If you’re a romance reader, chances are the first romance you picked up was in a library. It may have been in the children’s section (or Young Adult space if you’re under 30) or in the adult fiction area, but romance novels and libraries have had a great relationship for decades.
According to a recent article by Publishers Weekly, romance publishers heavily encourage this dynamic, knowing that romance readers – hooked by an author or subgenre – tend to be strong purchasers of romance and the best word of mouth proponents. Whether it’s Harlequin or Avon, publishers and editors make a point of being at library conventions (national ones like the American Library Association conference or regional groups), and run sessions touting the upcoming releases in the hope that librarians will push them to their patrons.
On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. How many people are going to go out and buy romance novels if they can get them for free at the library? But publishers know that cultivating readers means cultivating buyers. If you were given a piece of free chocolate, chances are that you would go out any buy more chocolate even if you knew you could occasionally find the exact flavor you wanted for free nearby. You’d eat both the free chocolate and the purchased candy, wouldn’t you? It’s the same with romance books.
How Your Library Buys Romance Novels
But how many people read romance from their public library? A Springfield, Massachusetts librarian, quoted at the beginning of the article, indicated that while romance makes up 35% of her branch’s 5000 item collection, it accounts for 43% of the circulation, a ratio that many librarians would agree with across the country. Dollars spent on romance go farther as well, with romance (which is usually in trade paperback form) costing less than other genres and getting more checkouts before falling apart.
Because libraries adhere to a collection development policy, it’s important to note how they choose books for their romance shelves. Romantic Times, PW (Publishers Weekly), Library Journal and Booklist are all professional journals employed when deciding how the budget will be spent. Most policies clearly state that before a book is purchased it needs to get a certain number of positive reviews in these professional resources, which is librarian speak for CYA (cover your ass). If a patron decides to challenge a book being on the shelf (and the sexual content of many romance novels makes this genre vulnerable to this type of complaint) the library is able to show that experts in that field of literature have listed it as being a well-written book.
Note where they don’t look. When I’m not being Tori MacAllister I work as a librarian in education, a job which requires me to be well-informed, not just from traditional professional sources but also all the great bloggers out there discussing young adult literature and services. Romance publishing is no different and we all have great blogs we follow. But when it comes to protecting a book’s right to be on a public library shelf, those blogs don’t count for diddly when you have a uptight patron. Public librarians probably do what I do, which is to find titles raved about on blogs and then search out the reviews from professional sources which allow them to adhere to the policy and put it on the shelf. It’s a pain in the butt (and take a look at PW sometime – there are very few romance reviews in there) but librarians will do anything to get a good book in the hands of someone who is going to read and enjoy it.
Erotic Romance vs. Erotica: Don’t Worry, You’ll Find Both at Your Library
Another theme that came through when reading this article was not just how many great public librarians are out there fulfilling patron needs but how so many of those librarians, like most romance readers, have an interesting idea of what “erotica” means. Prompted by the popularity of books like Fifty Shades of Grey, librarians across the country touted the popularity of erotica when the article author asked them about the circulation of more explicit romances like this one.
Yet I was startled to see authors like Nalini Singh (known for her paranormal romances like the Psy-Changeling series as well as her amazing Guild Hunter books), Lori Foster, and Jaci Burton (author of the Play by Play series) compared to Fifty Shades. Singh and Foster write what I would consider traditional romances with simply a high level of sensuality – what would usually be termed “scorcher” by most reviewing sources – but this doesn’t make them erotica writers by a long shot. Burton does write erotic romance, with more explicit language, longer sex scenes, and occasionally showing characters engaging in sexual behavior like anal sex or BDSM behavior, all of which would fall into more of an erotica category.
In actuality, because Fifty Shades contains a relationship between two people which results in a committed relationship and HEA (happily ever after) it actually falls under the category of erotic romance rather than erotica, which is better defined as a story chronicling an individual’s sexual journey and may or may not result in a committed relationship at the turn of the final page. It seems that librarians and maybe even publishers are still struggling with this terminology as romances get spicier and what was seen as being previously aberrant behavior is more mainstreamed in literature.
It was fascinating to see the prevalence of ereaders a key medium for libraries delivering erotic romance to readers. With the advent of the database Overdrive providing libraries with an effortless way of supplying time stamped ebooks to patrons (use your library card to download books to your device and watch them expire on their due date), people who would have donned big sunglasses before checking out a spicy paperback will cheerfully download one erotic book after another from the privacy of their home. Ellora’s Cave, one of the premier publishers of erotica (and Romantica, which is what they call their erotic romance line), offers many of its titles through Overdrive and they like that partnership. A representative of their company clearly states in the article that many libraries, particularly those in the South, were hesitant to carry paper versions of the books knowing that some patrons would have objections. Since no one sees the racy ebooks unless they are specifically searching for them, Overdrive is the perfect way to provide the books people want to read with none of the controversy.
Keep in mind if you are an enthusastic romance reader that almost all librarians will attempt to fulfill reader requests, so cultivating a relationship with your local library and letting them know of the authors and series you enjoy will make it far more likely to see those items on your shelves. Ask at the desk who is in charge of purchasing decisions and mention (after looking in the catalog, please!) the books you like that the library doesn’t have, dropping the idea that you have lots of friends who also use the library and would love the chance to check out the books you’re mentioning. Libraries often receive funding using metrics like how many library cards are issued and how many circulating items go through that branch, so your interest and that of others equal more dollars that go to that institution.
Consider donating your read romance novels (in good condition) to the library, knowing that if they don’t put them on the shelf, they’ll probably sell them, using the proceeds to buy more books (print and electronic) for you. Talk to the library about any advocacy you can do (going to a town meeting when they discuss appropriations for municipal institutions, writing a state representative, etc.) or let them know that you have an ereader and are looking for databases like Overdrive.
Every romance reader should cultivate a relationship with their library, not only because its an important local institutions but because they are literally growing more romance readers. That newbie reader might be checking out a YA romance or downloading a book to their iPhone, but they are standing in the place you were years ago – embarking on a relationship with romance that is just the beginning.