Foreword from Self-Publishing & Collection Development (Purdue University Press, 2015)

Note: I am honored to have been asked to write a foreword for what I believe will be an important book in self-publishing history. The next phase of self-publishing is an exciting one for libraries, readers and writers and I am so glad to still be here innovating and having fun.

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Self-Publishing and Collection Development: Opportunities and Challenges for Libraries (Paperback)



Katina Strauch, the founder of the Charleston Conference (and a leader of the editorial board of this series of books), has a fantastic vision and drive, as anyone who knows her will attest. The first time I met her, someone brought her to our offices (also located in Charleston) for a show-and-tell tour. As she wandered into BookSurge in 2003, I am sure she was uncertain what to make of the ragtag bunch trying to change the publishing industry.

Our offices were “uptown” behind a fried chicken restaurant dumpster and next to a bingo parlor that was held up at gunpoint as we conducted meetings in the front office one day. We found bullet casings in the parking lot all the time. Despite these bleak surroundings, she was nice to me, she was curious about the publishing and print-on-demand business we had built out of those humble beginnings, and she made me a part of her conference the following year. We became friends, and she continues to be an inspiration to me.

Several years later, she invited me to put together a plenary session on libraries and self-publishing for the Charleston Conference. At that point, I had sold BookSurge to, had moved to Seattle to integrate the company and technology, and had come a long way from those ragtag, strip mall, bingo parlor days. I worked at Amazon for two years after the sale, helping to turn BookSurge into CreateSpace, now the world’s largest and most successful self-publishing company.

I suppose as an early self-publishing visionary — and because I was now a part of the library industry with our new company BiblioLabs — she thought I would be good to put together the plenary. It was a huge hit. It was one of those Charleston Conference sessions where people pour over into the hallways and ask questions remotely while watching on closed-circuit television in another room. We definitely felt like we were onto something.

The next year, she asked if I could do a pre-conference on the same topic. I jumped at the chance and was able to convince some of the best brains and the most entertaining people in the library and publishing world to come debate the topic for half a day. It was an inspiring day for everyone who attended and had a chemistry I have yet to see in a conference of its type.

This resulting book is the product of the conversation Charles Watkinson and I had afterward. At the time, Charles was the director of Purdue University Press, and he had delivered a fantastic presentation on what he was doing within the organization to facilitate self-publishing. We were still buzzing from the day’s activity and discussing how the day had uncovered more honest ways to think about and talk about self-publishing in academia. I had called the pre-conference “Self Pub 2.0,” attempting to convey the idea that self-publishing was a technology revolution entering a new phase — that at the end of the day technology could be applied in any way the imagination saw fit.

I still got resistance to the name of the pre-conference. The words “self-publishing” had a scarlet letter feel, the lingering effect of the vanity publishing era where printers dubiously sold truckloads of books to ambitious authors. My perspective on this was shaped early in my BookSurge career. In 2001, one of my partners at the time, Jeff Schwaner, calmly told a room of New York City publishers who were accusing self-publishing companies of being vanity publishers: “All publishing is vain, and that is OK.”

I stuck to my guns on the name and knew I was right when Charles (one of the leaders of the “libraries as publishers” movement) said to me in our conversation afterward, “I realize now this is not library publishing, but library-facilitated self-publishing.” I felt a bit of the scarlet leave the letter as he said it. I am very proud to have had that spark lead to this important book.

The articles you will find here are an excellent course in the thinking surrounding the marriage of self-publishing and libraries. I was happy to see the text depart from a strict academic context to create a mesh of perspectives that let all range of libraries learn from the experiences of others. Publics, academics, and community college libraries all are represented here.

Several themes strike me throughout the book, including 1) the power of self-publishing as a generator of primary source materials, 2) the effects of Amazon on the role of libraries, and 3) the changing business of publishing (in large part driven by the aforementioned retailing powerhouse).

Much credit for this book goes to Bob Holley, a fantastic editor and all-around book wrangler, as well as one of the top library thinkers on the issue of self-publishing. During the original “Self Pub 2.0” preconference, he gave us all an increased perspective on self-publishing as a generator of primary source materials. The coverage he gives that topic here is excellent. It reminded me of talking to the director of the Peace Corps Writers program in those early days of self-publishing, who told me, “You know half the people in the Peace Corps are writing a book . . . and most of them suck. But you know what? When the Ken Burns of the next generation comes along, and there is no longer a thing called the Peace Corps, it won’t matter that they suck.” Self-publishing provides — and will continue to provide — an unprecedented record of human history and experience. I am happy to see Bob so articulately cover this topic, as well as give several other strong arguments for why academic libraries should acquire self-published materials.

Several authors deal with the topic of Amazon from the author perspective, but Bob Nardini and Eleanor Cook point out the real challenges Amazon poses to the institution of the library as the world moves more indie. Nardini, after giving a landscape of library vendor options, correctly points out that Amazon (not any library vendor) is the database of record for self-published and indie books, because authors think about Amazon first and libraries later.

