Monday, October 13, 2008

Tales of Three Book Events

Author events are critical to the image and perhaps the very survival of large independent bookstores. Go to the website of any major store (Powell's in Portland, Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. or Vroman's in Pasadena) and you will find the upcoming signings prominently displayed. It's one of the main ways that independents are able to distinguish themselves from the chain stores in the area. We are more than a bookstore, we are a literary and cultural hub to our communities.

That is certainly true in Boulder. The Boulder Book Store hosts about 200 events a year. We generate most of our local publicity through these events and almost all of the advertising that we do is directly tied to the author events. It's fair to say that our profile is much higher in town because we've been able to bring our customers face to face with David Sedaris, Garrison Keillor, Jon Krakauer, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joyce Carol Oates and hundreds of other authors over the years.

You would think that with our track record, we would be experts at putting on successful events. Unfortunately, many of these events are fraught with peril and difficult decisions. The line between a great event and a terrible disappointment is often just a matter of a few books, a moody author, a bad sound system, or an unruly customer.

Over the past month, we've had several major ticketed events and I thought I'd look closely at three of them and lift the veil on our decision-making process and the results. One of the events (Neil Gaiman) was wildly successful, another (a video presentation with Philip Roth) started off as a dud but now must be considered a winner and the third (Philippa Gregory) never got off the ground.

Neil Gaiman

I was a big Sandman fan when the comic first appeared in the late 1980s. My old original issues of the first dozen or so books are still sitting in a box in my sister's attic in New Jersey. I hope she doesn't figure out what I'm storing up there and list them on ebay. I haven't really followed Gaiman in his transition to more traditional novels, but still this is the man who made Death a likable character.

We were ecstatic to get an event with him. There is heavy competition between independent bookstores for top-flight authors and Gaiman was only appearing in nine U.S. cities. We put in a detailed proposal to HarperCollins and hoped for the best, but never really expected that he would come to Boulder. Once we were awarded the signing, then the decisions had to be made.

Where would we have the event? How much would we charge for tickets? Would we require customers to buy a book in order to get into the event? Would customers get a discount on the book if they attended the event?

We decided to hold the event at Unity Church of Boulder. It's really the nicest offsite venue we have access to and boasts an excellent sound system. We charged $6.00 for tickets which is our cheapest rate. The ticket fee covers the cost of the venue as well as the extra staff needed to run an offsite event. Since, the tickets were so inexpensive, customers did not get a discount on the book. We reasoned that we didn't have a history with Gaiman and perhaps much of his audience would be young and not so well-heeled.

Ticket sales were brisk from the day they went on sale. People were finding us through Gaiman's site and also from our email blasts to our customers. It soon became apparent that we would probably sell out the 600-seat venue. I ordered 220 copies of his newest title, a young adult novel, The Graveyard Book for the event along with a liberal smattering of his other titles.

Before I could even decide if we had a enough books for the event, my Harper rep was on the phone insisting that we were way short on books. He wanted us to order 250 more books. I was astounded. How would we sell so many books? It's a young adult book which isn't Gaiman's core audience. He also would not be personalizing the book at the signing. Add that to our history of events in this venue where 250 to 300 was our absolute ceiling on sales, I just couldn't wrap my head around bringing in 470 books.

We finally settled on 200 additional copies and stopped hyperventilating for a couple of weeks. The next shock to the system came on the day before the event was scheduled. It was my Harper rep again. "Hey, Bubbe (for some reason I'm a Yiddish grandmother to my rep) you need another 100 books. Everyone has taken at least 500 books." In what reality? I wanted to ask instead I was much more diplomatic, "Are you crazy?"

"We'll overnight them," he said. I told him that I thought we would never sell that many copies. It wasn't mathematically possible. We might have sold 600 tickets, but some of those were families, some were couples, some were people that simply wouldn't buy the new book. Well, what could I do? God forbid I was wrong.

The night of the event was crazy. Gaiman arrived at the store to sign all of the stock before rushing over to the venue. He got to all of the new books but didn't have time to sign much of the back stock. As we arrived at the church there was a line of people snaked halfway around the building waiting to get in.

We frantically set up folding chairs in the aisles and behind the pews in order to accommodate any overflow crowd. We prayed that the Fire Marshall was not a Sandman devotee and flung the doors open. The crowd came pouring in and it seemed that they all lined up to buy books. What did they buy? The Graveyard Book. They bought it in pairs, in threes. I was never so happy in my life that my rep made me bring in more books. We rang and rang in the sales until Gaiman started talking.

