Library Leadership

72. Turning Superfandom into Award-Winning Collection Development with Beth Atwater

Looking to up your collection development game in a way that will have people singing your praises? If so, this conversation with Beth Atwater is for you. She’s the 2020 Recipient of the Allie Beth Martin Award for her depth of knowledge about books and other library materials, as well as the distinguished ability to share that knowledge with others. Beth is a buyer with the Johnson County Library Collection Development Team in Kansas where she has turned superfandom into super collections. 

Full Transcript

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Adriane:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

Looking to up your collection development game in a way that will have people singing your praises? If so, this conversation with Beth Atwater is for you. She’s the 2020 recipient of the Allie Beth Martin Award for her depth of knowledge about books and other library materials, as well as the distinguished ability to share that knowledge with others. Beth is a buyer with the Johnson County Library Collection Development Team in Kansas, where she has turned superfandom into super collections. Enjoy the show!

Beth, welcome to the show!

Beth Atwater:

Thanks for having me.

Adriane:

It’s my pleasure. You recently won that Allie Beth Martin Award. Which is given for demonstrating a range, and depth of knowledge about books and other library materials, as well as the distinguished ability to share that knowledge. Congratulations!

Beth Atwater:

Thank you. 

Adriane:

As we start, can you tell us about this award and why it’s important for librarians? 01:42  

Beth Atwater:

Well, don’t get me wrong. Grad school was wonderful. But, most of what I’ve learned about librarianship came from co-workers who took the time to share what they know. The fact is that the Allie Beth Martin Award recognizes people who pay that knowledge forward and helps emphasize the need for peer education in our industry, in general. I was really excited to see an award specifically for working with other librarians in collection development. Because, collection development is one of those areas where that’s especially true. 

Publishing is constantly changing, as we all know. Technology has changed not only the way we consume media, but the laws surrounding ownership of that media. So, working together to understand those changes and its influence is really crucial to library survival at this point. And the fact that we have an award for folks who pay it forward, and push to do that is really something that I was excited to see happen. And, I was especially excited to receive it.

Adriane:

What an honor to be nominated. I know you were nominated for this award.

Beth Atwater:

Yeah, you can’t win anything you’re not nominated for. And the fact that someone thought enough, actually my supervisor thought enough to nominate me for it was really exciting, and really touching.

Adriane:

Yeah, that is so nice. So, you’re the fiction and DVD buyer with Johnson County Library Collection Development Team and you’ve said the best part of the job is getting to be a professional fangirl. [laughter] I love that. So how does this kind of experience translate into excellence in serving your community? And, give any advice to others who want to have this similar experience. 02:51 

Beth Atwater:

Sure, for me, being a fangirl means being excited about product, so right? I’m a fangirl of books and stories in general. I’m always going to the theater or wanting to go see a movie. Not just live theatre and movies, but also wanting to read books, listen to books, it’s kind of what I live and breathe. It’s my lifeblood. And that includes products that I don’t personally read or watch when I talk about fangirling. 

I go to a horror film festival every year here in Kansas City that’s called Panic Fest. Horror film is not my first preferred genre of film. But, I like to be excited by other fans and how excited they are. So, when we talk about fangirls, or fanboys being thrilled by other fans, that really reads pretty well into being excited about what patrons are excited about. Superfans, really, are kind of a barometer for how casual users are going to be looking at material in six months to a year.

So as far as advice goes, I just would continue to say that fans carry a lot more weight than critics, especially with patrons, and especially with publishers. Because fans buy things, and that drives publishing of the same type of things – moving forward.

So, fans are a cross section of your patrons. And, I would advise people to spend as much time as they can in fan communities. If you only had access to digital fan communities, then be there. If you have access to physical fan communities, you should be there.

So for me, long before I ever worked in libraries, I was going to film festivals, and trying to make sure I was at reader conventions. Things like…one of my first film festivals was actually the Sundance Festival in Park City. I went on vacation with friends there. So, things like that really keep you in touch with what other people are excited about, and what people are excited about are the same things that people want to check out.

Adriane:

Very nice. How did I miss you at Sundance here in my own town, that’s wonderful. And I like what you say about being outside your comfort, too, right? If you’re not into horror how do you get that unless you have those resources, that’s amazing.

Beth Atwater:

Exactly. I always say I learn more standing in line with fanboys at Comic-Con than I do from any workshop.

Adriane:

That’s a great resource. So, you’ve always loved reading, and you’ve spent your professional life tracking the best new books, and movie releases to make sure patrons have access to the finest collections available. What resources do you use to stay informed, in addition to lines and chats with people in those lines waiting for great events? 05:09 

Beth Atwater:

As far as print goes, I’ve always been a subscriber to Entertainment Weekly. Which I know isn’t technically weekly any longer, it now has twenty-two issues a year. But it’s designed for mainstream audiences, and not necessarily for professionals. I think that’s really important to see what your patrons are seeing, and not just what your peers are seeing. Of course, you’re talking to your peers everyday.

