I don’t suppose the growing popularity of audiobooks is news, although a lot of our attention in libraries right now is on serving the increasing number of patrons seeking not just good reads, but good listens. Lately, I’ve been intrigued by what is going on with audiobooks in relation to self-publishing and how titles that we’d never dream of seeing commercially produced on audio are now on the market, facilitated by open platforms such as the Audiobook Creation Exchange. All the same challenges and perplexities we have with the swelling ranks of self-published books now apply to audio. Readers are both empowered and often confused and overwhelmed by this bibliodiversity, and so the usefulness of curators—in publishing and via imprints and via booksellers and librarians—grows only more poignant. It seems right now as though with one hand we’re tearing down old barriers (between genres, formats, age designations and traditional publishing venues) while with the other we’re creating new ones geared less to the supply side of things than to readers’ need for clarity.
Of course, there is an Amazon/Audible.com aspect to all of this, and libraries watch all of that with almost as much anxiety as publishers. I sure wish I had a crystal ball over how the Amazon situation is going to play out in the midterm, but I have faith that in the long term, with struggle, things will correct, and book creators and consumers will come to workable networks and norms.
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
Working with readers, I am always delighted when truly thrilling narratives find their ways into the mainstream or literary fiction section, because it helps to break down barriers of prepackaged “taste” and enrich readers’ lives. There are still plenty of readers who hesitate to cross out of or into genre fiction, and such titles as Andy Weir’s The Martian or Claire Cameron’s The Bear can serve as gateways for readers moving in either direction. (For this reason, one of my favorite awards to share with readers are YALSA’s Alex Awards, which are books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults. This also means that they tend to appeal to a wide range of adults who may not view more mainstream fiction as “their thing.”) So, even though it gives highbrows something to get even higher brows over, I’d love to see even more excellent plot-driven fiction finding its way into literary dust jackets. It helps promote a richer, more diversified diet for readers.
What topic don’t you ever want to see again?
I can’t and wouldn’t pinpoint any particular topic or genre—it’s all good, honestly—but what tires us all, I guess, is when a given meme (vampires, zombies) reaches such ubiquitous levels that the shelves just start to groan with titles that are manipulative and shoddy attempts to cash in. It is silly to wish this stuff gone—it makes money and is an inevitable feature of any craze. Who knows: It may be a rare delight for retro-pulp fans of the future. So I’m not really against such flood tides, but it certainly does make me grateful for the continued existence of reputable trade review sources, to help sort some wheat from all the chaff and self-promotional puffery.
What is unique about your corner of the industry?
Public libraries are able to provide increasingly rare physical browsing experiences that take readers deep into the backlist and out-of-print titles and authors, which we lean on more heavily in the absence of a readily available supply of current best-sellers. Imagine running a bookstore where you weren’t able to stock any current best-sellers on the floor and were rarely able to stock multiple copies of anything! We are great places to market reprints, sleepers and the midlist authors.
We also enjoy, often deservedly, a reputation of well-meaning neutrality when it comes to book discovery. Good readers’ advisory librarians tend to blow discovery algorithms out of the water, and more and more libraries are offering personalized reading suggestions online, which I think is a great way to market libraries’ expertise. It also demonstrates our value in the book community in ways that don’t detract from—and instead often lead to—book sales.
Anything else you’d like to add?
One of my special joys as a librarian is to turn readers on to lost or neglected authors, and I salivate over imprints that specialize in bringing back older titles. I’m not sure whether it is some archival impulse that beats deep within this popular materials librarian’s heart—the urge to unearth some moldering treasure—or just a pragmatic sense that any title that someone has labored to bring back from obscurity is worth a look. In any case, I know my own reading life and those of many of my patrons are deeply enriched by the availability of quality reprints, and I hope publishers continue to support these efforts to revive excellent past titles and that the critical community pays these works the attention they deserve. I do occasional “reprint roundups” for our local paper, and I seldom feel more useful to readers.
David Wright is a reader services librarian at Seattle Public Library’s landmark Central Branch, where he is delighted to encounter readers from all over his city and all around the world. He teaches readers’ advisory at the University of Washington, reviews books for various media, and is on the steering committee of LibraryReads, the nationwide list of library staff picks.