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The materials selection philosophy called “Give ’em what they want” was first advanced by Baltimore County Public Library in the 1970s and has now been embraced by most public libraries throughout the country. It remains a good approach to collection development. Few public libraries have the budget or space to give priority to books that don’t circulate. When hard decisions have to be made, preference should go to books that are used. In readers’ advisory, this populist mantra helps to guide encounters with inexperienced readers. By all means, introduce genre newbies to Michael Connelly and Janet Evanovich, to M. C. Beaton and Robert B. Parker and P. D. James. These authors move dozens of titles off shelves year after year because they reward readers. But they’re the low hangers of readers’ advisory, and that part of the tree can suffer if overpicked. Try pointing out the untouched fruits dangling higher in the branches.
Switching metaphors, if the only club in your readers’-advisory bag is “Give’em what they want,” you’re going to spend a lot of time in the rough. A larger variety of clubs will help you find the range and get on the green. Experienced readers need less obvious picks, and even neophytes get savvy quickly. If you only spotlight authors who are already illuminated by their prominent placement in bookstores and advertisements, then you endanger ongoing interest in your service. Focusing on high-volume titles can also exacerbate systemic frustrations of always-checked-out books or long hold lists. Check with readers to make sure they have already discovered the Sandfords and Graftons, but be prepared to go deeper.
Our ability to introduce backlist and midlist authors enhances our value to readers. We take them beyond what they can do themselves by reading a best-seller list or eyeballing an author’s acreage on the shelf. Knowing which of the authors with “only” five or six books on the shelf has a special fit for a reader or discerning which choices are most likely to put them in the vanguard of readers looking for a new writer with staying power—these are the skills that make us a special resource.
Our ability to introduce backlist and midlist authors enhances our value to readers.
Midlist and backlist promotion makes us indispensable to authors and publishers (and the wiser ones know it). In an age where readers browse less, buying or placing holds at a distance, the role of librarians and booksellers in breaking out new or underappreciated authors is invaluable. We’re uniquely positioned to help these authors find an audience and thus make enough money to continue to indulge the creative life. It’s satisfying when worthies like Louise Penny, William Kent Krueger, Cara Black, and Donna Leon rise from the midlist to high circulation and readership after reviewers and advisors have helped promote them for years.
It’s equally gratifying to keep quality backlist titles in circulation through RA. Minette Walters’ mysteries are stand-alones, and she has written less in recent years, two strikes against sustained readership, but her strong social-justice story lines and her use of disregarded women as central characters make her easy to promote to certain audiences. Diane Mott Davidson, whose Goldy Bear culinary mysteries once found strong readership, faced waning circulation and weeding in my libraries until we encouraged new cozy readers in her direction. (Refurbished copies also do wonders.)
Midlist authors often have the kind of appeal that doesn’t encourage broad readership but makes them ideal for particular reader groups. Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paboum mysteries (start with The Coroner’s Lunch) are set in exotic Laos, feature a charmingly sarcastic elderly bureaucrat, and include paranormal elements. This might make him a tough sell to the generic mystery fan, but they are three appeal factors that I have used to bring his funny, engaging books to three different kinds of readers.
Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy mysteries are published in paperback with somewhat generic covers. They use Tom Waits lyrics for titles, which is great if you’re a Waits fan but doesn’t help earn other readers. Still, he’s working out of the midlist in my library, thanks to his sympathetic lead detective, his atmospheric 1970s and ’80s Northern Ireland setting, and the wonderful accents of audiobook reader Gerard Doyle, all of which can be used to promote him.
Authors who write stand-alones or do several series can be slow to escape midlist status. The hook that propels many readers forward—the desire to know what happens to a favorite character soon—isn’t there to drive popularity. In my libraries, Tana French, John Hart, and Don Winslow were slow to move well despite consistently excellent books, but now they’ve found their stride. Look for other candidates like them to promote. Duane Swierczynski and Charlie Huston are consistent purveyors of pulpy goodness, but readers still need help to find them. Lou Berney only has three titles in five years, but his most recent, The Long and Faraway Gone, is a mystery classic in the making. S. J. Bolton found a midlist audience with her Lacey Flint series, but recent stand-alones, like Little Black Lies, with its superb Falkland Island setting, and Daisy in Chains, with a triangle of equally suspicious lead characters, make her a must-read author.
I’m out of space before I could get to Timothy Hallinan or Gary Corby or Suzanne Chazin or . . . Well, you get the idea. Keep trolling resources like this Mystery Showcase issue of Booklist to keep your own midlist stocked with deserving authors. It’s a central skill to keep advisory work fresh over a long, rewarding career.
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