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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

The Digital Catalog: Good, Bad, or Other?

In a file drawer to the left of my desk I keep assorted papers, documents, archaic newspaper articles, assorted limbs, etc. etc.  And at the front, handy and accessible and always easiest to grab, is my collection of catalogs of the upcoming season.  As each publisher prints out and sends off the roster of their offerings, I am able to use my little collection to compare and contrast.  At a glance you can see which publishers can afford (or care) to do glossy full-color bits of gorgeousness, while others go strictly black and white all the way.  You also get a sense of the pecking order.  The best beloveds earning two page spreads, or their jackets front and center on the catalog’s cover.

As a Materials Specialist these catalogs are remarkably handy.  Their uses, infinite.  For example, just the other day I was asked to write a piece for an online site on behalf of the library recommending historical children’s books with a focus that can be used to pair with Black History Month.  More to the point, they wanted 2012 titles.  Now obviously I hadn’t read the books in question, but there’s something to be said for rewarding publishers for including diversity on their lists.  So it was that I scanned the lot of them, pulling the titles that would fit the bill (We March by Shane Evans, When Grandmama Sings by Margaree King Mitchell, etc.).  All told the process took me less than twenty minutes.

I also use the catalogs to check and make sure I haven’t forgotten to order something in a given month.  Or if I want to recommend that one of my co-workers highlight or purchase something, I can just hand them the catalog.

So what are we to make of the current trend to turn such useful bits of paper into a thing of the past?  Publishers of all stripes are now switching from paper catalogs to those of the electronic variety.  So it is that you’ll find big guys like Scholastic and little fellas like Chronicle all preparing to go all ones and zeroes on us by the coming fall.  The reason is undoubtedly price related.  Full-color glossy gorgeousness ain’t cheap, no matter what your size might be.  Why spend money on something you can offer for free (and to a much wider audience) online?

I will be watching this change with some interest.  If the catalog switchover does affect sales, I doubt anyone will have the ability to tell.  For folks like myself, I prefer catalogs in print form for much the same reason I prefer galleys that way.  They may take up space but to be able to hand something to someone else physically means a lot when you’re trying to promote a product.  If I can hand someone a catalog with a highlighted page, that’s going to stand out in their mind far longer than if I email them some easy-to-delete suggestions.  But maybe I’m in the minority on this one.  I’d be interested to hear how other librarians across the country use these catalogs.

Perhaps the time for a switch is long overdue?

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I’m not a librarian but as a reviewer can I just say I loathe the digital catalogs? I completely understand why the switch is happening but the digital catalogs are so hard to page through – edelweiss is AWFUL and you often have to click on the covers to even get to the copy which means I have to either look at everything even remotely interesting or skip over those that are not obviously appealing (talk about judging a book by its cover!). I don’t mind the pdfs so much because at least I can scroll and read the catalog copy as I go but still, I long for when I had the tear sheets for every title I requested easily available. I still maintain a database of requests so I can stay on top of my planned columns but often I forget what certain titles were about and I can’t just pull my folder and check – now I have to look them up again.

    It’s just all annoying and a lot of this may just be me and my own visual-learning needs and I realize that but still….I long for print catalogs!!!

  2. Just like my newspapers, I like my catalogs in print. I like to feel the paper. I scan every page. Like Colleen, I used to rip out the pages of the books that interested me. That said, there’s only so much my pea brain can process and my pea brain and my storeroom tended to get clogged with TMI. Couple that with the duplicate, triplicate and sometime quadruplicate copies that I receive, the tree killing began to bother me.

    Do I glance through the online catalogs as much as the print? Nope, but I think it’s the way to go more for the environmental reasons than for the financial health of the publisher, though if the cost savings were somehow passed on to the consumers…


  3. I prefer in print – why not go to cheaper paper or black and white? I usually take my stacks of catalogs to meet with the librarian in the next town over and we plan our order lists together. Am I going to have to squish my laptop on the tiny tables in our favorite restaurant? Argh!

  4. I’m not a librarian either, but I found it interesting when my book came out in Macmillan’s 2012 catalog that my friend (who happens to be an editor) noticed my two-page spread was on the recto/verso, “instead of making readers turn the page,” which she said marked it as an important book in the sales/marketing team’s eyes. I laughed, because it’s only available as a .pdf, and the whole document scrolls vertically!

  5. Print is the way to go. Digital’s great if you know what you’re looking for, but it’s terrible for browsing.

  6. I prefer digital catalogs. However, I don’t directly order from the publishers, so I understand that those that do may definitely have a different perspective. I have limited storage and patience for a large pile of catalogs.

    Edelweiss can definitely be improved. It really depends on the catalog. One publisher’s catalog (and its many imprints) frustrates me quite a bit. The PDFs are usually the more enjoyable to manage.

