The return of in-person bookstore author events in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic does not mean book tours are operating the same way they did in 2019. Many publishers have scaled back on national author tours or are requiring longer lead times for booking. This has resulted, according to a sampling of booksellers around the U.S., in a different kind of thinking about store programming: bookstores are scheduling earlier, focusing on local and regional authors rather than national tours, and being more creative when it comes to both author events and authorless programming.
One of the first bookstores to switch to virtual events in 2020, Left Bank Books long ago returned to in-store events—but all are hybrid, “to allow for more accessibility,” says event coordinator Shane Mullen. The St. Louis indie also continues to host all-virtual events, “but we’re pretty selective because we have so much hybrid programming,” Mullen adds. Virtual events are usually set up in partnership with other indies, such as one with U.K. author Juno Dawson, whose new title is The Shadow Cabinet; another is scheduled on September 21 with Anderson Cooper for Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune.
“Virtual events were wonderful for maintaining relationships, and a good publicity hit for the authors, but they never provided the sales,” said Spencer Ruchti, author events manager at Third Place Books in Seattle. Those events did teach valuable lessons: instead of waiting to see who shows up, “we ask for an RSVP, which we couldn’t do prepandemic,” Ruchti said. “We find it useful in determining how many books to order, and it helps us nudge publishers in case an author needs to reach out to their friends.”
Some Third Place events require a book bundle ticket, while others require a small general admission fee that benefits a Books for Students fund. Third Place runs up to four events a week across its three locations around the metro area, including a sold-out talk in June with Ocean Vuong (Time Is a Mother) in the Lake Forest Park store’s 800-person community space.
Ruchti observed that publishers are looking for commitments earlier than in the past. “Fall booked up earlier than usual,” she said. “I think publishers are sending requests and making sure event grids are available earlier. We were hearing about heavy hitters as early as May for fall. I’ve never seen a season get booked this far in advance.”
Scheduling gets creative
Left Bank’s Mullen also describes this fall’s schedule as “pretty packed,” noting that authors “are getting back on the road, most of them on traditional tours.” But, he said, most of these authors either have been to St. Louis before or have local connections. Mullen sees fewer debut and midlist authors touring, meaning there are not as many opportunities for customers to discover them.
Those debut and midlist authors “are our bread and butter,” said David Enyeart, manager of Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul, Minn. That being the case, the store has focused more on local authors; for instance, it hosted an August 15 launch for Julie Schumacher and her latest novel, The English Experience, that drew 100 people. Enyeart notes that while “author events are great, they put us at the mercy of the publishers and what authors are coming to town.” Next Chapter is countering this by sponsoring more authorless events, such as book clubs and a children’s story hour.
“We’re scheduling things repeatedly so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel and customers know what to expect,” Enyeart said. Rather than relying on authors to pull in holiday shoppers, Next Chapter is organizing an authorless event after Thanksgiving, featuring booksellers presenting the books they are most excited about.
“It’s an event we control,” Enyeart explained. “We can plan it now; we don’t have to ask permission or wait for anybody to make it possible. And we know it will get people into the store.”
At Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., local authors and genre authors draw appreciative fans. In July, Gibson’s paired New England authors Paul Doiron (Dead Man’s Wake) and Sarah Stewart Taylor (A Stolen Child) for a dual presentation. “They both write thrillers with a police procedural format,” said Elisabeth Jewell, Gibson’s events director. “Individually, they might bring in about 20 to 25 people, but with them together we had 50 people show up.”
Genre sells at Gibson’s, and the store plans accordingly when scheduling touring authors. Katee Robert (Cruel Seduction) appeared there on August 20, close to Bookstore Romance Day. “She writes very spicy novels, so we branded this one as ‘Gibson’s After Dark,’ ” Jewell said. Clay Chapman (What Kind of Mother) is scheduled for a fall visit: “He’s one of our horror readers’ favorites, and his Tribe series is about evil apples, so we’re doing an heirloom apple tasting,” Jewell noted.
Like Left Bank, Third Place, and Next Chapter, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., had a robust author event schedule prepandemic, with up to 350 events per year. “The events are more selective now,” said Maggie Robe, the store’s marketing and events coordinator, noting that there are usually two author events scheduled each week. “We try to find a balance between community-focused events, local authors, and national authors.” Due to customer preference for in-person events rather than hybrid or virtual, Flyleaf records author appearances and posts them on CrowdPass and YouTube so that they can be streamed later.
With its mix of university folk and affluent retirees, Chapel Hill has always been a popular stop on author tours. “Publishers definitely are supporting national tours,” Robe said. “We’re seeing authors back on the road and people are happy to be out—and even okay with being in large groups.” An off-site event at a local music club in April, billed as a concert with Michelle Zauner’s band, Japanese Breakfast, as well as a reading from her 2021 memoir, Crying in H Mart, drew 750 people.
Jewell said there’s a craving for vibrant experiences. “People had more than two years stolen from them by world events, and their priorities changed,” she added. “They’re looking for something to do. They had to be on screens and now they want to be out living their lives.”