I was talking to someone last weekend about Pagan topics, and money’s tight for her (like it is for a lot of people), so we got to talking a bit about the usefulness of the library.
Which leads me to wanting to talk about some tips for getting books inexpensively in general.
Let’s start with the most obvious – libraries exist to share materials so we don’t all have to buy our own. This is a win for basically everyone involved. (Even for authors. If their work is popular, the library will probably buy more copies. A copy in the library means many more people may explore their work, and eventually start buying it.)
There are some complexities, though.
1) Library purchasing practices
Libraries do buy books on a huge range of topics (unless they’re a specialised library). However, many libraries rely on a fairly limited set of sources to figure out what they’re going to buy. Large library systems may have a structure to how items are selected (some libraries routinely order a certain number of copies of books in particular categories, like award winners or new books by a list of much-loved authors.) In many cases, libraries look at a number of review publications (designed for librarians) and make selections from that.
That is a great start, but there are a lot of limitations to it. One big one (for Pagans and other people with esoteric interests – and I’m using that word both in the magical and occult sense, and in the sense of ‘interests that are uncommon and not widely shared’) is that those review publications don’t include a wide range of books in the relevant field.
In a previous library job we got Booklist, one of the major publications for library reviews, and there’d be a handful of books a year on explicitly Pagan, magical, or divinatory topics that got reviewed. There’d be other relevant titles (myths, herbs, history, and so on.) There’s only so much room in the publication, after all. Mostly those would be books from mainstream publishing houses that publish an occasional Pagan title, and a select few from the bigger metaphysical and magical publishers like Llewellyn or Weiser.
2) Publishing methods
Libraries buy most of their books from traditional publishers. While there’s been a big rise in the number of self-published books (and I’m gearing up to do some of that!) it’s been a big challenge for libraries. That’s because the quality is so incredibly varied, and because people doing independent publishing methods often aren’t aware of what information libraries used to make their decisions, or what they need to consider adding.
(Take a look at the copyright page of a traditionally published book, and you’ll see a lot of information that looks a bit incomprehensible, but has cataloging information for libraries. When a book doesn’t have that, someone has to create it for the library to use, and that takes staff time and therefore money. When the publisher provides it, the library still has to do some steps, but most of the time-consuming part is already done, and they just have to make the changes for their particular standards.)
It’s also just plain hard for libraries to find out about small press or indie published books. It can take really significant time to search sites, figure out what formats are available, and so on. (And quality for format of printed books can also be poor, and not hold up to circulation.)
Because of this, many libraries have limited selections of indie books. Sometimes their collection development policy will be available online and explain how they handle this (for example, they may collect books from local authors, or set in or about the local area, but not others.)
3) Library networks and interlibrary loan
Getting books via the library network is often what happens with esoteric books (more specialised topics, in less active demand). You may need to plan ahead a bit, but if some library in the system has it, you can get it fairly quickly, check it out as many times as your library lets you renew it, and enjoy!
4) Requesting books
One great way to get books into public libraries is to see if the library has an option for requesting titles. You enter the information about the book (title, author, publisher) and usually there’s a way to comment on why you think it’s of interest. There’s usually a box where you can sign up to be the first person to check it out if the library buys the title.
Libraries review these requests, and if there’s money in the budget and the book seems like a good fit for the collection, they may well buy it. Picking books that have really solid reviews will help a lot.
A word about libraries and privacy
Privacy when using the library is a key part of library ethics, and librarians and library staff shouldn’t be sharing what you’ve checked out unless required to by law (which in many libraries involves a subpoena). Many libraries actually delete loan records once the item is returned specifically so they can’t be forced to share that information.
That said, if you use a local library where the staff know you, they can’t erase the part of their brain that’s about you checking out books on a particular topic. Library ethics says they shouldn’t talk about it, but sometimes people do gossip. If you have concerns about privacy, consider getting your esoteric topic books at a different library, or even a different library network.
If you’re trying to save money, used books are a great way to go. Amazon has extensive listings for used books, and ABE Books is now a subsidiary company of Amazon, but has independent listings. There are other used book seller online tools.
In general, for online sellers, look for ones who have a good rating (I look for 95% or better satisfaction), and whose shipping prices are reasonable. (A lot of places price the book very cheaply, but make it up in shipping charges. If the book is cheap enough, that’s not a big deal, but it can make it harder to make comparisons.)
Another option is to find a used bookstore – if you find a store that has the kinds of books you’re generally interested in, the owner or staff may be willing to keep a wish list for you, or to help you search for particular titles.
Some Pagan, esoteric, or metaphysical stores have used book sections, or Pagan community groups may have periodic book sales or other chances to swap materials.
If you get to know people in the community, you may also hear about chances to pick up books inexpensively – sometimes if people are moving, or their focus has shifted, they’ll be glad to part with books to someone who will appreciate them.
You can also occasionally find great things at library book sales. (Often these books are donations, not books from the library collection that have been withdrawn.)
If you can read ebooks, they can sometimes be very affordable options. I subscribe to a couple of announcement lists for ebooks on sale, and have a running list of titles that I’m interested in.
This is harder to do specifically with esoteric books (though if you have favourite authors, it can be worth getting on their newsletter or email announcement list) but for history, cookbooks, and some types of wellness or lifestyle books, it can be a great way to pick up books you’re interested in at a steep discount.
(It can also be hard on your bank account, so be cautious here!)
What not to do
If money’s tight, it can be easy to be tempted by pirated copies – PDFs of books that sometimes get circulated in various ways. There’s a couple of reasons not to do this.
First, it can destroy the market for an author’s future work getting published. (Which, if you like their work, is something you probably care about.) It can also damage the ability of publishers to put out new works. (Especially smaller publishers – and basically, every esoteric or magical book publisher is a small publisher, just for different definitions of small.)
Publishers rely on data about what’s selling (and how) to make decisions not just about an author’s books, but about other books on similar topics or similar approaches.
Second, it can open your computer up to viruses, malware, and other bad things. Not worth it!
And finally but most importantly, it’s just wrong. Authors work hard on their books. They may choose to share some material for free, but that choice needs to be up to them. They can benefit from library sales or giveaways, or other ways of sharing books that put them out in the world cheaply, without the utterly destructive effects of pirated books.
For the same reasons, don’t take copies from libraries and not bring them back. Libraries have limited resources, and in many cases, they can’t afford to replace copies that go missing (or not quickly). Bring your books back. If you’ve honestly lost a copy and can’t find it, talk to the library staff: they can suggest the best options.