The growing popularity of ebooks has fostered a booming market for self-published works, independent presses, and new authors eager to sell to libraries at prices and terms that are significantly more favorable than those offered by the few major publishers who sell ebooks to libraries at all. These self-published authors could be a natural constituency for libraries to court, but then there’s the matter of sifting through all of that unvetted content.
Completing a deal originally announced in August, Douglas County Libraries last week acquired almost 10,000 ebooks from indie distributor Smashwords, using the company’s new Library Direct service. The transaction took much longer than initially expected, but it ultimately helped both parties discover ways to weed, filter, and tweak a list of independent titles to develop an optimal collection for DCL’s patrons.
“It was a lot more complicated for us than we expected,” said Smashwords founder Mark Coker, “We’re giving libraries the option to slice and dice by multiple categories and multiple filters. And, along the way we discovered some cool ways to surface titles more accurately, that we think better reflect the interests of readers.”
The list began with Smashwords’ top 10,000 bestsellers—titles that have proven their appeal through sales. However, DCL and Smashwords soon realized that relying exclusively on a sales ranking could cause problems, such as leaving popular book series incomplete. Focusing instead on bestselling authors, and simply purchasing everything they had written, wasn’t an ideal solution, either. Hypothetically, what if an author had published 1,000 books, each of which sold only a few copies, Coker said.
Smashwords responded by developing a simple new mathematical ratings model—total sales by author divided by their total number of books—to help identify titles that were truly in demand. The bestseller list was then based on this model, and specific filters requested by DCL were applied. DCL then had the opportunity to further weed the proposed collection using an early version of a new online procurement system that Smashwords developed for the Library Direct service.
These filters can include price caps and limits on specific genres. For example, DCL asked for erotica to be excluded from their selection, and Collection Services Manager Sharon Nemechek also personally weeded out many more romance titles.
These cuts were made not because romance and erotica aren’t popular, Nemechek said. But this acquisition would be doubling DCL’s collection of library-owned, library-managed ebooks, ultimately having a sudden, significant impact on both the composition and the visual look of DCL’s econtent catalog.
“There were just some really racy covers,” Nemechek explained. “As you know, our catalogs are very visual now. And it’s not that we don’t buy that stuff, but I was afraid that there would be so much of it, and that it was going to flood our system. So I was a little more careful with covers than I probably otherwise would have been… We usually select erotica based on professional reviews or sometimes patron demand. But we try to sift through that stuff more carefully. Given that we had 10,000 titles to work with, excluding the erotica would give us more science fiction, mystery, romance, and the genre fiction that our readers really love.”
Coker is hoping that Smashwords can take these lessons and apply them to Library Direct in a way that may ultimately allow the service to be used for smaller orders.
“Right now, for Library Direct, it’s still a very manual process that involves our engineering team doing hardcore database queries to assemble lists, and then a lot of manual activity between us and the library.”
As a result, the threshold for Library Direct orders is currently around a minimum of $20,000.
“As we add more self-serve tools to it—so that libraries can do their own queries against our database and construct their own lists without the intervention of our engineering team—then it becomes cost-effective for us to do smaller, more incremental orders,” Coker explained.
But, working with DCL has also encouraged the Smashwords team to redouble their efforts toward generating recommended buy lists for ebook aggregators, such as their top 1,000 fiction titles, or top 1,000 mystery titles.
Meanwhile, DCL is looking for ways to help patrons discover these ebooks from new authors who may be unfamiliar to many readers.
“What we’re trying to do is create a bridge between what they know and like, what they come in looking for, and the new stuff,” said Nemechek. “So when they come in looking for a Vince Flynn, I want our staff to be able to say ‘you know what? We’ve got some really good spy thriller stuff over here.’ And it doesn’t even have to be Smashwords…We’ve got [ebooks from] Akashic and Untreed and Poisoned Pen—a lot of smaller publishers who publish great quality stuff.”
“Old-school” reader recommendation tools like read-alike lists and genre lists are playing a role, Nemechek said. In addition, DCL already has a team of volunteers giving reviews to content from small presses, and Smashwords content will eventually start getting reviews as well. Patrons are very open to branching out to new authors and new genres, but personal recommendations or even online reviews can make a huge difference in whether a patron gives a new author a try, she explained.
“Discoverability, I think you have to get at it in layers—through technology, through staff at the branches—it’s kind of a multi-layered thing,” she said. “But I like that we have all of these different streams of content, all layered into our catalog.”