Breaking Into Libraries Without Getting Arrested

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Who Need Readers

If you present a library program that attracts an audience, you will help librarians achieve their goals, which are to bring information to the public and new patrons to the library. Let’s be clear about one thing, however. A library program  is not a reading. Unless your name is Amy Tan or John Grisham, no one is going to come to the library and listen to you stand in front of a microphone.

Community members WILL come to hear you talk if you can promise them one of four things:

  • They’ll be entertained.
  • They’ll learn something new and useful.
  • You’ll solve a problem in their lives.
  • They’ll have a chance to get a freebie.

Eddie Price history reenactor

At the 2015 Readers’ Favorites International  Book Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting Eddie Price, author of Widder’s Landing. After writing his historical novel, Eddie decided to develop a program on the historical research behind the book. Dressed as a character from the period, he has found appreciative audiences at libraries, churches, historical societies, and schools. And, he’s selling tons of books!

It might take time to develop a library program, but once you’ve put your show together, you can take it on the road. Ask Eddie! He’s even made it to the Governor’s office!

Eddie Price in Governor's office

What Kind of Library Program Would Work For You?

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, most writers know a good bit about the world. Use your alternate credentials, and bring your expertise to library patrons.

How do you get started with this?

Jump right on the Programming Librarian website and watch the Author! Author video in which two librarians discuss how they schedule author events. Pay attention to the subtext in this video. Librarians don’t want an empty room. They want an event that will be successful for them and for you.

Your best chance for standing in front of an audience is to find a local angle, but if you can’t do that, then have a look at programs libraries are putting on. The key is to develop a presentation that is entertaining, controversial, or (dare I say) edible. I can make a mean cupcake if it means selling books.

When you have a captive audience licking frosting off their fingers, you can talk about your book. And, of course, you will have decided in advance how to handle sales.

Can’t I Just Get a Spot At A Local Author Day?

All too often librarians feel like they’re helping new authors by hosting a “local author” day. The problem is that there are many local authors, and librarians can’t pick favorites. Scattered throughout the library with other indie authors, you’ll be forced into a passive role. You must wait for someone to approach your table, and then you have five seconds to make your pitch.

Forget it! You want to be the featured speaker, the person listed in the “what’s happening around town” section of the local paper. You want to leverage your library program so that you can get acquainted with the arts reporters. And what will your program be about?

Brainstorming Ideas For A Library Program

Before you even think about contacting a librarian, brainstorm program ideas and develop three. To present yourself confidently, you must have pictures, handouts, workshop ideas, fun activities, and PowerPoints (if needed). Stick to one subject and think about the story you want to tell. It may NOT be a subject related to your book. That’s okay.

street in France

My hypothetical program-topics could be “planning your dream trip to a villa in the south of France,” a subject I know a lot about because I go to France all the time. I have fabulous photos and great insights about how to make reservations, but it’s a bit off-topic for any of my books.

Or, it could be a workshop on “writing your life story by decades,” a technique I used when I prepared a booklet for my mother-in-law’s funeral service. I could walk people through putting together a simple, memorial booklet based on the life of a deceased loved one. (This is an example of solving a problem, but is it fun?)

Or, maybe I could talk about  a topic like “How to Survive and Thrive as a Caregiver.” I’m not sure about the “thrive” part, because caregiving is almost always draining, but I have developed some strategies for coping, and I have great handouts on stress relief and on using Smartphone apps to create caregiving circles. (Maybe.)

Drawing on my construction background, I could present a program on “Home Repairs (and Cupcakes) for Recent Widows.” At one time I taught a Handywoman class for a junior college. It was super popular, and widows who’d never hung a picture gained a ton of confidence. Could I do this with just pictures, or would I have to haul around my tools? (Think about the “schlepping” factor.)

I’m on a roll, now. How about “Detective Work In the Archives of Europe, and How You Can Find Genealogy Documents Here At Home.” This might draw history buffs or genealogy hounds, but it would mean I’d have to prepare a PowerPoint or do a live demo. (Doable, but a lot of work.)

Marylee In national archives

Or, maybe I could talk about “The First Picture Ever Painted of California and How I Bought It At Auction.” I’d draw on the research for my current novel, The Vermillion Sea, and talk about my quest to find the true story of a young artist and a lost painting. I have all the facts and some great visuals, but I’ve never shared this information publicly. (It would be fun for me, but would anyone come?)

