Recently, we have been exploring mass merchandisers and non-traditional accounts in the United States through excerpts of our market guide, Selling to Mass Merchandisers and Non-Traditional Accounts in the United States: A Guide for Canadian Publishers (2018) by expert Michael Johnson. In our final post on this guide, expert author Michael Johnson provides tips on other potential sales channels for Canadian books in the US.
Beyond mass merchandisers, two additional non-traditional bookseller markets in the US are worth considering: 1) various library marketplaces and 2) the K–12 school market.
These markets have significant layers of complexity in everything from what types of books they buy to who they buy them from and how the buying processes work. There isn’t enough space in this report to cover all those aspects in depth; however, a quick overview will provide some understanding of the opportunities available.
The library business—which for the purposes of this report covers university, public, and school libraries—represents nearly $3 billion in total sales (for more information, see https://www.statista.com/statistics/190619/estimated-expenses-of-us-libraries-and- archives-since-2005/ and https://blog.reedsy.com/libraries-self-publishing-authors/).
In the broadest terms, the university library market represents about $1.5 billion in sales, the public library market is slightly above $1 billion, with the school library market making up the balance. These figures cover all library content: book, ebooks, movies, music, databases, and other online content. Each of these three markets has a distinct purpose and type of content on which they focus.
There are over 100,000 public schools in the United States organized into 16,000 school districts. Local control is key to the US public education system, so there is neither a federal nor a statewide process for buying library books. The K–12 library is focused on building early literacy skills, supporting student research for grade-level report writing, and fostering a love of reading. Their main buying categories are books for early readers, non-fiction content on topics that support the school curriculum (mammals, insects, weather, history, US states, etc.), and teen/young adult novels. School libraries typically buy only one copy of each book as all of their resources, including space, are very limited.
Publishers can and regularly do sell direct to these accounts via visits from in-person sales agents, cataloging/emailing, or various school library conferences. However, the lion’s share of sales in this market comes via distribution from Follett School Solutions. Follett has active buying accounts in over 70,000 schools. They also have what amounts to an Amazon-like online ordering tool called “Titlewave,” which is heavily used by its customers.
Several other wholesalers serve the K–12 library market, but their scale is significantly less than Follett’s. The key alternatives to Follett would be Sebco and Mackin, with a series of even smaller firms such as Gumdrop and (previously) Davidson Titles.
The public library market serves primarily as a supplemental book source to leisure readers in their communities and a supplemental reference resource for local schools. Public libraries also provide a non-fiction resource for the public on topics such as local government issues, DIY projects, and job-skills training and placements. There are about 10,000 public library systems in the US, representing 15,000–18,000 total branches. A public library will regularly buy three to five copies of those heavily circulating titles.
Almost like local retail stores, the major challenge that US public libraries face is the need to sustain in-building visits. The lifeblood of most public library funding is some sort of formula around number of patrons served and/or books circulated. For this rea- son, the public library is highly motivated to buy books that will circulate heavily and serve the greatest number of patrons.
Without a doubt, the three strongest areas of circulation in public libraries are mystery, romance, and science fiction. These books often come in sets and series, they drive much word-of-mouth interest in the community, and they are often the focus of reading groups or book discussion groups, which may also take place in the library. All of these characteristics help drive up those circulation and service numbers. In fact, these books are so important that many public libraries will sign-on for an automatic buying program for new titles in a series or from a particularly popular author. Public libraries also buy many biographies as people are often more interested in borrowing this type of book than in owning their own copy.
As with school libraries, publishers can and regularly do sell direct to public library accounts via visits from in-person sales agents, cataloging/emailing, or various public library conferences. However, most public libraries buy the majority of their books from public library wholesalers, the largest two being Baker & Taylor and Ingram. These wholesalers offer ebooks as well via their own platforms. Other ebook providers also service the public library market, the largest being OverDrive, with EBSCO and ProQuest also being significant players. Working with public library ebook wholesalers is an excellent way for smaller/international publishers to build a presence in the US market without long cycle timelines or significant capital outlay.
Both public and school libraries are open to new titles from new authors and new (to them) publishing houses, especially regarding stories for children, books in non- English languages, or stories addressing social justice issues. International publishers are welcome in these markets. In fact, the American Library Association has the Batchelder Award specifically for children’s books originally published outside of the US in a language other than English and then translated into English for sale in the US.
The university library market is as individual and complex as the higher education market itself. Our top-tier research university libraries have mandatory annual amounts they need to spend on new purchases in order to keep up their certifications. Contrast that with our smaller scale universities, often religious, which will not spend as much on books as a large public high school. Of course, there are thousands of institutions between these two extremes.
All told, there are approximately 4,200 colleges and universities in the US. Regardless of size, the focus of the library on campus is to provide material to support the students in their coursework and the professors in their research. Since college disciplines vary from Biomedical Engineering to European History, and Women’s Studies to Mathematics, the collections in these libraries vary as well. On most major US campuses, the larger disciplines will have their own specific libraries.
Universities very rarely buy more than one copy of a particular title unless it is listed as a textbook and then held “on reserve” for student use.
Many publishers sell direct into this market, as the titles are highly specialized. However, there are some wholesalers here as well. The two main firms would be the distribution arms of the University of Chicago Press and GOBI Library Solutions.