| Don’t Write Alone
Shop Talk How Working with Libraries Can Help Sell Your Books
A librarian shares a step-by-step guide on how writers can grow their audience and promote their books by pitching a talk to their local library—and beyond.
Before and after I signed my first book contract, one of the things I looked forward to most was celebrating the book’s release in my favorite bookstores. I daydreamed about these scenarios even before I imagined doing any events in a library, which embarrassed and surprised me, because I am a full-time programming librarian.
If you have a book to promote, you’ve likely thought about partnering with stores for events. But if you haven’t considered working with libraries, you’re missing out on some great opportunities. Libraries support writers in many ways: serving as physical work spaces, purchasing copies of books for their collections, and helping with various stages in between. Programming is a major tool in fulfilling libraries’ missions to promote literacy and lifelong learning. Libraries often work with outside presenters and organizations, as well as local authors, to bring interesting cultural events to their communities.
I’ve been on both sides of this relationship: in my day job as a librarian and as an author with a book to promote. Partnering to deliver programming is a win-win strategy for both libraries and authors. A presentation—especially one that you can continue to give for years to come—will keep you and your book relevant long beyond its pub date. Programming can help sell copies, garner new press and exposure, grow your platform, and even become an additional source of income.
Here’s why it’s worth your time and how to do it well.
Developing a program related to your book
Libraries offer a wide range of programs and events: book clubs, fitness and cooking classes, movies, concerts, lectures on a variety of topics, and more. Programs range from serious, educational subjects to eclectic events that are purely for entertainment.
Though readings are a common format for authors promoting their work, it can be helpful to develop talks related to your book that go beyond that format and expand your audience even further. A lecture on your book’s topic may have broader appeal and therefore attract more people, including those who may not have been interested in coming to see a reading. If you have enough to say about a topic to write a whole book about it, chances are you can also fill a one-hour presentation. Obviously, every library is different, but in my experience, programs formatted as “a lecture on an interesting topic by a local author” have garnered more interest than “local author reading from their book.”
A presentation—especially one that you can continue to give for years to come—will keep you and your book relevant long beyond its pub date.
The program can be in conversation with your book even if it’s not directly related to the contents. For example, my book is an anthology of work about New Jersey, and I developed an armchair travel-guide program that features ideas for local day trips. My book is not a travel guide, and nothing that appears in my slideshow was pulled from my book. But being the editor of a book about New Jersey gives me credibility to speak on the topic, and my participation in library programs has led to newsletter sign-ups, book orders, and new social media followers.
When beginning to put together your presentation, think about what makes your book unique. What do you have to offer? What’s your area of expertise? Can your program be tied to the calendar or to a current event in the news? Maybe you did a lot of research and can compile a presentation on some of your findings. Maybe you wrote a prescriptive how-to book and can condense some takeaways. Maybe you can offer a cooking demonstration of a recipe from your cookbook or food-related memoir. There’s also the writing-programs route—your credentials as a published author make you a great person to lead a workshop on a specific craft topic.
Once you’ve developed a solid program idea, you’re ready to reach out to libraries. Many libraries have a formal system in place for taking event proposals. Check their websites for online event-proposal forms. If they don’t have anything like that, look for a staff list and see if you can find contact information for the librarian in charge of programming. Otherwise, you can cold-call or email and ask who to contact about your event offerings. Some programming librarians plan their calendars several months out, so it’s advisable to start approaching libraries early if you want to time your presentation around your book launch or another specific time frame. If their event form lists a designated window for responses, it’s okay to follow up with a polite email or phone call (unless the form says not to, of course) once that time frame passes and you haven’t heard back.
Of course, it’s possible that the library will pass on your idea. When I decline a presentation, it’s usually for one of the following reasons: I don’t think it fits my community’s needs; I don’t have the budget; the presenter hasn’t sufficiently demonstrated their experience; or it’s too similar to something else I have planned or have done recently. But I love getting pitches. It saves me time looking for potential vendors and often shows me something interesting I may not have known to seek out.
