Events have long been an important part of what bookstores do. “I won’t go so far as to say that events can make or break a season. But they can certainly give us a growth spurt,” said Margie Scott Tucker, director of marketing and human resources at San Francisco’s Books Inc. With nine bookstores in California and two Compass Books stores at the San Francisco Airport, Books Inc. holds between 1,400 and 1,500 events annually, including story times and school author visits. “Event-featured titles alone were 3% of our business last year,” said Tucker. “But that doesn’t count other sales or backlist. When recapping an event for ourselves, we look at what the featured book did for the day and the total store sales for the time of the event. There is always a bump of some kind, even for the smallest event.”
While events don’t generate that kind of revenue at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, owner Daniel Goldin still holds as many as he can, observing that they “drive traffic for a small store and get your name out.” At 40-year-old Elliott Bay Books, which began holding two or three signings per month in the 1980s and now hosts 500 a year, events coordinator and bookseller Karen Maeda Allman regards events as a way to “keep us in people’s mind as a cool place to visit. Almost every night at 7 p.m. there’s something going on.” Five-year-old Greenlight Bookstore in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, N.Y., also tries to create a sense that something is always happening, either in-store or at one of the venues with which it partners. Events sales can sometimes be counterintuitive: “One evening with a debut author with 50 family and friends can be a bigger sales event than a distinguished literary author late in his or her tour,” said Greenlight co-owner Jessica Stockton Bagnulo.
In addition to growing in popularity, events have evolved over the years. A decade ago, after visiting New York and asking publishers directly whether they wanted to prioritize book sales over attendance at signings, Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., changed its approach and began bundling books with tickets, creating an “admission package” for almost every event. At the time, recalled co-owner Vivian Jennings, other booksellers told her, “You guys are crazy. It will never work.”
On the contrary, Jennings said that her customers understood the economics behind the change. “We told our customers that publishers pay to send us the authors,” she explained. “They’re a business, and we’re a business.” The fact that customers supported Rainy Day’s decision to use bundling also speaks to Jennings’s efforts to make each event “an experience.” Rather than have authors read from their books or give talks, Rainy Day has moved to a conversation format. It has been so successful that for Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices tour, the former first lady and secretary of state stayed onstage an extra half hour. “Bookstores have to be dynamic,” said Jennings.
Boulder Book Store, in Boulder, Colo., tried a different approach to boost sales in spring 2011, becoming one of the first stores to sell voucher-style tickets to attend events. Each $5 ticket gives the ticket holder $5 off any purchase at the store on the day of the event. “While we had a bit of a rocky start with this program, it has since been very successful,” said Stephanie Schindhelm, Boulder’s marketing and promotions manager. The vouchers have more than doubled the portion of attendees at a given event who buy books: from 30%–40% to an average of 80%.
Boulder and other bookstores that use vouchers will hold bundled ticketed events when asked (and they are being asked more and more frequently, many report). But the results for some have been mixed. “We’ve learned that it only works for the right author,” said Schindhelm, who found it difficult to sell bundled tickets for J.R. Moehringer’s novel Sutton. On the other hand, Boulder sold more than 200 copies of Michael Pollan’s Cooked in connection with an event.
Bundling is often used for off-site events. In large cities like San Francisco, holding an event off-site can add $6,000–$10,000 to the cost, after union lighting and sound and front-of-house expenses are added in, according to Books Inc.’s Tucker. At such events, tickets are used to offset the additional costs and pay for books. For publishers, the advantage of bundling is “predictability,” explained Theresa Zoro, senior v-p, director of publicity and communications at Random House Publishing Group, who has asked bookstores to bundle books and tickets at recent events with David Mitchell (The Bone Clocks) and Lena Dunham (Not That Kind of Girl). “To me, it’s more about author care and reader care. The author knows what to expect, and readers know that they’re going to get a seat. When you send an author on tour, you want to connect the author and the reader.”
To complement regular events, Random House has created special events around big-name authors to get buzz going among their fans. This summer, in conjunction with Good Housekeeping, it held its own bundled Girls Night Out with Jodi Picoult in Washington, D.C., in advance of the October publication of her novel Leaving Time. In June, it held an Outlander Fan Retreat in Seattle with Diana Gabaldon, where fans could purchase an early edition of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. In October, it will host a bundled event at Red Door in New York City for Sophie Kinsella’s latest, Shopaholic to the Stars. For Zoro, it’s all part of Random House’s effort to “come up with creative ways to get people to buy books and to read.”
While other publishers do ask booksellers to sell bundled tickets, they are generally not as aggressive as Random House. “Our goal, as always, is to work in collaboration with our booksellers in order to put on the best possible event for the store and our authors,” said Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster. This fall, the number of bundled events that S&S is working on is in the single digits.
Like many booksellers, Boswell’s Goldin will sell bundled tickets if publishers ask. He also holds nonticketed events for which a book purchase is not required. “My attitude, at least for now,” he said, “is that we have this symbiotic relationship with our customers. So I try not to do things where I have an adversarial relationship.” Goldin has found that people will often buy books both to support the event and as souvenirs. Boswell hosted Deborah Harkness when she was touring for The Book of Life, the third book in her All Souls trilogy. At the event, the store sold 30 copies of her first book, A Discovery of Witches. Many buyers already owned it as an e-book but wanted to take home something physical from the event.
Goldin is fortunate to be able to host many events in the store, which seats 300. Elliott Bay, which can host upwards of 250 people upstairs and 190 on the main floor, prefers not to charge for tickets unless an event is off-site. Allman has found that having customers buy books in order to attend events can backfire by discouraging people from attending.
Hooks Book Events in Washington, D.C., is one of several events companies that have sprung up over the past decade. It doesn’t do bundling per se, but requires the government agencies, corporations, and nonprofit associations that it works with to prepurchase nonreturnable books for author events. Cofounded by former Davis-Kidd bookseller Perry Hooks, the company funnels sales through three bookstore partners: Politics & Prose (also in D.C.); Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.; and Parnassus Books in Nashville. One advantage for authors is that sales for Hooks Books events are reported to Nielsen BookScan and the New York Times.