When I worked at Amazon integrating BookSurge, I once was asked to write a report on the potential for Amazon to get into the library business “properly” (i.e., MARC records, shelf-ready books, etc.). After writing the report (which did not take a position on whether it was a good or bad idea, just delivered facts), we met with a smart vice president to review the plan. He sat at his desk, read about two paragraphs, and then put the document down. He looked at us and said, “Do you realize we are probably the largest seller of books to libraries in the United States, and we have no one in the building thinking about libraries?” The meeting ended about two minutes later, and it never came up again.

He was right. Amazon, by simply making things easy to order and then delivering them faster and cheaper than other library vendors, had leapfrogged companies serving libraries for decades without even trying. Visit the receiving area of a library sometime and look at the logos on the boxes if you doubt this.

There is a lesson in this that libraries should take to heart. Cook points out in her piece that “avid readers of indie books often completely bypass the library for discovery since these books are often readily available free or at a nominal price.”

At the risk of seeming histrionic, in many regards, the library’s ability to survive as an institution depends on it being an effective and valuable part of this indie ecosystem. Amazon’s attitude is that the “institution” of the library (as it is currently set up and managed) actually gets in the way of executing on the vision of a library. If every book, movie, and song is available in a simultaneous use model via Kindle Owners’ Lending Library for a nominal price, who needs libraries?

As offensive as this may seem, there is no article that will be written, conference presentation delivered, or moral argument made to change this attitude, because they keep winning. The only answer for ensuring there is a prominent long-term digital role for the library is for libraries to successfully execute against a vision that is bigger, bolder, and more inclusive than Amazon’s. This relies in large part on not remaining insulated and seeing these companies and their impact in the real world as competitive for the time and attention of their patrons.

On the topic of the business of self-publishing and the continuing shift from traditional publishing to indie, there are many great insights provided in this book. I found it incredibly helpful and inspiring that so many stories come from librarians that are also authors talking about their firsthand experiences.

Tom Bruno talks about one of my favorite Kevin Kelly articles that lays out an economic case for an artist being able to be supported by “1,000 True Fans.” The article is a few years old now, but I was so excited when I initially read it that I immediately bought the domain name 1000truefans. com (I have yet to do anything with it). Tom provides an excellent overview of what the direct fan-to-creator relationship means to him (as an author), the emerging services to facilitate new ways of artists being paid, and other insights into the business of being indie.

Elizabeth Nelson gives an honest account of the better business deal offered by self-publishing, but makes clear there is a trade-off for authors themselves taking on the responsibility and work. Not sugarcoating the realities of self-publishing is a great thing, and her piece accomplishes that well. Pushing the perspective of how the ground is moving underneath the traditional publishing industry, Joseph D. Grobelny talks about traditional authors who have begun to self-publish. The article is very insightful in recognizing this trend as a sign of things to come.

A few months ago, we hosted a Creator Day with our partners at the Massachusetts Library System (MLS), and we invited two self-published authors to speak to the librarians directly. We did not realize when we invited them that both were previously traditionally published authors who had opted to go indie on their latest books (one was a best-selling author who had appeared on Oprah, Rachel Maddow, and NPR’s Fresh Air). Both felt like this was the direction the industry was going and had embraced this path. The librarians in attendance were surprised (and happy) to hear that these accomplished authors wanted to work directly with them and understood they could play a vital role in this new way of books reaching readers.

I was happy to see our own SELF-e project mentioned in several of the articles ( SELF-e is a partnership with Library Journal that is about 18 months old. SELF-e is well on the way to solving many of the problems and challenges presented in in this book. Library Journal has now curated thousands of self-published books that we are making available to patrons all over the country. And librarians themselves are starting to jump in the curation process as well. We now are working with several states and numerous leading urban libraries, each with a unique vision of how to apply our technology to solving their own local content access and curation issues.

The article included here from Melissa DeWild and Morgan Jarema at Kent District Library discussing about their curated local collections as part of the Kent Digital Library (KDL) is a great example of leadership in this area. Kent is clearly a library that understands how to leverage their brand and their ability to select books for their own audience. Any library looking to institute a local curation program can take a lesson from what they are doing with KDL.

I am deeply committed to the vision of independent publishing. The first 15 years of this revolution was about getting books into the world. In the past 15 years, millions of books have been self-published, which is a good thing. The next 15 years is about sorting and curating those books (and the books still coming from indie authors moving forward) and getting them in front of new, appreciative audiences.

Libraries are perfectly situated to perform this role by partnering with software companies like BiblioLabs and others. As someone who has dedicated much of my professional life to the fulfillment of the true vision of indie publishing, I feel very fortunate to play a meaningful part in making this happen in the library world. And I feel very fortunate to be able to pen a few thoughts at the start of what I imagine will become a very important book on the road to fulfilling that vision.

Mitchell Davis

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