When choosing where to pitch yourself, the best library to approach first is probably your local library, which hopefully you already use and where you may be a familiar face. If your book or topic is related to a specific place, it may also make sense to target libraries in that area. Major city libraries might focus more on bestselling authors or other splashy events, so they might be more selective. But don’t discount small venues—libraries of all sizes value programming, and while some budgets are more robust than others, every library likely has one.
It’s hard to give specific advice on setting your fee because there are so many factors. I’ve seen author-presenters ask for anywhere from $75 to $500, and my own programs fall within the $100 to $300 range. Sometimes a presenter will offer their rate while acknowledging they are flexible, opening the door for some negotiating. I’ve also had presenters offer discounts on booking multiple programs on different topics. You know best what is worth your time! When I sold my anthology, I received a small advance that didn’t cover all of what I paid contributors for their work. Getting paid to give library presentations has been a great way for me to start recouping the funds, even before my book comes out. It has also been great for visibility and getting my name out there.
Preparing to present
Because library programs are usually free and open to the public, you never know who will walk in the door. Some libraries have patrons who faithfully attend every program regardless of the topic. You should be prepared to present for a mixed, general audience of all ages and with varying levels of familiarity with your subject. Consider accessibility when putting together your presentation. If you’re designing a slideshow, pay attention to font sizes (can they be read from the back of the room?), the colors and images you’re using, and the transitions between slides (the simpler the better).
I always appreciate when presenters promote their library program within their networks, because it leads to better attendance and new faces who learn about my library’s offerings as a result of joining one of our events. When my library transitioned to virtual programs, I started getting attendees we never would’ve been able to meet in person (I’ll never forget the woman who joined a lecture from her houseboat on the other side of the country). But the same thing happens in person, too, when presenters list their library lectures on their websites or share them on social media.
And speaking of attendance: It can vary wildly. If your program doesn’t pack the room quite as much as you hoped it would, it could just mean that the community wasn’t the right fit or that it could’ve been promoted differently. Or maybe that’s the audience size that particular library tends to attract. For me, and I suspect for many other programming librarians, the attendance number isn’t the only metric for what makes a library program successful. I pay more attention to whether or not an audience is engaged, even if it’s a small audience. If even one person walks away having learned something, received a connection to a resource, or acquired information they needed, I feel that the event served its purpose.
Building and maintaining relationships with libraries
Let your librarian contact know when you develop additional program offerings, publish a new book, or are interested in repeating your program. I frequently have the same presenters back, sometimes to speak on other topics. Some people have even developed a following within the library, and patrons ask when a specific presenter will return.
The fact that you regularly give talks at libraries and have relationships with them will be an attractive part of your platform.
Being a library presenter can also help when it comes time to propose your next book. The fact that you regularly give talks at libraries and have relationships with them will be an attractive part of your platform. It shows that you are well connected to literary communities and are capable of promoting and selling your book. Libraries often issue press releases to local media as well, so you may see coverage of your event, which can lead to other articles and opportunities.
Once you’ve done a presentation at one library, it’ll also be easier to get your program accepted by others. I often look at the newsletters and calendars of other libraries to get ideas for bookings, and I know that other programming librarians do this too. Librarians may start reaching out to you too—after I did my first virtual presentation, a programming librarian from another library reached out to inquire about booking me.
Thinking beyond the program
The libraries where you present might also be able to support you in additional ways. They will likely purchase your book for their collection, since their patrons may want to read it before or after they attend your event. They might also create a display for your book or shelve it in a featured-local-author section. Some libraries even have blogs or podcasts on which they might feature upcoming speakers or local authors. Librarians are also often early readers and champions of forthcoming books. Many of them review titles for publications like Library Journal and Publishers Weekly , which can greatly influence bookstore, librarian, and reader interest in a title.
Discovering that an author lives in town is exciting for librarians because many of us got into the field in part because we have a passion for reading. We want to work with you and support your book. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and you can help strengthen it by making yourself known to your local library and proposing interesting ways to work together.