I also pay a lot of attention – as much attention to ads in magazines as I do to reviews. Because if publishers are paying money on ads, they’re probably spending money to get their books in front of your patrons and your customers.

Online, I look at Goodreads, Letterboxd, and IMDb. I also follow…and whenever I can I attend national conventions. Not just things like Book Lovers Convention, or Dragon Con, but also things like Bouchercon, or the True/False Film Festival. I watch documentaries now. But, I wasn’t always a documentary watcher. TrueFalse is actually a documentary film festival that’s in Columbia, Missouri, which is where my college was for undergrad, so it’s close enough for me to drive to. Luckily, I still live within a few hours of that.

Social media groups are really important. There are a lot of social media book clubs that you can follow. So for me on Facebook, I follow a group called Black Girls Read, Too. They read a wide genre of things, and it’s just people talking about the books they love.

I also follow writers associations like the Romance Writers Association, or the Horror Writers Association. They are more than happy to have people who join its membership, or even just follow them online on social media. You get a lot of titles that way, and see a lot of up and coming indie people.

You could say I’m a joiner, [laughter] because I have a tendency to join websites and follow authors – just so I can see what they’re excited about, even if they’re not people I regularly read, or genres that I regularly read.

Adriane:

That sounds great. And I know you’re very responsive. You buy books for patrons when they’re requested, as many librarians do. But, I know you’re very dedicated to that. I’m just wondering how we can best follow patrons’ interests to decide what to buy right in our own area?  07:09  

Beth Atwater:

Right. For me, I try to just harp on the fact that really, we need to be where they are. So, part of responding to patron requests, and buying whenever you can, really revolves around talking to people, and just seeing how excited they are about that one particular item. 

I know that sounds vague, but realistically when I look at someone’s patron request for…let’s say a patron request comes in for one specific title. I’ll go back and look at that author’s backlog, and see if there’s other things in the author’s backlog that are available through our vendors that we don’t already have. Or, go through and see if something that someone has requested has done well. If we bought previous books by that author, and see if there are similar authors that that author recommends. So, realistically I think it really has more to do with listening to what people are excited about, and less to do with looking at what’s been well reviewed or critically acclaimed.

Adriane:

The critics have one viewpoint. And the people we have coming in our buildings, looking at our websites, accessing our resources online, those are the folks we’re buying for, right? We’re not buying for the critics, necessarily. 08:19 

Beth Atwater:

Right, absolutely – don’t get me wrong. There are things that I’ve bought for the library’s collection that I personally didn’t care for. And, there are things that I’ve gone out and bought a copy of for my personal collection because I was excited about it. But, it didn’t strike me as something that the community would be excited about. So, I didn’t buy it for the library. It’s hard sometimes to remember that it’s the public library and not the Beth Atwater personal library, because I do get excited about so many things that maybe aren’t mainstream. But, I try my very best to make sure that it’s something that has established demand or proof in demand, either for the author’s brand, or for the title itself.

Adriane:

Not only have you led the way in collection development for your library system, you host a discussion group on this topic for other librarians in your area. Can you tell us about that? What made you decide to do it, and how might we all benefit from something similar? 09:04 

Beth Atwater:

I’m lucky enough to be in a city. I’m in the Kansas City area that has five multi-branch library systems all in our same metro. Over my lifetime I’ve actually worked at three of them, so… [laughter] kind of keeping with that same philosophy of communicating with each other as much as possible, especially because they often share the same patrons. 

I try to stay in touch with the other fiction collectors. What started as a monthly breakfast where we would all get together and have a roundtable open discussion about what was going on at our branches, what was going on with our selection process, people we were excited about, or conventions, or websites we had been excited about in the past month or so, turned in 2020, Thanks 2020, [laughter] into a kind of a digital happy hour. We get together for a couple of hours, and just talk digitally with other folks who are doing the same job we’re doing.

It’s important for us to talk about these things, and share ideas, because we do have so much overlap in what we do. We really want to stick to the philosophy that libraries who are close to each other aren’t competition, but rather a cooperative.

My tax base doesn’t change because I have patrons who are coming over from across state lines, or from across county lines. One of the things we want to make sure we do is give people an equal quality experience no matter where we are. Getting together and talking about how our process works helps us do that.

Adriane:

That sharing of information is so beneficial. And, who would not love books and breakfast, or books and beers, I mean [laughter] that’s a winner.

