Friday, June 20, 2008

On Events

A few months after we opened (two years at the end of June – zowie!) we had a call from an author who wanted to do an event in our shop. I almost dropped the phone with excitement. When we opened Mostly Books, holding great evsents was #2 on our list of shop USPs – but with the rush to open the shop, with the learning curve we found ourselves on, our focus on the bookgroups, coffee, etc. we hadn't spent a great deal of time inviting authors (or at least, any author that anyone had heard of). Anyway – I said ‘yes’ to him immediately over the phone, and our fledgling publicity machine swung into gear (i.e. a mailshot to our small but growing mailing list, and a PR piece to the local paper). We also put up posters in the shop, posted a piece on the blog, handed out fliers, etc. And then we waited. And waited. Not a sausage. It didn’t help that no-one had heard of the author, but then – we had no track record either so enticing big names to Abingdon was proving difficult. But we’d canvassed opinion about events when we first opened, and we knew that our customers were overwhelmingly in favour of them. One week before the event we’d sold two tickets. We were frankly in a bit of a panic. At this point the second (and thus far unused) part of our publicity machine got going: cajoling and outright bribery. We evangelised to anyone who came into the shop about the event, we offered free tickets, we walked around and handed leaflets to people, we even engaged in a publicity-raising prank aimed at the local mayor which backfired spectacularly. On the day of the event the author himself phoned up to say that he was bringing some people with him (thank goodness) and even my Mum drove the two hours down from Cambridgeshire (and brought a friend). The guy who lived above the shop was suddenly available and he came down with his girlfriend. Eventually, by the time the event started we had 15 people – which became our baseline for an event that isn’t classified as a total disaster. What we discovered was that although people generally liked the idea of events, when it came to buying a ticket there was always a reason why they weren’t able to make it to that particular event. Slowly, over the next few months, we discovered a few home truths about book events in independent bookshops. At one point last year we sat down and looked critically at our track record on events and these were the fairly grim realities:
  1. They take a lot of effort – especially to do them well
  2. They don’t make any money (more on that later)
  3. Unless the author is famous, no-one comes
  4. Unless you have a track record, it’s difficult to get anyone famous (see 3 above)
  5. The kinds of people who are most likely to come to events are those people who already have packed diaries – or they are stretched with busy lives, families, long working hours.
  6. Lots of people are intimidated by ‘literary events’ and that puts them off
This last point was a real surprise to us. We discovered this when we accidentally talked to one of our customers at the start of last year, and realised that they weren’t sure what a book event actually was. Based on this, and for an event last February, we sent out a very low-key email to our list inviting people to a meet-the-author event, and explaining a little bit about what they might expect. We had one of biggest turnouts. Slap! Anyway, having sat down and reviewed the situation (cue song) we started to do things a bit differently with our events. And that has made all the difference (cue poem). So here’s how we do events now:
  • We’ve discovered that running events in a regular ‘slot’ (where possible) really helps attendance.
  • We have started to get our customers involved in the authors that we approach – we will be doing an event in July with Sarah Stovell and in August with Jane Brocket: both of these events have come about in part from talking to customers and canvassing their opinion.
  • As time has gone on, as our mailing list has grown, as we’ve gotten to know the best ways to promote events, this has also helped grow our catchment and attendance - also we now have a small group of regulars who look forward to our events.
  • Ticket sales tend to be in a 'u' curve - we sell some when the event is announced initially - and then we have last minute sales from people who are either a) unexpectedly free, or b) only hear about it when we're doing our last-minute push.
  • The most important point – we have got to know the idiosyncracies of Abingdon in terms of what works (and doesn't work) for events. For example, we’ve started to hold events at alternative venues in Abingdon (churches, schools, retreat centres, open-air stalls – we’re doing one in a pub in August!). We also do a lot more events for children during the day - this is much more convenient for busy Mums and Dads.
This isn’t just about helping us – it’s about making the events worthwhile for authors as well, who sometimes travel a fair few miles to be with us. I think all authors have horror stories concerning at least one event they were involved in - hopefully there hasn't been a Mostly Books horror story so far... So, the big question, are our events profitable? Some definitely are. For many, however, if you take the extra staff costs, time, promotional costs, costs of ordering in (and sometimes returning) stock – on a strict bottom-line analysis: probably not. But that – to use a colloquial phrase - is so not the point. Doing events is critical to the future of the shop, because of a number of intangibles that are not easy to measure but we know are there. Many of our customers – even those who have never made it to an event – support the shop, and enjoy being part of the shop community because they know we are doing events. It’s an important part of ‘buying into’ what we are trying to do. Events also create buzz – which, let's face it, is a nebulous concept much used in marketing jargon, but one I think everyone knows the meaning of intuitively. When there’s lots of things happening, you create a special kind of energy in and around the shop, and this definitely lifts the numbers of people visiting and buying books generally. When we are doing events, we sell more books even if they don't occur at the same time. (Saying that, a few weeks ago we did five events in 8 days which was a bit extreme even for us). And then there are those special events which just come together perfectly and remind you why you opened a bookshop in the first place. Recently, a customer of ours who has supported the shop since we opened, who we’ve got to know very well as a friend, made it to her first event. We know how difficult it is for her to get to events, and she has tried several times before. She was just so thrilled to have made it, had a great evening, and we were so happy she was able to come. We have some cracking events coming up over the next few months – more details on our events pages - but we're particularly excited that on Tuesday, July 1st we welcome Helen Rappaport to the shop to discuss her book Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs. Having appeared at the Oxford Literary festival, and Hay-on-Wye, you can read more about the book when Helen recently guest-blogged about her book on dovegreyreader. The book is a gripping, shocking account of what you might think is a familiar story - the death of the Russian royal family after the Revolution. We expect Helen - as a former actor - to spellbind the audience when she comes. A week later we welcome Nicola Beauman – founder and head of Persephone Books – which will be a very special evening for a number of reasons, maily because Persephone Books are one of our signature ranges that we have had in the shop since opening. We have already sold plenty of tickets, and I'm now worried we may need to move to a bigger venue... So – if you’ve never been to an event at Mostly Books before: can we tempt you over the next next few weeks? Over a glass of wine, in a very relaxed environment - let us know if we can reserve you a ticket...

1 comment:

  1. Events are obviously difficult things to get right ... but all I can say is that the event you organised for Eliza Graham and me for Playing with the Moon and Speaking of Love was wonderfully organised (and well attended). Thank you for it ... and may all your future events be successful: they sound intriguing, so I'm sure they will be.

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