A Super Interview

I’m off on vacation to visit the family. But before I go, I thought I’d give you guys a good, substantial post. Earlier this year, for my article for the RWR, I interviewed Wendy Crutcher, fiction buyer for Orange County Public Library, otherwise known as Super Librarian around bloglandia.

If you ever wanted to know what a fiction buyer does and/or how books get into libraries, well, here’s everything you ever wanted to know. 🙂 So herewith, Super Librarian!

(Round of applause)

I think being the fiction buyer/selector for a library system sounds like an awesome job. Can you tell me how you got promoted/transferred/recruited to this position?

It’s not as hard as you’d think. All it took for me was having my Master’s degree in Library Science, some past job experience and a passion for adult fiction. One of the benefits of working for a system as large as Orange County Public is that there is a lot of opportunity to transfer. I started out in the organization as a branch manager for one of our libraries in Garden Grove. When a position opened up in the collection development department, thanks to a series of retirements, I got an interview and eventually got the job.

The trick is pouncing on the opportunity. As many librarians will tell you, awesome jobs such as this one do not come along every day. You usually have to wait for someone to retire or die. I can attest to that, as I’ve pretty much decided the only way I’m leaving is on a stretcher.

How many titles do you typically recommend/purchase in a given year?

On average I purchase anywhere from 40-60 titles per week. Obviously, with a system as large as ours, I’m purchasing multiple copies of those 40-60 titles.

What is a fiction buyer’s typical day like?

It varies depending on the day of the week, with Monday usually being the busiest. Every day starts out with e-mail. A lot of e-mail. Then I’ll look at my budget, and figure out how much money I can spend that week. I field questions from our branches on a regular basis regarding weeding, upcoming titles, titles their library patrons are asking for etc. I read journals, select titles to purchase, and follow up with our support staff regarding data entry on the order. I also field patron requests, am on several committees, and handle special projects.

Do you deal with library reps from big publishers? Do you read Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and other trade publications? What about book review sections of major newspapers? What about genre review publications such as Locus or Romantic Times? Do you give any weight to online reviews at reputable and highly trafficked sites?

I have some contact with big publishers, but not as much as I’d like. Publishers are much more focused on the retail market, and in some cases, I think libraries tend to fall through the cracks. That said, the library reps I have dealt with have always been extremely helpful, and attending conferences like RWA means my business card gets into the hands of editors who have been fantastic about passing my information along to their employers.

I read a lot of trade publications, the big four being Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus and Booklist. Since I also order some non-fiction, there are a handful of subject specialty journals I look at. Other sources include The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, and popular magazines that feature book reviews like Entertainment Weekly, People and Oprah magazine.

I don’t use the genre review publications all that much, but have found things like Romantic Times extremely helpful when it comes to finding information on reprints.

As far as online sources, I’ll admit I don’t look at their reviews all that often, but I do monitor “buzz.” If a book or author is generating a lot of discussion, I take notice and often times add them to our collection. Some examples from recent memory are J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series and Anna Campbell’s debut novel, Claiming The Courtesan.

Do you get sent advanced reading copies? Do you actually have time to read any at work, or is that time entirely taken up with dealing with stuff?

Being such a large library system, we do receive advanced copies either from Baker & Taylor or direct from the publisher. The only ones I read are the ones that actively interest me, but I always peruse the pile to see what jumps out. That said, the only reading I really do at work in on my lunch break! I also take special note if a publisher includes any kind of special packaging or add-ons with the ARC because that tells me there are some PR dollars behind the book/author.

Please tell me a little more about your decision making process. How do you arrive at a list of books for the library? Is it done on a continual basis or do you come up with a major list per a set length of time? Do you try to order books as they come out or will you sometimes go, hey, I totally overlooked that one when it was released but boy it’s so good I’m gonna get it for the library now?

Since I order every week, I’m gathering titles on a continual basis. In a perfect world I like to order titles about 1-2 months in advance, because, as we all know, publication dates aren’t always firm. That said, I’m not perfect, and have been known to overlook a title. Since I don’t have a crystal ball in my office, this is where patron requests come in extremely handy. Also, I monitor books/authors that are making the media rounds. A book might get dreadful reviews, but if the author was on the Today Show that has a tendency to trump what Publisher’s Weekly said about it!

