At the Tools of Change conference in New York City earlier this month, American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher spoke about an “indie renaissance” marked by strong sales and an increase in membership. Although Teicher attributed part of the strength of the indie channel to booksellers’ willingness to embrace technology, most booksellers acknowledge the role that events continue to play in ringing up sales and bringing in new customers.
At 31-year-old Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, N.C., “events are responsible for at least 25% of sales, but are even more important in terms of improving cash flow on a month-to-month basis,” said manager and co-owner Linda Barrett Knopp. “For our events program we look for authors whom our Asheville community will support, as well as not-so-well-known authors who we know our customers will love. Our primary objective is to be a matchmaker between our customers and our authors,” added Malaprop’s events coordinator Alsace Walentine. Despite the fact that the store doesn’t schedule events in December during the run up to the holidays, she estimated that Malaprop’s averages at least one event a day. Next month the store’s events range from a ticketed reading with Terry Tempest Williams, which includes the cost of a paperback copy of When Women Were Birds, to an authorless event about Europa Editions titles, which is geared to book club leaders.
While a newer store like year-old Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., may not get the same sales bang from its events yet, manager Mary Grey James places a high value on in-store and out-of-store events. “Last year our event sales were approximately 5% of total gross sales. It’s not a big piece of the pie, but it’s essential to grow the business,” she explained. She sees events as building the store’s name and bringing in new customers. Parnassus can accommodate smaller events at the store, with an anticipated audience of up to 100. But it holds readings with authors and illustrators like Barbara Kingsolver, Al Gore, and Mo Willems at larger venues like the public library or high school and college auditoriums. Signed copies are not only popular at the event, but also on the store’s Web site (Parnassusbooks.net). In fact they have proved “substantial enough,” according to James, that Parnassus hired a staffer to handle the sale and shipping of signed copies.
Retired English composition instructor Georgia Court, who founded Bookstore1 in Sarasota, Fla., two years ago, after Sarasota News & Books closed, has had a lot of success with book clubs in addition to events with authors like Jeffrey Toobin and Delia Ephron. “Book clubs create a shared reading experience,” she said. Her “real love” is poetry, and later this spring she is expanding on a previous event where people were asked to read their favorite poem. In May she will hold a weekend-long poetry celebration, PoetryLife, featuring former U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin and award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye.
Cavalier House Books, which John Cavalier cofounded in 2005 to help area schools get books after the closing of Book Warehouse of Baton Rouge, opened a bricks-and-mortar location in Denham Springs, La., four years later. Given its school ties, some of the store’s biggest events are book fairs. “Offsite events—book fairs in particular—have proven to be our best resource for finding new customers and driving traffic to our store,” said Cavalier. “Book Fairs are a lot of hard work, but with every fair we have a captive audience with which to introduce ourselves. Everything we put out at the fair is branded with our store logo and Web site. Every time we do an offsite event we notice an influx of customers. It works wonders because we take our store to them and then they come back with us.”
Of course, new technology comes into play in building an audience for events and sometimes for the events themselves, like author appearances via Skype. In addition to listing events on their Web sites, most stores send e-mail blasts and rely on postings on Facebook and Twitter to spread the word. At Parnassus, social media is so important that the store has a two-person events team responsible for updating the Web site, Twitter, and Facebook. Malaprop’s also relies on a group of booksellers to tweet and for daily posts to Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest. In fact, Knopp attributed some of Malaprop’s events bookings to social media. “A number of our larger events,” she noted, “grew out of a relationship with the author via social media. Most authors are very active on social media and their fans connect with us through Twitter and Facebook.”
As for the future, even though the format of events might change, don’t look for them to go away anytime soon. As Knopp pointed out, “Where there’s a book, there’s a will and a way we can be a part of it.”