Children’s Institute 9 participants were treated on Wednesday morning to a lively discussion by authors Tami Charles, Jason Reynolds, Tiffany D. Jackson, and Hanif Abdurraqib about books, music, and activism, followed by a presentation on industry trends by Kristen McLean, NPD Group executive director of business development, and a reading by Kate DiCamillo from her latest middle grade novel. By afternoon, though, booksellers were focusing on the nuts and bolts of bookselling and exchanging their knowledge with one another.

Booksellers had a choice between four roundtables on Wednesday afternoon: non-traditional bookstores; learning tools for academic achievement; measuring virtual events’ return on investment; and optimizing sales with gift bundles, boxes, and sidelines.

The roundtable on optimizing sales with gift bundles, boxes, and sidelines proved to be most appealing, pulling in at one point 145 participants. Several booksellers noted during the session that customer demand for curated gift bundles and boxes surged during the pandemic, and remains a popular amenity.

While they differed on what kinds of authors and books to feature in gift bundles or boxes, there was a consensus among booksellers that it was best to exercise creativity in adding appropriate sidelines to the packages.

Jennifer Richter of Inkwood Books in Haddonfield, N.J., suggested that bookstores do what Inkwood does to support other indie retailers: it partners with local businesses to offer small sidelines in gift boxes or bundles, like chocolates. Another bookseller suggested even more ambitious partnerships, like bundling cookbooks with farm shares. Jenny Cohen of Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, Ore., recalled the author of a cookbook selecting local ingredients and a locally made hand towel to accompany her cookbook.

Several booksellers asked about return policies on gift boxes or bundles, prompting others to offer tips to minimize returns. “We ask for a few books they love and a mood they want for their reading and choose for them, so it’s a complete surprise,” Emily Tanner of Greedy Reads in Baltimore, Md., said, while Melissa Taylor of E. Shaver, Bookseller in Savannah, Ga., reported that the store asks the customer for the link to the recipient’s Goodreads account “to make sure we don’t duplicate something they have already read or own.”

During the virtual events roundtable, which drew about 70 people, moderators Cathy Berner, events coordinator at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, and Spencer Ruchti, author events manager at Third Place Books in Seattle, emphasized that while the returns on investment are not always as tangible with virtual author events as they are for in-person events, with reportedly an average of a 10% sell-through rate with non-ticketed virtual events, having them is well worth booksellers’ time and resources.

“What is the purpose of a virtual event? Is it sales? Is it to provide content to our customer base whether they are in Houston or around the world?” Berner asked. “Or is it to provide a service to an author or a publisher? That’s what we look at, and because everything is virtual now, that’s really changed our definition of what’s worth it.”

Ruchti pointed out, “The beauty of virtual events is that they have low overhead. There might be things that require a lot of work by one or two coordinators, but it’s nice to be able to pursue whatever author you want. They don’t have to travel, publishers don’t have to pay for hotel rooms. Getting people to attend those events and buy books – that’s another issue. Being able to establish a cool, robust event series with authors you want is easier than ever.”

Ruchti added that Third Place Books measures the success of events by such barometers as “if you can walk away with a solid conversation between two authors that you love,” noting that virtual event sales are difficult to track because it’s hard to tell if people are buying a book simply because it’s frontlist or due to a virtual event. “I pay less attention to sales and more attention to being able to get this recording of this conversation up on our YouTube channel and share it with the world,” he said.

Candice Huber of Tubby & Coo’s in New Orleans reported that virtual events can grow a store’s customer base, noting that attendees may order the book during an virtual event, “but then keep on ordering because their experience is good with us. Once they order from us for an event, we get them in the system and they get our newsletters.”

But, Berner informed the other booksellers, “the number one way to get people to buy the book [during virtual events] is for the author to issue a call to action.” Ruchti added that he is “”blunt” while preparing authors for virtual events, informing them that he wants them to make the ask to viewers to purchase the book from Third Place. It’s especially effective to remind authors to do this, said Christine Bellow of Loyalty Bookstores in the Washington, D.C. metro area, when it’s “a celebrity author whose fan base might not think to support indie bookstores.” Ruth Weiner, a publicist at Seven Stories Press. added that publishers should also be mindful of telling their authors to issue a call to action during virtual events.

An in-depth report on all of the roundtables that PW attended during Children’s Institute 9 will be published next week in PW’s Children’s Bookshelf.