The cancellation of all but a few of the country’s biggest bookselling and publishing events this year has meant that the slate of regional bookseller conferences this fall charted 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 likely 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 California booksellers to participate without having to attempt near-impossible travel. “They could drop in as their schedules allowed,” said CALIBA executive director Calvin Crosby. “Depending on their location, they could participate during working hours. We were able to have authors from Italy, England, and France.”
The result was a conference that Crosby described as “amazing,” with the 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 to strike the right balance between the two.
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. It 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 translate to increased participation. PNBA executive director Brian Juenemann noted that while librarian members came in greater numbers and publisher employees attended more sessions than in the past, 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. The virtual Heartland Summer, cosponsored with Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, had more than 700 participants—the same as last year’s regular fall conference in Cleveland.
Obry said that there were perks to a virtual event, including the ease of setting up the show. But in the end, “so much of the magic doesn’t come through,” she noted. “The moment when an author puts a signed book in an attendees hands is something we never want to lose.”
Danny Caine, owner of the Raven in Lawrence, Kans., agreed. “I would be devastated to lose in-person shows,” he said. But, he added, “I think there’s much to do to improve their accessibility, and hybrid is one possible path.”
Increased participation at the New England Independent Booksellers Association’s conference highlighted just how important accessibility concerns are for booksellers, according to NEIBA executive director Beth Ineson. “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 Independent Booksellers Association and Southern Independent Booksellers Association’s New Voices New Rooms conference. Attendance from SIBA members increased 50%–53%, according to executive director Linda-Marie Barrett, while attendance from NAIBA members was up 35%. Members were clear that the virtual format was the deciding factor for them. “I’ve received a lot of emails from members in which 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. She observed different booksellers taking turns viewing from their stores’ Zoom accounts, indicating that attendance was even higher than the 856 who registered. She added that 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.”
NAIBA board member Erin Matthews, owner of Maryland’s Books with a Past bookstores, noted that the digital format made it easier to get her conference work done. “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’s before making any big decisions. For Barrett and Dengler, a return to an annual in-person gathering is still a major goal, but Barrett said she is certain that whatever lies ahead for the fall regionals will be deeply transformed by this fall’s experiences. “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.”