A Chicago antiquarian bookstore specializing in scholarly history books about President Lincoln, U.S. presidents, and the Civil War is successfully using the Web to enhance in-store author events. In the process, the store is selling a minimum of 50 hardcover books at each event to readers all over the world.
About 10–16 times each year for the past six years, the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop has streamed on the Internet in real time its in-store author events, as well as events held off-site at a larger venue, to accommodate big-name authors whose fans can't fit into the store's 3,500-square-foot retail space. People logging onto www.virtualbooksigning.net can watch the live author interview, participate in a q&a with the author via e-mail, order books, and watch as their books are signed by the author in the store. Books are later mailed to the customer with a shipping charge of $8 for the first book and $1 for each additional book.
"We're really using 21st-century technology to send a 19th-century antiquarian bookshop into your home," explains Bjorn Skaptason, Virtual Book Signing producer. Skaptason sees VPS as a content-rich one-hour television show that informs the audience about the latest in American history books.
Typically, about 12–15 customers are in the store during the author events, while an average of 100 people watch online. On May 19, 25 attended an appearance by Adam Goodheart, promoting 1861: The Awakening, while another 55 watched online, resulting in the sale of 90 books. Each Webcast is archived, with an average of 3,500–4,000 people accessing each event within the first month.
"People get an actual signed book," not one signed by an autopen, Daniel Weinberg, the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop's proprietor, notes. The bookstore typically hosts two authors during each hourlong broadcast, which runs over time if needed. Big-name authors usually appear solo. Also, the store does not sell paperbacks or e-books, only hardcover titles. "As long as publishers publish cloth, we can help by getting them into markets they couldn't get into otherwise," Weinberg insists, saying that an average of 70% of online participants buy more than one book at each event. While online customers live all over the country or abroad, a significant percentage live in rural areas lacking bookstores. "Smalltown people are still buying books," Weinberg points out. "Every publisher has made money" on the Webcasts, he adds.
Regina Mahalek, publicity director at the University of North Carolina Press, says that UNC Press has sent nine authors to date to the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop and has seen a demonstrable impact on sales of those titles. "Books we send to Abraham Lincoln Book Shop do particularly well for us," she says. "I've noticed a definite correlation between an author's virtual appearance and real-world sales." For instance, debut author Russell McClintock's Lincoln and the Decision for War, a 2008 release, sold 75 copies at his virtual signing at the store. The press was able to book McClintock on Chicago Public Radio that same week and fielded several media requests for review copies after the event, helping to lead to sales of 6,000 copies for the title. "It's a cost-effective way to promote our Civil War and American history list," Mahalek says. "By sending our authors to Chicago, we're able to get them out to the rest of the world." Skaptason notes that Lincoln and the Decision for War is "a perfect example of how technology helped a book by a low-profile, first-time author get attention."
The program has been so successful, and publishers have become so eager to send authors to the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, that the store is expanding beyond scholarly books published by university presses. The store is starting to schedule events with authors of general trade nonfiction by commercial publishers—popular history, biography, and political memoirs—and want to schedule select novels inspired by historical events, like Stephen King's fictional take on the Kennedy assassination, 11/22/63, due out from Scribner in November.
"We have the ability to handle the number of viewers we would get, should King decide to come here," says Skaptason, who has approached Scribner about the possibility. "And we have put together a system to get those books lovingly packed and shipped to people's houses."