I began to fear that 520 books would not be enough. We tallied up our sales as the last of the customers wandered into the hall and saw that we sold 202 copies. Wow. For most of our events that would be a great final number. Usually we sold two to three times as many books after the event as we did before. My God, if that was the case we would run out of books. We only had 318 left. Why didn't he insist I buy 400 more books?

Gaiman read over 40 pages from The Graveyard Book that night. On each night of the tour he read a different chapter of the book. We heard the second half of chapter 7, the penultimate chapter, that contained the climax to the story. His reading went on for over an hour and the audience hung on his every word despite the stuffiness of the hot church. Afterwards, he showed a trailer for the forthcoming movie Coraline and took questions.

By the time the event was let out, over two hours had elapsed. What a deal for $6.00. The crowd started surging towards our table of books and I grew concerned. My fears were short lived as many, many more people headed out into Boulder's cool night air. Perhaps two hours was long enough. Perhaps some of the audience didn't feel the need to buy the book after having the most exciting part of it read to them. We sold another 83 books and our final tally was 285 for the night in addition to dozens of backlist books.

It was a magnificent event. One of the best we ever hosted. The audience was thrilled, the author gracious and we actually did more business at the event then we did all day long in the store.

Philip Roth

Roth is perhaps my favorite novelist. One of the very first novels that my wife and I read aloud together was Portnoy's Complaint. I knew she was a keeper when she thought the salacious story of Alexander Portnoy was brilliant and hilarious as opposed to sexist and frivolous.

Roth simply does not tour. I had the pleasure and agony of meeting Roth last year in New York City at a cocktail party. Most of his readers never get that opportunity. Given that he was never going to come to Boulder, we jumped at the chance to be one of the bookstores that would show a live feed of an interview with Roth provided by his publisher Houghton Mifflin. In addition to the video, Houghton Mifflin gave us the option of purchasing up to 48 signed copies of Roth's new novel Indignation for the event.

Signed first edition Roth books. That's a big deal. I quickly got on line and found that you could not buy a signed first edition Roth novel for less than $60. Of course, the fact that Houghton Mifflin was putting on this event would dilute the market for those signed books, but still it seemed many book collectors might attend the event just to get a signed book.

We set the ticket price, which included a signed book, at $49.95. Before we could even publicize the event, two things happened: Houghton offered us 72 books instead of 48 and we started seeing that other stores were charging $35 or less. We decided to reduce our price to $34.95. Ticket sales were slow but still the enticement of a rare signed volume was definitely creating some interest. Days before the event, the rarity of the item was severely compromised. Houghton Mifflin now said we could purchase up to 300 copies of the book signed.

We kept our order at 72 and hoped for the best. On the night of the event, we had less than 10 people in the audience. It turns out that of the dozen tickets we sold, a few of the people just wanted to get the signed book and bought a ticket to guarantee they wouldn't miss out. I took my seat as the video feed began. It started off interestingly enough with Roth politely answering a few questions, but it soon veered off track. Our feed wasn't perfect and Roth's words raced ahead of the picture. Also, it took on a C-Span quality. It was quite static (two men sitting in chairs talking for an hour) and Roth is frankly not the most forthcoming of interview subjects.

My enthusiasm waned and I began to think that if this is the future of author events, perhaps we should go into a different business. No one would want to see this except the most hardcore Roth fans. It didn't have anything approaching the vibrancy of an actual event and that connection to the author that thrills our customers just wasn't there.

Perhaps we shouldn't have charged for the event. If the interview was on a DVD instead of a live feed, we could have avoided the technical difficulties. However, the real problem was that even if everything went perfectly and we had 50 people attending it still would have been a boring event. It wouldn't have been something that people would venture out to see on a cold winter evening.

I left that night thinking of the event as a failure. During the broadcast, the owner of the bookstore sidled up to me and asked, "this is it?" motioning to the screen and the scant audience. I shrugged and said, "we tried."

A few days later as I was buying our new fiction section, I noticed that the Roth book had sold a few more copies. It kept selling. The autographed copies were actually flying off our shelves in the weeks that followed. We have now sold over 50 books, double what we sold of his previous hardback, and Indignation is high on our bestseller list. Not bad. The buzz from the event and the autograph stickers seem to be working their magic.