Easier for me would be a talk about “How to Write A Memoir Without Hurting the People You Love.” I’ve talked about that at writers’ conferences, and the room is always packed. I have handouts, but no visuals. Would pictures improve the presentation? (Note to self. Try to have pictures—or cupcakes.)

Okay, okay, I’ll stop. But you see what I mean. Just brainstorm and see what bubbles up. You’re creative. Let it all hang out.

Find Your Closest Library

When I discovered the The Institute of Museum and Library Services, I was over-the-moon with happiness. I could search for a library by zip code and, then, I could find libraries large and small. Your goal is to find a dozen to two dozen libraries. Start close by. Then, expand to geographical areas where you have friends or relatives willing to put you up on their couches.

What do you do when you’ve zeroed in on some likely candidates? Look on library websites for info about speakers and programs. Ask a librarian which programs have drawn the biggest crowds. Compare the popular topics to your ideas. Is there a match? Then figure out how long you’re going to speak, how you’ll get audience participation, and what kind of audio-visual equipment you’ll need.

You may have better luck getting a “yes” at smaller libraries. On the downside, a small library may not have much programming, so you will have to promote the event.

During your discussions with the library, make sure you provide a pdf of your book so that the librarian can preview it. Provide an order sheet so she can buy a copy, or buy multiple copies. Although you’re not speaking directly about the topic of the book, YOU WILL BE MENTIONING IT, AND YOU WANT TO LET PEOPLE KNOW THEY CAN CHECK IT OUT.

Get Press Coverage for Your Library Program

Now it’s time to let people know you’re going to be presenting. At the very minimum, make sure you get an event listing in your local paper. But don’t stop there!

If you don’t know how to write a press release or get it distributed, go to and type “press release” into the search box. Have someone write your press release. They’ll ask you for info about the program and about you.

You’ll want to cast yourself as an expert, rather than an author. For instance, “Marylee MacDonald, an expert in searching European archives,” or “Marylee MacDonald, an expert in home repair.” (Both of those statements are true.) They’ll also want some pithy quotes.

When you’re pulling some “takeaways” from your talk, make sure you sound FUN! (Would you rather go to a wedding or a funeral?) Remember, you’re competing against movies and television.  “For a fun evening learning how to plan your dream vacation to France…”

What Next?

Once the library has agreed to put you on their schedule, Add the specifics of time and place to your press release. Ask for the library’s press-contact information. Whom do they contact for public service announcements (PSAs) on the radio and television?

If you don’t know how to write a PSA or what they’re for, go here for some great ideas. Follow up with Tweets or phone calls to local reporters.

We’re still not done!  Here are more ideas:

  • Send an announcement to your e-mail list.
  • Make an E-vite for your Facebook friends.
  • Contact your local bookstore. Let them know you’re speaking at the library and that you’ll be doing local publicity. You’d like to direct people to their store.
  • Have a raffle or giveaway to entice people to show up.
  • Ask about book groups and writers’ groups at the library, and connect with their leaders. If the librarian who facilitates the group likes your book, it’s entirely possible they’ll need multiple copies, and that translates into sales.

The Big Day : Are Your Ready?

Pass around a signup form at the event, and make sure you ask for email addresses. This is so that you can notify the winner of your giveaway.

Make free handouts on your program topic. Make sure the handout prominently displays your website. Include quotes from reviews and a picture of the book cover.

Some libraries will let you sell from the back of the room. You’ll definitely need a helper to make change or take credit cards. Have order sheets in case you run out of books. Some libraries have a standing arrangement with a local bookstore. Whatever you do, don’t impose on a librarian.

If the library won’t allow you to sell books, you can direct folks to the library itself. You should have given the library one copy of your book, and because you’re a speaker, the librarian will have an incentive to get the book into circulation. (Librarians sometimes don’t put books in circulation, even if you provide a free copy.) If library patrons ask for your book, that’s great. The library has an incentive to order more copies.

The day after the event write a thank you note. Follow that up with a phone call and ask if the librarian knows other librarians who might be interested in a similar program.

Good luck, and, oh, if you don’t think you’re reader to speak in front of a crowd, how about joining Toastmasters? You’ll have a ready made audience, and with their help, your library program will be polished and ready to present.

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