  7. Forgot to add-it’s also easier to update/correct a catalog in digital form.

  8. I very rarely receive catalogs in print, so that doesn’t really bother me, but I really dislike the move away from PDF catalogs to thinks like Edelweiss or the monsterously difficult to use Simon and Schuster set up.

    I get that bookstores can order directly from Edelweiss, but it’s so hard for me to figure out which titles are new versus reprints and for what age group that it’s difficult. The publishers that still have PDF catalogs on their website get listed on mine much more quickly.

  9. Hate digital catalogs. When publishers/salespeople call me with their web site, know what? I’m only pretending to write it down to get them off the phone. A paper catalog is more portable, easier to navigate, easy to mark up for my clerk to make order cards. I understand the saving-a-tree concept, but I think they need to a) check their mailing list for duplicates, and then b)offer people the option.

    One other thought – if you send me your catalog, it is there, a physical presence, on my desk, reminding me to look at it. Your web site? Out of sight, out of mind.

  10. I prefer the print catalogs because I look through them and figure out if I forgot to order something and can tear out pages to order.

  11. As an illustrator, I prefer the paper catalog, because there was always the possibility that your artwork could end up on the cover. I know, there is a cover for the digital catalog too. But you can’t put that on your “I did this cover” shelf.

  12. As a librarian, I much prefer print catalogs to digital. I read plenty of book review blogs and enjoy the digital format of that content; its hard enough keeping up with 2 or 3 review journals– imagine getting a thick print file of blog posts mailed to you monthly (or even weekly at the right time of the year!)

    Publisher and vendor catalogs in print are much easier for me to scroll through, scanning the blubs for things that interest me. Sometimes I only have 15 or 20 minutes to spend with the catalog, and its very easy to mark or fold or dog ear (the horror, I know!) so I know just where to pick up when I start over. I like to use a circle, question mark, x system when looking through catalogs for things I know we’ll buy, things that might be reprints or I want to check our coverage before adding another item, or things I know won’t find a big readership. I know the digital catalogs have ways for adding notes and things, but the ones I have used so far were too clunky for my taste and weren’t as helpful as I had hoped.

  13. As a librarian I find the digital catalogs problematic–when we pass the paper catalogues around among all the librarians we can see what is being ordered in other areas, and hash out what should go where. Can’t do that with digital, or if you can, I’ll be blessed if I know how. And if I did know how it would be time-consuming and annoying.

  14. I prefer the paper catalogs, but by what degree I prefer them depends on the offering of the online version. If it’s online, I just want to scroll through a PDF – not click through to see copy of specific titles. Very often I find the publishers’ websites to be far less useful than one would expect, and I worry that the catalog itself is going to disappear into site updates.

  15. As a librarian turned bookseller, I resisted the switch to digital catalogs. But Edelweiss handles the catalogs for many publishers and they are pretty well done. My colleagues and I can leave notes for each other with comments, recommended order numbers, etc. We can also place keywords in a certain box and filter the entire Edelweiss catalog for those keywords (such as newsletter, holiday title), which is awfully handy. They really listen to the user and implement many changes we suggest.

    Rereading that, I realize I sound like a shill, but I’m honestly very pleased with the way this electronic catalog has been developed and meets our needs.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I’m interested in how booksellers use catalogs versus how librarians use them. It’s good to get a different perspective on all this.

  16. I find this interesting because as a book blogger, I’m just not a fan of print catalogs. I never know what to do with them afterward when the books are out. I have some I got at BEA 2010 and they’re just taking up space. But I can see where it might be frustrating for booksellers/librarians where you have multiple people working on ordering books. They should keep both options open, and have a better system for it all (just like they need a new system for sending out advance review copies too).

  17. Hopelibros says:

    As a school librarian, my preference is definitely print catalogs. I solicit lots of input from staff, students, and parents. Print is much easier and more enjoyable to use with everyone. We recycle them for classroom use, too.

  18. I’m a public librarian and I honestly don’t think we get many catalogs (maybe we’ve taken ourselves off a lot of lists? It’s been this way since I started 3 years ago). I do my ordering based on reviews – I read through print journals and create a list on BWI’s website of what I might want to order. But if were to use catalogs to order, I’d want print for the ease of marking up and passing around. I do get a (very short) catalog from Listening Library which I love for choosing my standing order audiobooks – it makes seeing the new things so easy, especially since I order months before publication and don’t have reviews to go on.

  19. I don’t get a great deal of catalogs, but those I do, I pour over in detail. I always cross-reference with review sites and publications, so my catalogs are usually covered in notes as well. I’ve used some digital catalogs in the past, and while they have their advantages (always full color, etc), it’s not the same thing as having something tangible to flip through.