Technology Meetup Recap: Digital Events

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A Technology Meetup hosted by the American Booksellers Association was held on Tuesday, September 10, and focused on hosting digital events. During the online conversation, booksellers heard from colleagues about alternatives to in-store visits with authors, from online book clubs to Facebook Live videos to Skype sessions.

Technology Meetups are part of ABA’s ongoing education initiative for independent bookstores; Technology Meetups will take place one Tuesday per month at 2:00 p.m. ET; ABA’s Marketing Meetups are held two Thursdays a month at 11:00 a.m. ET.

Guest speakers for this session included Gee Gee Rosell of Buxton Village Books in Buxton, North Carolina; BrocheAroe Fabian of River Dog Book Co. in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin; and Candice Huber of Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop in New Orleans, Louisiana; with additional information provided by Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California.

Fabian shared that she began experimenting with hosting digital events in part because she opened a non-traditional bookstore that didn’t have a permanent physical location. River Dog’s first digital event was with Zeyn Joukhadar for his book The Map of Salt and Stars; Fabian originally connected with him during an event for his first book when she worked at Quail Ridge Books.

“We did what we could to welcome him as a new author into the community. We had all this amazing stuff that happened in person, and so I wanted to try to mimic that as much as I could, but in a virtual space,” she said, noting that she then worked with him to develop ways he could connect to readers online, which included writing a special letter to book club members.

For Joukhadar’s event with River Dog, Fabian said that she used Google Hangouts, which has become her go-to platform for hosting digital events; additionally, Fabian did virtual author events when she was a teacher, which, she said, is a great way to partner with schools.

“I know it’s getting harder and harder for authors to create their own tours; they’re not as publisher supported, and I know it’s harder and harder for schools to buy books and pay to have authors come to visit them,” Fabian said. “It’s a great way to bridge that gap, to say, we can do this virtual event that is practically free.”

Right now, she said, she’s running a couple of virtual book clubs, one called the Armchair Travel Bookclub and another called the Love Languages Bookclub. “I can’t give you numbers on attendees and say that I’m selling through the roof because I don’t actually require that people purchase a book through me to participate. It’s not a subscription service — it’s more about community building,” she said.

The book clubs span several different platforms as well. In the past, she used Meetup to host Armchair Travel Book Club meetings in different cities around the U.S. while she was traveling for work; those groups are now defunct because she’s become more localized to one place, but she said she’d be migrating them over to Facebook or Instagram.

Buxton Village Books started doing digital events because of its location in Buxton, North Carolina, said Rosell, which was recently ground zero for a hurricane. The town, she said, has a FEMA-supported radio station that is streamed online and required to be on the air 24/7 in order to send out damage reports, danger reports, and hurricane warnings. To support the station, Rosell began a virtual book club, Hatteras Island Reads, hosted on air.

The first book selected for the club was Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, Rosell shared, noting that she chooses books that are ocean-themed or storm-themed. That meeting had over 300 participants.

Some of the participants were students from local schools, she added, and Buxton Village Books received grants from the Outer Banks Community Foundation and the county-sponsored art council to buy books to donate to schools and libraries so participants did not need to buy them.

“We are not focused on making money on the particular book that we’re discussing,” Rosell said. “We’re also interested in community-building, because that pays dividends far and wide and down the road. It puts us on the map as something other than simply a retail outlet for books.”

For the next meeting, Rosell chose Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. “We invited the weather service to come in and talk about meteorology. We had first responders come in and talk about the aftermath of storms and how that is different today than it was [back then],” she said.

The largest event the store did, Rosell noted, was for Wallace J. Nichols’ Blue Mind. The store had sold enough hardcover copies of the book to buy the author a plane ticket to North Carolina, which allowed the store to broadcast the event using Facebook Live to nearly 1,500 participants from around the world.

Rosell added that most of the customers she’s marketing to aren’t local; instead, they’re only in town a week or two out of the year. “Digital is a great way to reach out to them,” she said.

Huber shared that Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop got into digital book clubs because she noticed that while attendance for in-store events was low, customers repeatedly expressed interest in the book on social media following the event.

Her store’s customers, Huber noted, also seem to prefer meeting up online. “For our book clubs, a lot of the members are the kind of people who will want to be at home and tune in from their computer,” she said. “For us, it’s about knowing your customer base. We learned that a lot of our customers really preferred to do things online.”

Tubby & Coo’s still has book clubs that meet in-store and do well, Huber added, and they’re mostly composed of people who have just moved into town. “It gives people a place to meet other people,” she said, noting that she’s also created Facebook groups for each of the book clubs to encourage discussion outside of the club, which is another place for people to socialize.

The store has also hosted author events using Google Hangouts, Huber added. For events, Huber said, some attendees will attend in-store, and then Tubby & Coo’s will use Google Hangouts on the store’s computer to both display the author and reach remote attendees who have logged in to the meeting.

Google Hangouts helps extend access to store events to all who want to come, she added. Additionally, Huber has hosted conversations with authors on Twitter; the conversations are usually a Q&A-style format, she said, and they last for about 15 to 20 minutes. Huber will then promote that conversation on social media to encourage customers to buy the author’s book.

While Huber knows that these efforts have brought in sales because customers have specifically mentioned social media when requesting a book, she noted that Tubby & Coo’s primarily does it all in order to build community.

Kelly Burlingham from Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California, provided information on live-streaming events, as Vroman’s recently live-streamed a book talk with Russell Brand at the request of his team so that the event’s Q&A portion could include people who were not in-store.

Vroman’s used Facebook Live to stream the event, which enabled to the store to promote it on its own Facebook page; Brand and his team shared the post as well. Facebook also provides analytics, which is helpful to determine how many people have viewed the stream in real time, as well as how many have seen it after the fact and shared it. In terms of logistics, Vroman’s made sure that the Wi-Fi was working properly so that the store would be able to connect to the stream without any interruptions or slow-downs.