Killer Events Knock 'em Dead

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Booksellers attending the panel on "Creating Killer Events" on Thursday, May 18, at BookExpo America heard from experienced booksellers about the importance of making an independent bookstore the community center for great author (and "authorless") events, to sell books, to garner free publicity, and to strengthen ties with customers and other key community institutions.

Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Miami told attendees how his store first began organizing regular events, including an open-mike poetry night. He said that the store quickly realized "what an event can do for you when you have zero dollars for publicity." In the case of the open-mike night, an article in the Miami Herald resulted in more than 300 people attending the next poetry event.

Kaplan said that such an enthusiastic customer response spurred him and his colleagues to redouble their efforts to make sure that a wide range of local groups -- from the public library and the ACLU to area book clubs -- were informed that they were invited to use the bookstore for events. He encouraged attendees to make clear that "we want our store to be your store and the community's store." It's important, he said, to articulate "what [being] that community center means when you manage it business-wise.... You can use that sensibility to promote your store."

But if the opportunity is there, so too are the logistical challenges, and Kaplan and fellow panelist Collette Morgan of Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, with ABA COO Oren Teicher, the panel's moderator, spent the bulk of the session presenting an overview of the important steps necessary to organize, publicize, and execute in-store events.

A key element to success, the panelists said, is to assign one staff person to have overall responsibility for events. Kaplan encouraged booksellers to establish the position of an events coordinator. "Don't hesitate to try to give up some of the responsibilities to someone else so there is one focused person to handle [events]", he said. Looking beyond the job title, however, Morgan encouraged attendees to keep all employees in the loop regarding events in order to fully utilize any colleague's connections, friendships, and affiliations, which often provide key resources for events.

The panelists noted that creating and hosting "authorless events" was a great way to gain experience in organizing, publicizing, and running events -- and in establishing the track record necessary to convince publishers that a store can handle author events. Such authorless events at Books & Books and Wild Rumpus ranged from talks by local experts and children's story times to a "battle of the bands" for Minneapolis garage bands at Wild Rumpus, with the winner receiving two hours of session time in a local recording studio. "You can turn everything in your mundane life into an event, if you want to," said Morgan, who noted that among the successful and memorable authorless events at Wild Rumpus were an annual inoculation of the store's resident animals (including a ferret) and a "Mummify Your Barbie" activity.

But the full commercial benefit of compelling events will not be realized by any bookstore without media coverage, and the first step in securing that is creating a media list. Teicher stressed to attendees, "There is no media contact that is too small." Kaplan suggested that booksellers begin "getting to know the people who make up the media" in their communities and to start the process with "people who are your customers." All the panelists encouraged attendees to contact local magazines (daily, weekly, campus), radio stations (public, private, college), television stations (broadcast, cable), websites, blogs, and any other organization that disseminates information.

Kaplan also counseled booksellers not to feel sheepish about sending out press releases regarding events. Print and broadcast media often face the challenge of finding enough stories to fill each news cycle, he noted, "[and] the fact of the matter is that we are doing them a favor to give them something to write about."

Morgan encouraged booksellers to work to use appropriate media outlets for different sorts of events. She noted that several events at Wild Rumpus owed a large measure of their success to coverage in blogs, including an in-store event with the musical group They Might Be Giants. "Someone got the information from someone and posted it on a blog and in a fanzine, and we had 400 people in the store," she said.

Having a persuasive press kit is also critical, the panelists said. A good press kit includes photos of, and a fact sheet about, the bookstore, a bio of the owner, press clips about the store and events, and any other material that will interest the media.

Press kits are also taking new formats. Kaplan explained how Books & Books had created a media kit on DVD that was both effective and relatively inexpensive to produce. To add value to the publisher, Kaplan said, the store included a full area media list in digital format on the kit. A good media list will "help you be on the radar of the publishers," said Kaplan. Sharing "a foolproof, bulletproof" media list and "some ideas for positioning a title" in your community will make a store more useful to a publisher and go far in helping build a strong relationship with a publisher, Kaplan noted. [Watch for a feature on Books & Books' digital press kit in an upcoming edition of BTW.]

The panelists detailed some of the key steps in executing a successful event:

  • Talk to your sales rep

"Your sales reps can be your best ally, so keep them up to speed about what you are doing," advised Kaplan. And Morgan noted, "There is no such thing as communicating too often ... to remain on the radar screen [of publishers]."

  • Get to know publicists

"Network in a professional manner," cautioned Kaplan, to ensure that when publicists "think of your store they will think that it wasn't a hassle to work with you." Nothing will happen without the publicists' support, the panelists said, so it's essential to build a solid relationship with them. The panelists encouraged the booksellers to approach publishers at the earliest possible date. Bookstores are asking for an important resource, an author's time, and they are competing with many other venues.

  • Stay flexible, be creative

While there are general rules, each event will present its own challenges. Learn to be flexible, and remember that there is a solution to every problem.

  • Create a generic author signing proposal

A good proposal includes contact information, sample newsletters, e-newsletters, postcards, website copy, or any other material that shows how your store promotes events. It also highlights reasons the bookstore making the pitch is a solid prospect to host the specific author event it is soliciting, and it includes a map of the region that shows the store's proximity to major highways, population centers, local attractions, and other relevant information.

  • Create a template to announce events via e-mail or on a website

Create one template that can be used repeatedly. This will save time and money and will help brand store events.

Booksellers praised the panel. Lindsey McGuirk, events coordinator of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, appreciated the suggestions by Wild Rumpus' Morgan. "Collette had really fun ideas," said McGuirk. "She's someone I'll definitely keep in touch with. And she's not afraid to do non-author events."

Annie Crane of Lift Bridge Book Shop in Brockport, New York, also planned on borrowing Morgan's event concepts. "I loved her 'Mummify Your Barbie' event. You could tie in all sorts of Egyptian themes." Crane said that in addition to suggestions for events, the panel distributed a "very practical" checklist that included to-do lists for various stages of planning and hosting the event before, during, and after. "This is very useful to make sure you're not forgetting something -- which can easily happen," said Crane. --Dan Cullen

The session handouts, "Events Checklist" and "General Rules for Creating a Successful Event," are available in PDF format in the Professional Development section of