Mitchell Davis on Community Engagement from Saying Yes to Self-Pub to Comic Cons

The first SELF-e collection of self-published titles chosen by LJ and hosted by BiblioLab’s BiblioBoard releases this month, in time for the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference. On the occasion, LJ caught up with ­Mitchell Davis, chief business officer of BiblioLabs, to hear how this collaboration originated and where both SELF-e and BiblioBoard are headed.

mitchell davisThe first SELF-e collection of self-published titles chosen by LJ and hosted by BiblioLab’s BiblioBoard releases this month, in time for the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference. On the occasion, LJ caught up with ­Mitchell Davis, chief business officer of BiblioLabs, to hear how this collaboration originated and where both SELF-e and BiblioBoard are headed.

LJ: How did BiblioBoard get started?

MD: We launched BiblioBoard as a historical content consumer business, [but] we didn’t have the money to become a consumer company. So we pivoted and said, this could work in the library world. We launched our library product in 2013. People loved the interface but immediately asked, “Are you going to get content other than this?” So 18 months ago we started licensing traditional ­content.

How did SELF-e enter the mix?

In the last 15 years...millions of books [were] self-published. Librarians know there are good books in there, but they don’t have the bandwidth to sort through [them]. So it seemed like a perfect marriage for LJ to become a readers’ advisory service for self-published books. I think that solves a really huge problem for librarians: it lets them make self-published books available with confidence and without a lot of hassle. It also solves a problem [when] local authors want their book in their local library and libraries have had to turn [them] away. Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) told us they were getting multiple emails a week and would have to say no. SELF-e lets the librarian say yes and engage their writing community more viscerally.

How does it work?

When a library participates in SELF-e, they get a form for authors to submit ebooks. The author makes two elections: that they want LJ to look at the book and that even if it is not selected for SELF-e, they want to make it available in all their state libraries. The state module is free. The books that make the cut are sold in a subscription to libraries. It’s an add-on [to the basic BiblioBoard subscription but] in a lot of cases it is the first thing people do with us.

What trends have you noticed in SELF-e submissions?

The genres tend to track with what have been the most popular ebook genres in general. Most of the submissions we’re getting are from sophisticated ebook authors who have their ear out for any kind of marketing opportunity. They have had their books well edited, their cover well designed. They’ll submit one book from the series but not the last book, hoping they’ll build a readership and send people to buy that book.

How are libraries using SELF-e?

Two betas, LAPL and Cuyahoga [County, OH], are using it as extensions of their writing programs. We’ve helped libraries produce indie author days, but in some cases they do this regularly on their own; SELF-e has become a good part of that. LAPL is approaching SELF-e this way: they are not necessarily looking for the best book. They want to see local histories, things that don’t have national resonance.

We have a new user interface coming out at ALA, and it was built to let librarians do readers’ advisory. [Librarians] should have a presence on the site where they say, “Here are ten items related to this topic.” It is supersimple; they use the platform as a patron would, but if they’re logged in as an admin they can publish [to] the homepage. Patrons can build lists and share them with other users. We don’t have checkouts and wait lists, so it gives content a chance to go viral. As many people in the library community can read it as want to, so that lends itself to being a discovery tool.

What is different about the new interface?

When we launched, I don’t think we perceived that people would consider individual books important; we thought the content would always be nested inside a curated theme. The new release keeps the concept of an anthology, module, and collection so you still have that rich browsing experience, but it gives a library the ability to put a book [or] a movie on the homepage. And we wanted more branding for the library, more ­features.

Are you seeing more adoption of BiblioBoard by traditional publishers?

We are. Any new business that comes into the publishing industry, you get early adopters first. If you start sending those early adopters checks, middle adopters start to say “this is working.” We’ve focused on licensing content to serve underserved audiences. We don’t have Gone Girl—there are systems to handle that. We’ve focused on comics and graphic novels, children’s, foreign-language, business and self-help, and entrepreneurial resources—content we can get that serves a different user than the power reader who goes for best sellers. I think that is a critical part of making digital sustainable in libraries.

How do you convince publishers that the lack of a one-book, one-user model won’t cannibalize their business?

There are a lot of publishers [that] don’t reap the same benefits from the current regime as the Big 5 do. They have much less fear of losing anything because their backlist and their midlist are not generating a lot of income in those one book, one user systems anyway. We say if a book is selling at a steady clip in those systems, then don’t give us that one. When those publishers look at their data, they say, “If these guys can get all my books into that library, it is worth selling in this other model.” We’ve also built in tracking so we can show publishers there aren’t 1,000 people reading your book at the same time.

What is coming next?

We’re working in partnership with comic book publishers to help libraries produce library comic cons. Community engagement is our raison d’être and the real differentiating service we’re providing to libraries. This is an opportunity to connect our content to that engagement. We’ll connect with local comic shops; publishers will provide approved graphics, artists, writers, and schwag.

Soon we’ll be doing projects with some Big 5 publishers to help sell new books while providing big value to patrons. A publisher that has an author with a new book coming out would go back into their list and pick some books that they could give unlimited, multiuser free access to for a set period of time. Libraries would be able to really promote that because they wouldn’t have to worry about them being checked out. What the libraries would agree to is that every time they remind patrons that they can read these books, they also remind them that that author has a new book coming out. It is a place where we begin to see common ground where [libraries and publishers] can help each other.

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