Beth Atwater:

Exactly, and I’m really lucky. I don’t even really have to lead this so much. It’s just a roundtable discussion. All I do is set up the appointment. Everybody is really eager to share, and willing to cooperate with each other. I’m really lucky to have that here in our community.

Adriane:

Anything else you’d like to share? 10:55 

Beth Atwater:

Actually, yes. I’ve been on a personal mission to inform indie authors about how the publisher to library pipeline works. One of the most disappointing things, for me, is when I have patrons who are excited about a book, and I can’t get it from a library vendor. Of course not getting it from a library vendor increases the price, because I’m getting it direct-to-consumer from some place that sells directly to consumers. That means the cost per circulation goes way up, because I didn’t get my discount, and I didn’t get it processed. 

Part of what I’ve done over the last several years is talk to writers groups. In fact, I’m talking to the Los Angeles branch of the Romance Writers Association group this weekend about how libraries buy books – because so many indie authors don’t know that they need to be available through a library vendor. That helps them also get into bookstores, which in turn helps them get more exposure, and helps us be able to get their books through our vendors as well.

I would encourage folks not only to talk to the end user, like we do with patrons. But also, to talk to the original production, which in some cases includes independently published authors. Because so many of these indie authors, without a marketing team, they still have a following – sometimes a huge following, sometimes thousands of people are excited about their book. But the only place that they’re making that book available is digitally, and direct-to-consumer, and that’s such a let-down for patrons. I heard once at a convention, a patron say to me that they stopped going to the library because we don’t carry their kind of books, and it absolutely breaks my heart to hear that sort of thing. So, I want to make sure that we are making those books that are from indie authors available for us to purchase as well, so we never have to hear that again.

Adriane:

It takes a little extra work, but it’s very well worth it. 

Beth Atwater:

Absolutely worth it. And I don’t want to lose customers to, you know, Kindle Unlimited, or BookBub. Those are great programs, but I don’t want to be in a position where folks feel like we never carry what they want, and they have to go to someplace where they’re paying extra for a paid library experience that isn’t part of what their community and tax dollars have already paid for.

Adriane:

Do you have a favorite management or leadership book, and why? 12:57 

Beth Atwater:

I do. It’s technically not really a leadership book so much as a book about communication. It’s The Platinum Rule by Tony Alessandra, and Michael J. O’Connor. lt is actually more of a business book than traditional leadership, but it revolves around communication style. It recommends ways to talk to people the way they want to be talked to, in terms of communication rather than the way you like to be talked to. 

I’m fairly direct. I talk, probably, a little faster than I should. And, I tend to not give extra information unless I’m asked for it. So, it was really hard for me to learn that my communication style, which I thought was, you know, which I thought was really being polite and not using up a lot of folks time, was actually coming off as too direct and maybe a little too…I don’t want to say uninformative, but yeah, maybe I wasn’t giving enough information for folks who were used to getting more information about individual process.

So, it really helps me with better communication skills and it’s something that I consistently use, all the time. 

Adriane:

And probably not only with colleagues, but also patrons, maybe even in the readers’ advisory process, does it translate over to that? 14:02 

Beth Atwater:

Yeah, it does. Because as someone who is perpetually excited about products [laughter], I tend to gush about things I’m excited about, talk way too fast, go overboard about how exciting this new product is. But, that same enthusiasm can be overwhelming for people for whom that’s not their communication style. So, The Platinum Rule helps me remember to slow down, and talk about titles with the same enthusiasm across the board, not just because it’s my favorite new romance novel. I still have to talk about westerns with the same enthusiasm. That’s something that I think is useful, and not just my career in readers’ advisory, or my career in collection development. But it could be a really great leadership tool as well.

Adriane:

Beth, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 14:50 

Beth Atwater:

I think we all communicate that internally from librarian to librarian. But, I think it’s important that we communicate that to folks who are out there as patrons, and even those folks who are out there not using us, but knowing that we are available.

There are very few places that don’t expect an immediate exchange of goods for services. I’m so proud that libraries continue to do that. We continue to provide goods and services whether you have something to exchange or not.

Adriane:

Definitely. It’s a unique system. It’s a heritage that we have strongly here in the United States that I know we’re all grateful for.

Beth Atwater:

Yeah, absolutely.

Adriane:

Well, Beth – congratulations again, on the Allie Beth Martin Award. And, for all that you’re doing with collection development, and communication in your area, with working with other librarians to make this information broadly accessible, and to inspire all of us to be better collection development people – to be better book recommenders. This has been a wonderful conversation, thank you so much.

Beth Atwater:

Thanks for having me. It’s always good to talk to somebody who is working to make libraries stronger. I appreciate your help in doing that.

Adriane:

Thank you, Beth.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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