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A book event with Jane Kirkpatrick, which attracted a full house and sold about 25 books.

What it Takes to Have a Successful Bookstore Event

By Julie Swearingen

What can you expect from a bookstore event?

I’ve worked at four bookstores: Barnes & Noble in Bend, OR; Barnes & Noble in Reno, NV; Amazon Books in Portland, OR; and Roundabout Books in Bend, OR. In over five years as a bookseller, department manager, special orders manager, and now events manager, I’ve seen bookstores small and large fail and leave. I’ve seen bookstores sell more electronics, games, gifts, and tchotchkes than books.

There’s one constant in the bookstores where I’ve worked—author events.

Customers want to meet authors and hear about the process of writing the book, what they are writing next, and just generally feel a connection to an author they enjoy. And many bookstores want author events. It helps us connect to our customers and the community at large. So for those of you who are still paying attention to this blog—and the calendar of your local bookstore—here is how a bookstore event really happens…and what you can do to help them continue.

Build a Relationship with Your Bookstore

First, all the details are sorted out via email. Whether it’s from an author to me, or from me to them and/or their publicist, it generally starts with an email.

We often need to look at factors like our current calendar of bookings, how many events we have open for the next one to two months, and who we’ve sent proposals to for specific dates and times. And that can’t be done when we are face to face. So, once you’ve established the relationship and introduced yourself to the bookstore, then send an email. Feel free to give date suggestions, but be open to the dates the store has available. Understand the size of their store, the capacity for attendees at an event, and the location in relation to hubs of that town.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t visit your local bookstores. In fact, I (and many others—read this article) will tell you to go to your local bookstores, meet the booksellers, shop there, drink coffee there, and give them book recommendations.

And, I cannot stress this enough, GO TO BOOK EVENTS!

Engage with the authors presenting and ask insightful questions that you would want to be asked. Remember the terror and agony of getting up to talk about your book the first, fifth, or tenth time. Or when it comes to the Q & A section and no one asks a questions. That is the worst. Go to the events, ask thoughtful questions, and then introduce yourself to the author (and preferably buy a book for them to sign). Let them know you are an author, too, and, if it feels genuine and appropriate, exchange business cards. This also shows the bookstore that you are committed to their events and are a loyal customer. Hopefully, that author will attend your event—and bring a few friends.

Consider Who Your Audience Will Be

Are you pitching to a bookstore in a super conservative town on a book about grassroots journalism and the need to verify sources before sharing on social media? While the bookstore, its staff, and a majority of its customers might be more liberally-inclined, it can make securing a good crowd harder. I would never advocate not pitching to that store! On the contrary, please pitch to them! But know that it might not be the turnout you were expecting. And yet, those faithful few who turn out? Those are your people. Those are the people who will read your book and recommend it to another person. Because they liked it…and you. They made a personal connection to you at the event and want to tell everyone about your book.

Here’s the backstory behind this recommendation: I was contacted by Lisa Loving, author of Street Journalist: Understand & Report the News in Your Community (Microcosm, May 2019), about a possible event at our store. Due to my knowledge of the fact that Microcosm puts out good books and my personal interest in the book, I was happy to add it to our event calendar.

Now, Bend has become more liberal—especially in the last decade or so—but at its heart, it is a conservative town, and I did worry that we would fight against that background with this title. But I believed we could get a handful of attendees, and I knew Lisa would give a great presentation. Unfortunately, we had no attendees at her event. Now, this could have been a result of many factors: day of the week (Friday), season (September, so tourists have left), and competing events. Lisa was gracious and chatted with me and my coworker, signed books for us and for the shelf, and asked us where she and her daughter should get dinner. And since her event, and getting to know her better, I’ve recommended the book to several people, including a freelance client of mine who is interested in how this book is necessary leading up to the next election.

Promote the Event Through Your Own Network

You are your own best marketing tool. Seriously. Do you have a Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, website, or newsletter? Then get that event included, email everyone, and ask them to share it around. We live in a digital age, where sharing events is easier than ever. And yet, we have events with only a few attendees. We are all so busy and are invited to a dozen things every weekend. What are you doing to rise above the noise?

Do you have connections to other media sources? Use them! Are you part of a networking group, a book club, a parenting organization? Invite them! You cannot be afraid of marketing your events for fear of someone will say no. That’s ok. But you will never get the “yes” unless you ask. Bookstores are asking their customers to attend events with every newsletter, Facebook event, Twitter post, and window poster, but we cannot do it alone. This is a team effort and the more attendees, the more books sold. More sales means more events for you in the future. Bookstores are part of your long game.

Remember—Booksellers Are on Your Side

Lastly, know that the bookstore wants you to have a good event. And they are crushed when you don’t. Ok, yes, I can really only speak for myself, but I am heartbroken when a book I’ve read and liked doesn’t generate a good number of attendees at an event. Every book is special, and every author has a story to tell, and it just kills me when they can’t tell it to a bigger audience. But remember what I said before about those faithful few? Well, I’m one of them. And believe me, I tell people about your books days, weeks, and months after your event. I follow you on social media. I await your next project and the next time we can host an event for you.

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