Do you have a staff under you or do you work alone? Does your boss give additional input into your list? Is your recommendation final or is there a review/approval process? Do you ever have to fight to acquire a title?

I mostly work alone, but my department does have a support staff that takes care of data entry, searching journals (to weed out titles we’ve already ordered), and scaring up information on titles that our patrons’ requested. My boss occasionally gives me input, but generally speaking she lets me do my thing and doesn’t look over my shoulder too much. My recommendation is essentially final, but problems can arise after the fact. Maybe the book has pull-outs or pop-ups that the reviews didn’t mention. In which case, nice for personal use but really impractical for library lending! Also, while I’ve never had to fight to acquire a title, we have been known to field some complaints about titles we house in our libraries. There is a review process for this, and management takes the lead. Given our service population size, and number of libraries, we actually field very few complaints, and most of them tend to be about children’s or young adult material more so than adult.

Given that it is impossible for anyone to read all the new books that are published every year, how do you decide which books that you don’t read personally to purchase for your libraries? Is it based on popularity, reviews, patron requests, publisher push, interesting subject/summary, or criteria that I haven’t thought of yet?

The vast majority of what I buy is decided on the basis of reviews, but the other factors you mention also come into play.

Do you have a list of authors whose works you purchase automatically? Is it because they are popular or you love them or both?

Pretty much all the big name, best selling authors get purchased automatically regardless of reviews. Putnam could decide to publish Nora Roberts’ grocery list, it could get horrible reviews across the board, but I’m still going to buy it for our libraries. When it’s a big name, people still want to read it regardless of bad word of mouth.

Do you have a different standard/process for acquiring debut authors?
Do you have a different standard/process for local authors?
Do you have a different standard/process for small presses?

No, but I would like to offer some tips for small press folks. Libraries do buy small press titles, but it’s extremely helpful to us, and will help you in the long run, if you provide as much information as possible. Author, title, ISBN, price, and publication date. Has the title been reviewed anywhere? Not just the big trade journals, but maybe ForeWord magazine (which specializes in reviewing small press titles) or a local newspaper? If so, it’s nice to have copies of these, or at the very least a blurb. Also, how can I purchase the title? Is it available through Baker & Taylor, Ingram, Brodart, Amazon etc.? The more you tell me, the more likely I am to buy the book.

Do you pay attention to such advertising publications as Romance Writers of America’s Romance$ells? How much attention do you give them—i.e., read with interest or riffle through them once when they come in and recycle them? If you set them aside without reading them, what is your reason?

When I do receive material like this, I always look through it. A huge chunk of my job is staying on top of what’s in the works, and this type of material is helpful on that front. I can’t guarantee that I’ll buy your book just because you put it in something like Romance$ells, but it does succeed in putting your name in front of my face.

Do you receive author-generated publicity items? Do you pay attention to them?

Some, but not a lot. I give them moderate attention, but like advertising publications, just receiving one won’t guarantee that I’ll buy your book. My suggestion to authors is to highlight the fact that you’re a “local” author when sending this material to libraries in your immediate vicinity. Library patrons love to read local authors, and if you highlight that fact to a library in a nearby city, you’ll get some extra mileage.

Once you do decide to acquire a title, how do you decide how many copies to purchase for your system? If you have 10 branches and only 5 copies of a title, how do you decide which branches will house the copies—or is this a decision for other librarians?

Let me preface my comments by saying that there is never enough money. If I had my way, I’d purchase every romance published every month and there would be copies galore! Unfortunately, that’s not a possibility, so sometimes I have to settle for purchasing fewer copies than I would like. Since we are a county-wide system, I try to spread these out. I don’t want all of our copies to only be in one small portion of the county.

As for how I decide how many copies to buy? It’s not an exact science. Sometimes it is plain guess work, and I guess wrong. I do constantly monitor our holds lists though, and regularly purchase additional copies for titles that are proving to be popular among our patrons.

Do you have fiction authors that you love that you do not acquire in your official capacity for some reason? How much of this job is personal taste and how much is taking the general tastes of the public into consideration, i.e., is it a regular part of your job to acquire books that you’d rather eat worms than read?