Philippa Gregory

Tonight's event with Gregory, the author of The Other Boleyn Girl, was cancelled late last week due to low ticket sales. This was a painful end to what we had hoped would be a signature event during our 35th anniversary celebration. What went wrong? Why were ticket sales stalled when we drew over 250 people to Gregory's last event in the store?

We anticipated that the turn out would be stronger this year then when we hosted her for the paperback release of The Constant Princess two years ago. She was touring behind a new hardback, The Other Queen, the movie version of The Other Boleyn Girl had created added interest in her work, and we were going to have period costumes for the event.

Our last event with Gregory strained our in-store capabilities. More than half the crowd had to stand and our event space gets quite warm when there are that many people. It seemed like a natural to go offsite with Gregory. Also, the publisher, Simon & Schuster, was insisting that Gregory events were held in large venues. We set the ticket price at $10 with customers getting $5 off her new hardcover.

Ticket sales started out slowly which isn't entirely unusual. Our event with James Kunstler for The Long Emergency eventually drew over 250 people even though less than 100 tickets were sold before the day of the event. Our marketing team kept sending out emails about the Gregory event, we displayed the book prominently and waited for the throngs of Gregory fans. It never happened. Finally, when we were four days away from the event with less than 40 tickets sold, we knew going offsite to a venue that held 600 was not going to work.

We had hoped to move the event back into the store, but the publisher was uncomfortable with that and so our only alternative was to cancel the event. It is a tremendous disappointment. Ironically, when I was at the register during Saturday's sale, two different people asked me about the Gregory event. They were upset and surprised it was cancelled even though neither one of them had tickets.

Perhaps we would have had a late rally and sold enough tickets to make it look respectable in the venue and recoup some of the cost associated with renting the space. Somehow, I doubt it. Between the election, the economy, and the weather (which turned miserable over the weekend) it just seemed we couldn't get this event off the ground. The saddest thing for me, was seeing the costumes packed up and sent off to the next tour stop without getting a chance to see anyone dressed as one of the Boleyns.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a fascinating look at how these things are run! What a gamble! Organizing a bake sale now seems like, hah, a piece of cake.

Are the authors paid when they come to a book reading/signing? Do the bookstores have to pay for his/her expenses or are the publishers paying for all of that?

Rome has been doing something very cool the past several years: they invite authors to the Roman Forum (specifically near a delapidated, deconsecrated basilica) to read while musicians provide musical interludes.

But weirdly there are no book sales going on -- it's just a cultural event and people can picnic and drink on the grounds during the readings. You have to bring your own book and then rush the stage in hopes of getting it signed!

Arsen Kashkashian said...

The authors are not paid for the book signings. Of course, they earn some money through the sales of their books. The publishers pay the authors' expenses while on tour.

It's a great deal for bookstores when it works right and you get a nice crowd.

Anna said...

As an event coordinator in Oregon, I constantly worry about stuff like that. I have had one event in five years that had zero attendees, but plenty where so few showed up it was embarrassing. I would love to have a big name author someday, but the thought of having to cancel or having a poor showing makes me hyperventilate a bit. Keep up the good work!

Susan said...

The Philip Roth "event" (non-event?) was much the same here in Madison, sparsely attended and really not all that interesting. You put it nicely, but the combination of an unforthcoming and overly scrupulous Roth with an uninventive and basically dull interviewer was unhappy. I would definitely not used this as a standard for any future simulcast events nor as a reason to spurn them; they are, after all, the GREEN APPROACH to being everywhere!

The highlight of our event, I must say, was indubitably when my name was drawn as the winner of the free autographed novel. And, honestly, I would have sent it to you if I didn't know you had a heap of them in the store there!

PS: Twitterdeedum: Impending Arrival????????

Anonymous said...

Great to hear about the Neil Gaiman event. We're a new independent children's bookshop in Edinburgh and we're hosting Neil's event next Tuesday. It's the biggest event we've run and has been really stressful - Neil and his publishers are angels but the people we're renting the venue from.... I'm delighted that your event went well - keep your fingers crossed on the 28th for us!

Anonymous said...

At the end of the day how many extra GRAVEYARD'S did you sell because of the reckless overbuy...
--Your Rep