The Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association co-hosted a panel September 8 on a topic very much on industry professionals’ minds: “Virtual Author Events from the Publishers Perspective.” The program, part of the virtual Heartland Fall Forum series, was moderated by GLIBA executive director Larry Law and featured Ronnie Kutys of HarperCollins, Matt Flores from Penguin Random House, and Alex Kelleher-Nagorski, associate director of publicity, Scholastic. Close to 60 booksellers attended, with the discussion ranging from the logistics of hosting virtual events that pull in customers, not just viewers, to co-op opportunities, to security.

While the three publishers' reps agreed that virtual events are effective in drawing large audiences from far beyond the bookstore’s physical location, there are flip sides to virtual events ranging from the need to make each event on an author’s tour unique to delivering a program that keeps viewers engaged. “It is tricky trying to distinguish one virtual event from another.” Kelleher-Nagorski said, while Kutys pointed out that audiences "want a little more than” the traditional format of an author making a short presentation, answering questions, and signing books. Kutys also reminded booksellers of the importance to make clear to viewers “that the book is for sale.”

As for ticketed virtual events versus non-ticketed events, publishers' reps and booksellers agreed that tour stops should be consistent: either all virtual events must be ticketed for a bestselling author or all stops should be non-ticketed for that author. “If it’s a ticketed tour, we want to keep it ticketed throughout,” Flores said, and Kutys added, “It’s unfair to have x number of ticketed events, then follow it up with unticketed events. We want to be as fair as possible.” Flores acknowledged, however, that publishers and booksellers alike must have realistic expectations regarding virtual events, even of big names, saying that “we don’t expect these events to have the same sales as in-person events with the same author.”

Kristen Sandstrom, manager of Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayfield, Wis. pointed out that sales don’t always occur during the virtual event. She said that when the store hosted Peter Geye recently, discussing his novel, Northernmost, there were no sales during the event, but heavy sales before and after. “It’s a bestseller in our store,” she said. In response, Flores urged booksellers to share such information with publishers when reporting sales data afterwards to publicists.

The publishers’ reps and booksellers agreed that swag is a good incentive to spur sales during virtual events. Kutys noted that customers who attended virtual events for the latest book by the husband and wife writing team of Ilona Andrews were sent the link to an exclusive short story by the co-authors. She also noted that some HarperCollins authors have signed tip-ins that are made available exclusively to customers attending virtual events.

Kelleher-Nagorski told booksellers that when booksellers submit bids to publishers for virtual events, they are welcome to suggest appropriate conversation partners – though it does not determine whether or not a request will be granted. “It doesn’t have to be another author,” Kelleher-Nagorski added. Publishers are also considering sending groups of authors on virtual tours, rather than single authors per event, to further build audiences.

Flores noted that virtual events are treated much as in-person events, when decisions are made on where to place the author on a virtual tour. “It’s very similar to in-person events,” he said, in that publishers consider previous experience hosting events, and ask the following questions of the bookseller: “What platform are you using? How are you marketing it? How are you insuring security?”

The Co-op Question

The issue of publisher co-op opportunities was also addressed, with booksellers asking about opportunities to offset the cost of paying for platforms to host events, because, as Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo. pointed out, with viewers coming from outside the store’s customer base, sales do not balance out the expenses incurred by the store in hosting a virtual event. All three publishers' reps explained that co-op opportunities for virtual events are under discussion at their companies, as they realize that virtual events cost more than originally estimated. “We’re open to finding ways to partner with stores to do what works best, to make sure you’re getting as much out of it as we are,” Kelleher-Nagorski said.

If a bookstore doesn’t have the staff or a platform to effectively host a secure virtual event, Kutys said, “We’ll work with you to make sure it’s the most secure event possible, but make sure it’s your event, not a HarperCollins event.” All three panelists agreed that links and any other communications with audiences about a virtual event should come from the store, not from the publisher, to maintain customer privacy and to avoid confusion.

The three panelists stressed the importance of security for authors during virtual events, with Kelleher-Nagorski disclosing that he prefers Crowdcast to Zoom for virtual events, as Crowdcast seems to be more secure. Flores pointed out that using Eventbrite to register audiences also “offers an extra layer of security” for virtual events.

When it comes down to it in this new world of hosting virtual events, the publishers’ reps emphasized that communication between bookseller and publisher is key. “Stay in communication with us and the publicist all the way up to the event,” Flores suggested, with Kelleher-Nasgorski adding that it is essential that the publisher and bookseller are "on the same page," especially in marketing events. Authors are included in marketing strategies, and the three panelists urged booksellers to contact them immediately if an author is not promoting beforehand any store's virtual event on their social media platforms.

Despite technical glitches and all the logistics surrounding virtual events, Kutys concluded that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. “HarperCollins can be more creative in connecting authors with stores that are harder to get to," she said, "Now we can make that happen. Virtual events will always be part of tours from now on.”