How events, and event partnerships, can help bookstores

Host: Cherilyn Parsons (founder/ED of Bay Area Book Festival)

Participants: Evan Karp; Steve Wax; Kelly Stromberg; Candace; Margot Sage

Notes

The group discussed permutations of, and ideas for, literary events. 

Questions:

  • Some bookstores produce their own large events (in-person or virtual): what are the dynamics of those, in-person and virtual, in expanding sales and building community? Other stores don’t have that capacity and can benefit from partnerships with independent event producers, such as festivals or lecture series, almost all of which partner with bookstores for sales rather than selling books themselves (though some do become sellers, such as San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club). How to find the revenue balance that enables bookstores to earn enough money from each book sale and that brings enough revenue to the producer to create the event in the first place? Also, how to make events pay dividends for bookstores and producers beyond just that one evening?

Cherilyn shared examples of store/festival partnerships, successful and not:

  • Multiple local stores sell books for festival events on-site; authors sign books. Sales aren’t great but the stores do it to take part in the fest; the publishers need books sold; authors want to sign. Cherilyn tries to rotate the “best” venues among the stores, but inevitably someone is upset.
  • The festival also does year-round, in-person, ticketed events (not bundled) at various venues, with advance and on-site sales with a single partner store. This works well if the store is near the venue and sales are projected to be sufficient for the labor.
  • The festival’s year-round virtual series (#UNBOUND), which started in May 2020, included some high-profile events with authors such as George Saunders. The festival partnered almost exclusively with one store. The festival drove a high volume of sales to it, with the bookstore not needing to do any event production; in turn, the store gave the producer a 17%-20% cut of the book. This rev share is the only way the festival can produce the event.
  • For the virtual festival in May 2021 (11 events, all high-profile authors, over 9 days), the festival partnered with the same bookstore and one more that also agreed to revenue-share terms. Other stores felt excluded, but they hadn’t wanted to take part in the revenue share.
  • The basic model didn’t work when the festival tried to create a large in-person bundled #UNBOUND event with a big author for fall (estim.1,800 attendees) involving multiple stores. The festival needed to cover high costs for the venue and production of such a big event, while keeping ticket prices reasonable. Because the event was strictly bundled — with no admission-only tickets — the book took up the vast majority of space inside a reasonably priced ticket, leaving virtually no revenue for the festival. The publisher wasn’t able to offer admission-only tickets or discounts to the stores, which could have made a big difference. With the prospect of losing so much money, the festival dropped the event — a lost opportunity for everyone involved.
  • Lessons learned? 
  • Evan: This sort of rev share only works if the event producer is partnering with only one store, which thus can be assured of very high volume.
  • Kelly: $5 is too much of a commission. [this is 16% of the $30 book in the example above.]
  • Cherilyn: This experience was so frustrating because it felt like if each party could have given just a bit more, including the publisher, the event could have happened. Instead, the festival lost several weeks of work with no result, the stores lost the sales opportunity, and the author lost the event. None of that had to happen.

Evan noted that Booksmith isn’t yet doing in-person events; maybe in spring. But because they’ve been only virtual, they’ve been able to do other kinds of events, including ones with authors (such as poets) where the store doesn’t expect high sales, partnerships with presses (such as UC Press, with which Booksmith did 6 events), and topics/themes that Booksmith cares about.

Steve talked about how Heyday would be sure to videotape events and use it later to promote the author. The event is more valuable from a publicity standpoint in its video version than the actual experience. Evan concurred: “the video has more opportunity than the event.” Booksmith has been posting slightly edited videos of their events. You can buy the book anytime, not only when the physical event takes place, and the presence of the videos supports this.

Cherilyn: The festival would welcome sharing publishers’ virtual events (like Heyday’s) if we think our audience would like them, especially as now we’re about to enter a few months where we focus on planning the festival and won’t be producing new events of our own. We want to continue to bring great content to our audience. We’re already partnering with other event producers in this way (we also partner with other festivals). 

So, if publishers or bookstores or others who themselves produce events would be interested in us sharing those events through our website, please reach out and we can explore possibilities.

Steve: Really it’s publishers that benefit most from events. Publishers could pay bookstores to present events with their authors.

Margot: We’re middlemen but provide value: our events go out to 9,000 people on our list. Yes we make money selling books but we provide more value to the publishers than we ourselves make. [not sure I recorded this correctly.]

Evan wishes that the bookstores of the future could all have in-person event staffs and offer PR services [again, not sure I recorded this accurately]  Steve noted that this is like what Kepler’s and the Kepler’s Literary Foundation are. Cherilyn said that what she did with the festival’s main partner bookstore in 2020-21 was essentially this — the fest became their large-event production arm. Books Inc. serves City Arts & Lectures events.

Evan noted that Booksmith does events not just for sales but to express the ethos of the store. Pre-pandemic, they did 250 events/year. During pandemic, less concerned with sales but more ability to do topical events or authors they might not have been able to present well earlier.

Steve said something about “dippers, divers, skimmers”…

The entire group was frustrated by the lack of support that big publishers give to independent bookstores and event producers when we make so little money on the products we’re selling for the publishers (which are very profitable, at least partly because of our efforts). It’s just not sustainable. Frustration has been growing.

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