The minute my job becomes about personal taste is the day I hope I get fired. It’s not about what I think people should read. It’s about providing people with what they would like to read. There’s a bestselling author that I purchase numerous copies of every time she has a new book out, and I swear a little piece of me dies inside every time I have to. But you know what? It’s not about me. I may think she’s a horrible writer, but a lot of people love her books, and who am I to argue? Likewise, there are authors I enjoy that other people just don’t get. You learn to take it all with a pretty heavy grain of salt after a while.

Does your budget contain a pre-determined breakdown by genre, as in this much percentage for romance, this much for literary fiction, this much for mystery, etc.? If it does, how was it determined? Does it change from year to year? Is it a reflection of what gets the greatest circulation?

If the budget does not contain a pre-determined breakdown, is it entirely at your discretion?

Our budget does not contain a pre-determined breakdown by genre. We do break down the budget by “type” (fiction, non-fiction, children’s etc.) and then we break it down according to library size and circulation. For example, I have a bigger budget for our large libraries that are open seven days a week than I do for the small libraries that might only be a couple thousand square feet and open five days a week.

It’s all up to my discretion. A big factor is circulation numbers. I have one branch where I can buy any mystery, regardless of sub genre, and I know it will circulate like gang busters. Likewise, I have libraries where science fiction is hugely popular and others where it collects dust. This is where I rely heavily on feedback from our branch staff. My focus is the system-wide collection, and theirs is the collection at their individual branch.

The trick is to make sure everybody has a little bit of everything. You strive for a well-rounded collection. That’s harder than it sounds when you are overseeing the adult fiction needs for 33 libraries. That said, one of the benefits to being a patron of a system this large is that just because the local library you use regularly might not have it, doesn’t mean we don’t have it somewhere else. We have a team of delivery drivers that go out five days a week, delivering requested materials all over the county.

I imagine a buyer at a bookstore would closely watch the sales number to see how her picks are performing? What is the feedback process for a library book buyer/selector? How do you know that your choices are being embraced/deserted by your patrons? Do you look at the circulation history for a title to see how well it did? Is such aggregated data even available?

Computers have made this aspect of my job a lot easier! I regularly look at circulation numbers to monitor how titles/authors are doing. One of the great things about a library system this size is usually the audience is out there somewhere, you just have to find it! Maybe vampire romance is dead weight at one location, but people are begging for it at another. Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason. Again, I rely heavily on the staff we have on the “front lines” to provide feedback on what people are asking for, what they’re checking out, holes in their collection etc.

Have you ever made a purchase that later had your boss/patrons come to you and inquire what the heck you were thinking? Were any of those romances?

I have a fantastic boss who has yet to second guess me. Sometimes there is no telling what title will spark a complaint, and you can’t really do this job if you’re second guessing yourself all the time. That goes for branch staff as well. I’ve had numerous librarians tell me “such and such” doesn’t circulate at their location, and when I check the numbers down the road I discover it did very, very well for them. Again, there’s no crystal ball and it’s hard to predict. However, if something like this does comes up, my boss always asks me what my criteria was for selecting the “offending” title, and management handles the rest. Thankfully, there have been no major scuffles regarding romance titles on my watch so far.

And a pair of follow-up questions

1)At Austin Public Library, mysteries are the most popular books–as a group–with the patrons, followed by romances. How about your your system?

This is a hard question for me to answer, because with 33 libraries what’s “popular” can vary from branch to branch. That being said, what you think would be popular is. Anything Oprah is reading. Anything on the bestseller lists. If we’re talking raw circulation numbers, mysteries would probably win out. Romance is starting to pick up some steam, thanks to the better budgets we’ve had the last couple of years. Money was very tight for several years, and our romance collection really suffered. I’m still trying to fill out the collection with what I consider core authors and titles. As this has happened, I have notice that circulation is picking up. Also, our romance reading patrons aren’t shy about requesting titles and this has certainly benefited our collection immensely.

I will also add that while I keep hearing and reading that paranormal romance has hit it’s “peak” it is still insanely popular at several of our locations, with readers being very loyal to series.

2)Can you tell me when did the Orange County system begin to catalogue its romances?

We started cataloging them in early 2003, roughly a year before I hired on. Thank goodness, or else I would have made myself a total pest about getting it done! Not cataloging paperbacks is easily one of my biggest pet peeves. How do we expect library patrons to find anything if we don’t catalog it?

(Round of thundering applause)

Thank you so much, Super Librarian!