The long-awaited prequel to the Hunger Game series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, will hit bookstores next Tuesday, May 19, with an initial print run of 2.5 million copies. But readers across the country will not be able to go inside those stores to celebrate the release.
We spoke with three indie bookstores that are forging ahead in the face of the new coronavirus restrictions, offering promotions and events in the hope of bringing entertainment and excitement to customers during a challenging time.
“It eases the fear people are feeling. We need the positive,” said Angie Kelsey, manager at The Book Seller in Grass Valley, Calif.
For earlier book launches in the Hunger Games series, Kelsey opened the store at 6 a.m. so school-age readers could pick up their books before starting their day. “Hunger Games always comes out on a school day,” she said, “so I have a treat, like donuts and whatever swag Scholastic sends me, for them. I tell each kid don’t get caught reading in class. It’s good corruption.”
This year, Kelsey had planned to do a large pre-release party in the store, with a Capitol theme based on the books. The event was going to include a costume contest, a modified archery contest done as a beanbag toss, and a “know your district” wheel spin. The store’s seven employees had planned to dress as characters from the books. But all of that changed as the coronavirus led to stay-at-home orders in California.
“I’m really kind of bummed, but you never know what is going to happen, and you have to adjust,” Kelsey said. She decided to keep the costume contest and a 10% discount on pre-orders. The only difference is that the costume contest went online. Kelsey filmed a video of herself in front of the bookstore dressed as Caesar Flickerman, who hosts the games in the books.
Customers who dress up and send a photo to her can win a handmade crown and a copy of Tim Palen’s Photographs from the Hunger Games. The small store is anticipating high sales volume for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, with a 49-copy order arriving shortly and 15 copies pre-sold. Kelsey said she intends to sell every copy. “I feel passionately enough about this book, so once I have this in hand and I’ve read it I’m going to be pushing it on everybody.”
At Changing Hands Bookstores in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., children’s book buyer Brandi Stewart shifted her plans from doing an in-store event to sending a care package to readers. Stewart was still in the early stages of thinking through a store event when the coronavirus hit, leading to the closure of the stores to in-person browsing. But as a fan of the books, Stewart said she was not ready to just give up on doing something to celebrate.
“I went to the marketing team and I said, ‘I think people are going to want this. It’s going to be exciting and I’d like to do something,’” Stewart said. Scholastic is giving free tribute patches to bookstores for customers, and that generated an idea that became a full Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes package.
The promotion is part of a larger care package program created by the store for customers to turn to during holidays and major events during the shutdown. Each bundle includes a copy of the book, the patch, a package of instant snow, a survival tool with a knife and ruler in it, and a temporary tattoo of the book cover provided by Scholastic. “We thought it would be a great way for people to get a book and some fun things to help out during quarantine,” Stewart said.
With a higher price point for the new book, which retails for $27.99 because of its 600-page length, Stewart said she hopes the $35 package will turn their book order into a small event in and of itself, and encourage people to purchase a copy. The store has ordered 100 copies of the book from Scholastic and Stewart has been sending out bookmarks to customers and reminding them that the book is coming out, if they call the store looking for similar titles. “I can’t handsell but I can phone sell,” she said. “If they mentioned anything, I would mention, ‘Hey, did you hear that there’s a new Hunger Games coming out?’ ”
Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif. is partnering with a local performing arts center to bring readers together for a trivia night on release day. “We were going to have a huge event in the store and we had all these activities planned, and then poof, it went away,” schools outreach coordinator Kathy Ritchie said. When Ritchie and her colleagues saw that West Creative Performing Arts was doing Harry Potter trivia, they leapt at the chance to do something for Hunger Games.
Customers who purchase a copy of the book through the bookstore’s website get to create a team for trivia that includes family or people farther away. Each team will receive an exclusive link to the event and be able to participate via Zoom.
Doing an online event has its challenges and its upsides, Ritchie said. With school schedules altered, the store was more easily able to consider doing the event on a Tuesday without fear of keeping kids up late. “We really debated that, but there really is no school night anymore, so we can do whatever we want,” she said.
The downside has been continued competition for online sales. With Amazon offering a steep discount on the book and with no opportunity to reach in-store customers, the bookstore halved its order from 200 copies to 100.
Scholastic is supporting indies in other ways. On Friday, May 15, the publisher is sending a virtual party kit called “Countdown to Ballad” to booksellers, librarians, and readers, with Zoom Ballad logos that trivia participants at Bookshop Santa Cruz’s event will be able to use. “We are working hard to support the heroic booksellers who are working day and night to safely serve their communities by taking pre-orders and shipping books directly to their customers, as well as the booksellers who may be unable to do so immediately at launch,” Scholastic Trade president Ellie Berger said.
While hers is not an in-store event, Ritchie is confident that readers will flock to the online trivia contest knowing that their purchase is going to support a cultural arts center and the bookstore. “People can’t imagine Santa Cruz without the bookshop,” she said.