Booksellers Talk Virtual, In-School, and In-Store Book Fairs

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On January 27, the American Booksellers Association presented a session called “Planning Your Book Fair: The Basics for In-school, In-store, and Online Planning Success.”

Panelists included Kathy Burnette from Brain Lair Books in South Bend, Indiana; Jennifer Sauter-Price from Read Early and Daily in Arlington, Virginia; and Molly Olivo From Child’s Play in Washington, D.C.

During the session, booksellers discussed how to build a realistic timeline for a book fair, manage bookstore and school expectations based on a school’s needs, and create a checklist to ensure the fair goes off without a hitch, whether it’s in-person or online.

Booksellers are invited to attend a second session on planning in-person book fairs, slated for Wednesday, February 10, at 2:00 p.m. ET. Register here.

A recording of this session can be viewed on the Education Resources page on

Here are some of the key points from the session:

Starting a Book Fair

  • Olivo said that she starts the process by talking with the school about their vision for the event and how it connects with her store’s vision. From there, Olivo comes up with goals for the event, and also tries to build relationships with the committee and librarians she’s working with. She’ll also consider what format works best; right now, that tends to be virtual.
  • Sauter-Price noted that goal-setting early on in the process is particularly important. In Arlington, she tends to work with PTAs to put on book fairs, and each PTA she’s worked with has been very different. It’s important to gauge what they are looking for in terms of the event, whether the event is meant to be a money-making opportunity, or just a simple celebration of books.
  • When determining bandwidth, Burnette thinks about the type of school she plans to work with, and if she’s worked with it in the past, what kind of event it held. If the school has a lot of resources to help run the event, then Burnette is able to do more; if she has to work more on her own, her bandwidth becomes more limited.

Planning Timeline

  • Olivo said that three to six months is ideal for planning an in-school book fair.
  • For virtual book fairs, Sauter-Price said in her experience, it takes much less time. She was able to set one up in two weeks; the hardest part was setting up a dedicated webpage for the school.
  • For Burnette, it depends on how much of a list she has to curate and how much the school knows what it wants. The more she has to bring to the table, the longer it takes.

Determining Success

  • In Sauter-Price’s experience, virtual book fairs haven’t brought in as much money as in-person events have. During the pandemic, she held nine virtual events that brought in as much money as three to four in-person events would have. 
  • Olivo has found that virtual book fairs have been profitable for her store, particularly when one-time customers turn into repeat customers. Virtual events also allow her to track this data, while in-person ones don’t.
  • Burnette said that in terms of costs, booksellers should pay attention to shipping fees, as it can add up quickly.

Curating Lists

  • Burnette curates a special collection tailored to each school she works with, in addition to taking requests from teachers and librarians into consideration. 
  • Sometimes, schools have massive request lists, which may include books that won’t sell. To manage expectations, Olivo encourages booksellers to say no and have direct conversations about what works best for school book fairs. Her store also notes in its contract with the school that schools are only allowed to customize 10 percent of the list.
  • To introduce new and inclusive titles to schools, Sauter-Price offers mirror and window titles.

Book Fair Model: Website

  • Olivo’s store has modeled its virtual book fairs in a few different ways. For the first one, staff set up a dedicated school page on the store’s website with a separate shipping option. Now, it has a dedicated searchable tag for schools on its website. For delivery, the school can choose the store’s regular shipping options (at the customer’s cost) or the option of a big school drop-off, which lets the school distribute books itself.
  • Olivo also noted that for virtual book fairs, engagement with the school can boost sales. Her store might ask the school to send a reminder email highlighting certain titles that aren’t doing as well as expected.
  • Burnette noted that if the titles for a book fair have already been purchased, try to market the ones that didn’t sell well to customers in the community that will love them.

Book Fair Model: Bookshop

  • Burnette said that stores working with can host book fairs on a dedicated Bookshop page made for their store. Booksellers can make lists for the school through Bookshop and set up customers to purchase through the page.

Communication, Commitment, and Management

  • Each of the panelists emphasized clear, open communication with schools, especially in regard to shipping and out-of-stock titles.
  • Burnette recommended finding volunteers to help with certain parts of the process, which will help expand bandwidth as a bookseller and manage the event better. In the same vein, Sauter-Price recommended enlisting the help of family members where possible.