Over the past five years, a handful of booksellers have begun transforming the traditional bookstore model by creating hybrid businesses without storefronts that are focused solely on events. Some book the events and handle sales for the authors' titles; others just order and sell the books.
Sharon Preiss is typical of this new breed of events-driven bookseller. After running Barbara's Bestsellers at New York's La Guardia Airport for four and a half years, she now brings the bookstore to customers and sells only at offsite events through her startup venture, Mobile Libris (www.mobilelibris.com). She carries no inventory other than what's needed for each event and provides her bookselling services to venues gratis.
"We don't charge anything, and we don't generally say 'no,' " explained Preiss, who covers her costs by selling at the full suggested retail price. Preiss believes her early success can be explained by a couple of things: "Because rent is so high in New York, bookstores can't afford to take chances working offsite. Two, bookstores don't usually have that much staff." Preiss might have added that few bookstores employ such persuasive salespeople. Last summer she convinced the New York Times to let Mobile Libris report to the bestsellers list by arguing that mobile bookstores are the wave of the future.
Preiss keeps costs down by using suitcases and luggage carts to get the books to events. Although booksellers who work for Preiss can take taxis, she rarely reimburses them. Recently, Mobile Libris has begun training high school interns to handle sales at less profitable venues. Still, Preiss has earned enough to open a small office in midtown Manhattan and to hire 10 part-time booksellers to help her set up mini-bookstores for three to six events a day.
Mobile Libris has helped a wide variety of venues that hold author series, like KGB Bar, sell books. "Authors loved to read at KGB," said Suzanne Dottino, literary creator of the Sunday night fiction series at the New York bar. "But publicists didn't like to book them because we weren't selling books. Preiss came in with a little wheelie and said, 'Can I try it?' " Dottino is not the only event planner who has found it easier to have a single company handle book sales so she can concentrate on the literary end. Other Mobile Libris regulars include the New School Writing Program and the Brooklyn Public Library. After about 18 months in business, Preiss is already considering franchising the Mobile Libris concept.
Former Joseph-Beth and Lenox Hill Bookstore bookseller Levi McConnell also has his own bookselling business in New York, Levi McConnell Multimedia (www.levimedia.com). "I always tell people I'm the most independent bookseller in the world. I'm only one person," said McConnell, who reports sales to the New York Times through an arrangement with another bookstore. McConnell sells books at private parties and for meetings of organizations like the Council of Foreign Relations. Sometimes, he says, things can get a bit hot, like the time a caterer started a kitchen fire at one book event. Typically he sells between $90,000 and $100,000 worth of books a year at retail and gets many of his referrals through publicists.
After handling corporate sales for University Bookstore in Seattle, Kim Ricketts started her own author-based series inside corporations in Seattle and San Francisco, Kim Ricketts Book Events (www.kimricketts.com). "I knew there were readers out there who didn't work their schedule around the box," said Ricketts, who has close to 25 corporate clients, including Microsoft and Starbucks.
By bringing books to where the customers are, she finds that she can raise the average sale at an author event from 10% of the audience to 50% to 80%. "It's such a positive thing," said Ricketts, who regards herself as a matchmaker for the author with the corporation. "I get e-mails that say, 'It reminds me that I used to read and I need to bring books back into my life.' " Although she has booked a number of successful events and has a full-time administrative assistant and 12 part-time booksellers in Seattle and three in San Francisco, Ricketts still said her biggest struggle is getting publishers to think outside the bookstore box.