Ever since early March, when the nation went into lockdown due to the Covid-19 outbreak, independent booksellers have been tweaking their business models in an attempt to remain solvent. And in doing so, a growing number have turned to hosting virtual author events.

There is a consensus among several indie booksellers contacted by PW that virtual events are more time intensive than in-store events, when factoring in how long it takes to set up the event as well as process and ship orders. And all of these booksellers noted that though virtual events pull in viewers and increase visibility for stores, it can be difficult to convert those viewers into paying customers.

Weekend programming at Book Passage

Book Passage’s weekend programming—which debuted on April 4 with Anne Lamott being interviewed by her son Sam Lamott about her life as a writer—is pulling in both audiences and sales, according to Elaine Petrocelli, co-owner of the Northern California indie. The interviews are filmed on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and livestreamed on the store’s website, then archived for subsequent viewing. Registration is free but required. The seven interviews to date have drawn a live audience of 2,500 each, on average, with more tuning in to watch the events later. So far, 13,000 people have registered for the series.

Most of the Book Passage events have featured an A-list author in conversation with another A-list author, such as one with Colum McCann in conversation with Dave Eggers. Eight more interviews are scheduled for May, beginning with Erik Larsen and Michael Krasny on May 2, followed the next day by Lisa See and Kathryn Belden.

“Two tech-savvy customers came to us and offered to guide us through this for free,” explained Petrocelli, who films a brief introduction to each event alone in the store and asks viewers to purchase the titles discussed from Book Passage. “If we had to hire someone to do this for us, we couldn’t afford it,” she said.

Without disclosing figures, Petrocelli said that online sales are up across the board and that “on Saturdays and Sundays they go wild.” Not only are viewers purchasing spotlighted new releases, she said, but they are also snapping up other books the authors recommend during their discussions.

One participating author, Cara Black, lives in San Francisco and drove to Book Passage to sign copies of her new book, Three Hours in Paris, as well as some backlist titles before her April 11 event. For most authors, publishers have sent presigned books and signed bookplates. “We sold a healthy number of Three Hours in Paris,” Petrocelli said. “I don’t know if it’s the same number we’d have sold if we’d had her in the store, but it was great.”

Facebook Live at Left Bank

Left Bank Books in St. Louis was one of the first indies to launch a virtual author event series when it hosted TaraShea Nesbit on March 19 through Facebook Live. Events coordinator Shane Mullen interviewed Nesbit about her new release, Beheld, and he has since interviewed as many as three authors in a week. Videos of each event remain accessible on Left Bank’s Facebook page after their initial streams.

Mullen said Left Bank established the virtual author events because it wanted to do “something akin to our normal programming,” and he believes the formal structure raises the event above “being just another author appearing live on their Facebook. It gives us the ability to moderate the conversation and incorporate questions from the virtual audience much like a normal event.” He explained that viewers can post questions and comments as the interview is livestreamed.

As for monetizing the 14 virtual author appearances that Left Bank has hosted to date, Mullen said that the store is “still working on converting views into sales by increasing our ask more.” Audience numbers are high, but sales remain static. Though 600 people engaged with Nesbit’s appearance (meaning that they commented on, shared, or clicked on it while livestreaming), only 10 copies of Beheld were sold immediately following the event. (There have been 1,500 views of the video to date.) More than 600 people engaged with Cara Black’s April 8 event at Left Bank, but the store sold only 12 copies of Three Hours in Paris immediately after. (There have been 3,500 views to date.)

But, Mullen said, now that Left Bank is hitting its stride in terms of how to go about setting up such events, “we’re being less reactive and doing more planning regarding marketing.” For instance, to promote All I Ever Wanted by Kathy Valentine, the bassist for the 1980s rock band the Go-Go’s, Left Bank offered guitar picks with each copy of the memoirwhich were presigned and sent to the store by her publisher, University of Texas Press. The swag may have helped: the store sold 48 copies immediately following the April 27 event, which engaged 1,300 viewers.

For Left Bank owner Kris Kleindienst, virtual author events are more than just a vehicle to sell books by authors whose tours were canceled. “They provide an important service for authors, publishers, and our home-bound community,” she explained. “It’s something we absolutely want to do, to make sure that authors get the attention they deserve.”

Rediscovered and Next Chapter experiment

Rediscovered Books in Boise, Idaho, was also an early organizer of virtual author events an has been hosting authors on various platforms since March 30, when 157 people engaged with TJ Klune on Facebook Live to discuss his new release, The House in the Cerulean Sea. The store sold 25 copies of the book following the event. The interview has since generated another 2,000 views on Facebook.

Rediscovered has since hosted six more events, the most recent of which was on Instagram Live, while the next is set to take place on Zoom, with further events scheduled throughout May and June. Its event with local author Mary Pauline Lowry drew 47 engagements and 700 views during the launch of The Roxy Letters, which the store sold 43 copies of following the event. “We’re experimenting with various platforms and different types of events,” said events coordinator Rebeeca Gottberg. The store also has been reaching out to a number of prominent authors and plans to post short videos of them talking up their current bedside reads on its social media accounts.

As the pandemic moved into the Midwest, Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul, Minn., postponed all author events. On April 13, it hosted its first virtual event on Zoom, featuring Minneapolis author Kawai Strong Washburn in conversation about his novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, with fellow local author Marlon James. The store has organized four virtual events to date, with audiences ranging from 35 to 100 people at each.

“Zoom can be a little wonky when we transmit it,” admitted events coordinator Riley Davis. “So we’ve been recording them and posting them on Facebook, too.” Registration is required in order to prevent trolls from bombing Zoom events—which some booksellers and authors have reported.

“We are getting people to buy books,” Davis said. “A quarter of our total sales of The Glass Hotel were attributed to Emily St. John Mandel’s virtual event.” The event engaged 91 people, and 10 presigned copies were sold that evening.

Just as important as sales, Davis noted, is maintaining contact with the store’s customers while Minnesota’s nonessential businesses are shut down. “If nothing else, these virtual events remind people that we’re still here.”

“Readers are adaptable,” said Paul Bogaards, deputy publisher of Knopf and Pantheon. “They are eager for connection.” He noted that St. John Mandel has drawn audiences of up to 400 people at each of the dozen virtual events she has done to promote The Glass Hotel, and that sales of her 2014 novel Station Eleven, about a flu pandemic, are way up.

“What you lose in a virtual setting is that intimacy and electricity, the collective intake of breath when an author takes the stage,” Bogaards said. “What you gain, potentially, is an ability to scale up, as well as ease of use. From a publishing perspective, the economics of virtual tours are pretty compelling. That said, we are looking forward to the moment when we are able to resume physical tours.”