The cancellation of all but a few of the world’s biggest bookselling and publishing events this year has meant that the slate of regional bookseller conferences that took place this fall were charting largely new territory by going totally virtual. Now, organizers and participants are looking ahead, and while their experiences suggest that in-person gatherings will make a return someday, they will be part of a hybrid model that includes enhanced virtual programming.
Perhaps no other regional conference was more fortunate to have a digital option this fall than the California Independent Booksellers Alliance. Beset by unprecedented fires and seven months of pandemic disruption, the virtual setup allowed booksellers to participate without having to attempt near-impossible travel. “They could drop in as their schedules allowed. Depending on their location, they could participate during working hours. We were able to have authors from Italy, England, and France,” said CALIBA executive director Calvin Crosby.
The result was a conference that Crosby described as “amazing” and with an added benefit of recorded educational content that booksellers can continue to view as-needed. That unexpected outcome is one of many that emerged for regional directors as they experimented with the virtual format. “The recordings posted so far are getting attention,” Crosby said. “The long tail on these seems to show longevity.”
Crosby intends to look at an ongoing hybrid fall show model, mixing in-person and virtual events. The question for many of his colleagues at other regional associations is, how much in-person and how much virtual will strike the right balance?
The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association put substantial effort into offering expanded and creative sessions, including a digital family dinner where booksellers cooked in real-time with a cookbook author. The organization also joined forces with the California and Mountains & Plains organizations to offer a combined Tri-West virtual publisher exhibit hall. All of it, along with expanded publisher rep pick sessions and educational workshops, drew new attendees.
But increased content offerings did not necessarily translate to increased participation. PNBA executive director Brian Juenemann noted that librarian members came in greater numbers and publisher employees attended more sessions than in the past, but overall attendance was down 40% from last year’s in-person show. “This fall’s sample tells us we can’t make a wholesale shift without putting the association in jeopardy,” he said.
Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association agreed on the need for a return to large-scale, in-person gatherings and said she will look to use digital content in other settings during the year. At close to 700, attendance at the virtual Heartland Summer co-sponsored with Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association held steady compared with last year's regular fall conference in Cleveland. Obry said that there were perks to a virtual event, including what she believes is the ease of setting up the event. But in the end, she maintained, “So much of the magic doesn’t come through. The moment when an author puts a signed book in an attendees hands is something we never want to lose.”
Danny Caine, owner The Raven, Lawrence, Kansas agreed, “I would be devastated to lose in-person shows,” he said. At the same time, he added, “I think there’s much to do to improve their accessibility, and hybrid virtual is one possible path.”
New England Independent Booksellers Association executive director Beth Ineson said that the increased participation at NEIBA’s conference highlighted just how important accessibility concerns are for booksellers. “Frontline booksellers who wouldn’t have been able to make the trip to Providence were able to attend multiple sessions on multiple days,” she said. “Folks who own small and micro stores were able to tune in to sessions even as they packed web orders and ran the register.”
Even before the pandemic, Ineson had been exploring ways to use online content to meet the needs of those members. “Being forced to meet online handed me a solution,” she said, noting that while attendance was down 22%, “the diversity of who attended was significantly higher.” Specific events and session also drew notably higher attendance, including the author reception, where participation was up 25% over last year, and the rep picks session, where attendance was up 70%.
Accessibility made all the difference at the combined New Atlantic and Southern Independent booksellers’ New Voices New Rooms conference. Attendance from SIBA members was up 50%-53% according to executive director Linda-Marie Barrett, while attendance from NAIBA members was up 35%. Barrett said members were clear that the virtual format was the deciding factor for them. “I’ve received a lot of emails where they’ve told me that they’ve never been able to come to a show because of financial reasons,” she said.
NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler added that it was important for booksellers to see the expanded programming opportunities afforded by the digital format. With the help of a large staff, there were many points throughout the week-long New Voices New Rooms gathering where four Zoom channels were simultaneously running events for booksellers. Dengler said she observed different booksellers from single-store Zoom accounts taking turns viewing, indicating that attendance was even higher than the 856 who registered.
Dengler said the success of the conference is something to build on. “We’ve put so much energy, staff, and time into building this platform that SIBA and NAIBA would like to keep it alive and keep it active for other events,” she said.
NAIBA board member Erin Matthews, owner of the Maryland-based Books With a Past bookstores, said that she missed seeing people in person, but noted that she was better able to do the work she wanted to do at the conference because of the digital format. “I hate to say it because I really do miss the in person conference,” she said, “but I get so much more out of the pick of the list sessions in this format than in a busy dining room. I've added at least three orders because of the virtual pick of the list.”
Many directors of the regional associations said they intend to turn to their members for takeaways like Matthews’ before making any large decisions. For Barrett and Dengler, a return to an annual in-person gathering is still a major goal, but Barrett said it is certain that whatever comes from the fall regionals will be deeply transformed by this fall. “Some of the [older] models feel tired,” she said. “My thinking is, we may not gather as we did, but we will still gather in person. In bigger and maybe in smaller ways, too, but in significant ways.”