School book fairs are an essential source of revenue for independent bookstores, distributors, and large publishers alike. They are also one of the most significantly impacted areas of book sales in a world being reshaped by the new coronavirus. With near-total nationwide school closures, the fallout has been abrupt and has also led to creative workarounds as companies re-envision what a book fair can be.
For Scholastic, which runs the nation’s largest book fair program, virtual book fairs have replaced in-person ones. Within weeks of the coronavirus shuttering schools, the publisher has translated the entire workflow of running a book fair onto a new digital platform, which offers a quick setup that includes digital flyers for educators and PTOs to share the fair, and a way for students’ extended families to participate.
The site allows for organizers to create book lists and earn rewards for their schools, just as they had in person. “It’s been challenging for all, but we keep learning from the experience and are proud of the ways we’re able to still support our customers, even in unprecedented times,” v-p for corporate communications Anne Sparkman said.
For the period from March through May, Scholastic was slated to run an average of 2,500 to 3,333 school book fairs per week. While Scholastic declined to provide comprehensive numbers, in the last week in March, as the company was rolling out the new virtual fairs, 1,200 schools signed on, a decrease of 52–64% when compared with average weekly in-school book fairs.
When schools closed on March 16 in Santa Clara County, Calif., San Jose-based Hicklebee’s Children’s Books lost 75% of its expected book fair sales through May 1. Offsite sales manager Suzi Hough said the loss was “devastating,” but the store quickly turned to online book fairs as an alternate option.
“The schools have been very receptive,” Hough said. “They want to get good books in the hands of their students just as much as we do.”
Hicklebee’s maintains a book fair warehouse that is allowed to continue operating during the coronavirus outbreak. From that location, a list of books available in the warehouse is curated and distributed through a dedicated website. The store has also added a functionality to allow customers to add other titles that are listed on Hicklebee’s general website to their book fair orders.
“We always took special orders at our book fairs, so our customers know that they can go off list if there’s a book they want,” Hough said.
Follett School Solutions launched Follett Book eFairs in January as either a companion option for schools running in-school fairs for K–8 students, or for schools which lacked support to staff an in-person fair. “We recognized there was a great need in the marketplace for online fairs, including as an incentive to support reading at home,” executive v-p Britten Follett said. “That, of course, takes on a whole new meaning three months later.”
Even with its online program planned prior to the outbreak, the company has had to grapple with an 85% dropoff in scheduled book fairs. “Now as it appears most schools will remain closed for these next couple of months, we anticipate those that did postpone will cancel their fairs until the next school year,” Follett said. For the schools that are doing online book fairs, Follett is adapting as unique challenges arise. For instance, publisher terms require Follett to deliver to schools, which are currently closed. According to Follett, the company is working with publishers to alter those policies.
While many things are new in managing virtual fairs, Follett said one essential aspect is as true online as it is in-person. “Any fair—whether physical or online—requires an active chairperson to promote the fair to parents and students,” she said. “It’s important that anyone who chooses to run an eFair has a way to communicate and promote the eFair through digital channels like email, text messages, social media, and learning management systems.”
Relationships with parents and educators are turning out to be the difference for independent bookstores looking to continue running book fairs during the school closures. At the Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, N.C., children’s department manager Angie Tally reached out to her school partners to see if they planned to continue running fairs despite school closures, and they did. She also heard from other schools with whom she works on author programming about planning fairs.
The store will do a fair every other week, using the off weeks to restock. While others are going for all-digital options, Tally and her co-workers are leaning toward something less automated and more personal, involving photos of stacks of books for readers. The decision is motivated in part because of a desire to connect with readers in authentic ways, and in part because the employee in charge of the store’s online orders has already been overwhelmed by the volume of general orders coming in from customers in recent weeks.
Tally said the outpouring of support comes from years of building relationships in the community. The result is a rare situation among those running school book fairs. “It is possible that this year,” she said, “we’ll be doing twice as many book fairs.”