being a self-published author is having complete control, and we have the resources to learn the skills you need,” Sarah said. 

The library offers free eCourses. You have to be a cardholder, although there is a reciprocal agreement through the St. Louis County, St. Louis City, and city consortium libraries like Webster Groves, Kirkwood, and the St. Charles city/county library system, so members of those libraries can apply for cards in the other systems. St. Louis County's eCourse offerings include Universal Classes, which are self-paced, instructor-led courses you take at your own pace. They also count for CEUs (Continuing Education Units). Gale Courses are six-week classes that start each month, which are also instructor-led. Lynda programs --video courses and tutorials specializing in a variety of tech and business topics – are free through the library. 

“If you are self-editing, we have some resources for you at the library, including classes to take. Paying for a copy editor is an option, as well. Do your absolute best to have really great copy editing,” Sarah said. 

Many courses at the library appeal to specific kinds of writing. Writeriffic focuses on creativity in general. The Craft of Magazine Writing would be great for nonfiction writers. Novel Writing 101 and courses that are genre-specific, like Mystery Writing and Romance Writing, are great resources for both beginner and veteran writers. 

Editing courses include Punctuation and Grammar 101, designed for student and business writers; Proofreading and Copy-Editing 101 for content editing; and The Keys to Effective Editing, a Gale course that gives an editing overview. 

Design and formatting courses offered include tutorials in Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and inDesign, Lynda courses including the Become a Graphic Designer and the Become a Digital Illustrator learning paths, and one on publishing. 

“I recommend Adapting a Print Layout for Digital Publishing because of the specific rules and coding required for formatting a high-quality ebook,” Sarah said. 

Marketing has changed a lot in the past decade. To help authors sell their books, she suggested Using Social Media in Business, Internet Marketing Basics, Become a Social Media Advertising Specialist, Email and Newsletter Marketing Foundations, and Pitching your Ideas Strategically, among many others. 

Some upcoming in-person classes that might be of interest to SLWG members include: 
  • Worldbuilding – A little bit of research can turn worldbuilding from generic to magical. Learn how to use the library's free resources to get the information you need and how to incorporate it into your story. 
  • Creative Writing Workshop – An eight-week workshop where writers and aspiring writers examine basic principles of good writing and share and critique personal work. 
The library also has a Book a Librarian service that makes reference librarians available for one-on-one appointments to help you learn how to use the library's electronic resources, work with a U.S. Census data, or begin your research project. There are also Write Along Workshops, write-ins, and writers groups that meet in different library locations. All branches have free wifi, public computers, comfy chairs, and quiet areas to write in every day. Check out the county library website ( for information on single-branch events, the online courses and classes mentioned above, and much more. 

Additionally, for the readers out there, the library offers a Personalized Reading List program for book suggestions and Book Discussion Kits for book clubs.

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