With most U.S. public libraries’ physical buildings still closed to the public to slow the spread of Covid-19, this may seem like an inopportune time to talk about author events at the library, and their impact on discovery and book sales. In fact, it's the perfect time, as libraries and publishers begin to rethink what the post-lockdown world of readers' advisory author events will look like.

No question, online events will likely be a big part of author events in the future. BookExpo Online and BookConline—virtual replacements for two of the industry’s key in-person annual events—were deemed a success. ALA is hosting its annual conference online, with ALA Virtual attempting to replicate some of the in-person experiences of the physical show, while also demonstrating how libraries are adapting and evolving in response to the current public health crisis. Indeed, one of the major themes throughout BookExpo Online’s full day of library programming was the confidence that public libraries will find innovative and safe ways to serve their communities, including readers’ advisory and author events, in-person and online.

It remains to be seen whether virtual events will become a valuable, permanent marketing channel moving forward, but awareness of the importance of author events has arguably never been higher. And a Library Events & Book Sales Survey conducted by the Panorama Project suggests that libraries in fact play a huge role in marketing books and authors through events.

Among the survey’s key findings: library events tend to feature authors and books of all kinds, not just current bestsellers—including traditional and self-published works; genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, as well as national bestsellers. And respondents to the survey overwhelmingly said they often book local authors for their events over touring authors (72% vs. 28%), and nearly all said they most often worked directly with authors when booking them for events, with less than half saying they worked to coordinate events with publishers and local booksellers.

The Truth About Book Events

Ask most authors and they'll confirm that publisher-organized book tours are an increasingly rare experience, typically reserved for proven A-listers and guaranteed New York Times bestsellers. Publishers’ marketing investments today typically involve printing and distributing ARCs to prepub reviewers and securing paid advertising in traditional and digital channels—all in the hopes of building awareness and driving sales. And the level of investment of course varies by title, author, and sales estimations. It’s no secret that many new releases get no dedicated marketing budget at all, often left to rely on the author’s own platforms and marketing savvy.

As a result, library events are often one of the few opportunities for local and midlist authors to get in front of an interested audience without investing their own money. As the survey found, big bestselling authors aren’t the primary focus of most public library author event. Respondents reported that less than half of the authors booked at their libraries were recent bestsellers.

And libraries are tremendously effective book marketers. Public library collections typically reflect their community’s potential readership, so their offerings are more diverse than the average local bookstore’s shelves, and more relevant to local readers than any online retailers’ algorithm. Librarians can also leverage circulation data to produce engaging events that are of specific interest to their local communities, rather than simply aligning with national bestseller lists. Most libraries excel at promoting their collections and events in their local communities.

Where too many librarians come up short, however, is in communicating the impact and value of their efforts back to publishers—especially those who fear libraries may be costing them consumer sales. Most publishers are completely unaware of a library's full commercial impact on discovery and book sales, because full credit typically goes to the final point of sale—also known as last-click attribution.

So how can a library measure the actual value of its platform, and then communicate that value so publishers can understand and compare it to their traditional marketing channels? Hallie Rich, Director of Communications at Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio, recently led the development of a marketing calculator to help quantify the value that they provided for a single author event—above and beyond their direct purchasing power—and presented an overview of it in an ALA webinar last December.

Basically, Cuyahoga benchmarked their value their marketing efforts represented for a debut novel—The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames, neither a local author nor national bestseller. Rich's team measured and tracked things like their website traffic, social media presence, and in-branch displays—equivalent to point-of-sale information in retail settings that publishers usually pay for—and quantified the value each for each one as if the publisher were paying the library for a targeted, integrated promotional campaign. Overall, the full marketing program for the event represented a total of $18,367 in equivalent value had the publisher paid for a traditional media campaign with a local platform that had Cuyahoga's brand affinity, focus, and reach—all delivered at no cost to the publisher.

Show Them the Money!

Want to know more? I’ll be discussing the survey and library marketing in more detail in an ALA Virtual Spotlight Session, How to Measure the Value of Library Marketing on Book Discovery & Sales, on Thursday, June 25th at 12:15pm EDT.

The presentation will include more insights from Panorama Project’s Library Events & Book Sales Survey, and a preview of the Library Marketing Valuation Toolkit which will help libraries develop their own media kit and marketing calculator to track, measure, and contextualize the full monetary value of their marketing efforts for publishers and authors.

Librarians already know how influential they are in the reading ecosystem. Publishers need to know as well. Establishing a foundation for more effective, transparent collaboration as well as a better understanding of the full impact libraries have on book sales can only strengthen the public library's relationships with publishers and authors.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is project lead for the Panorama Project. Previously, he was publisher & marketing director for Writer’s Digest; director, content strategy & audience development for Library Journal & School Library Journal; and founding director of programming & business development for Digital Book World.