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Booksellers turn the page on book signings with virtual events

Booksellers turn the page on book signings with virtual events

Charlotte Colaluca studied acting in college, but performance was never part of her job as events manager at Mystery to Me bookstore on Monroe Street.

Until now. With the store closed to in-person shopping since St. Patrick’s Day due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person author events are also a thing of the past. The bookstore has transitioned to online author chats, and Colaluca sometimes has to be on-screen “hosting” the event so that the featured guest isn’t talking into the void.

“If we don’t have an official moderator like Doug Moe, the author can be left alone on screen,” Colaluca said. “Another transition in this brave new world is that I’ve become a talk show host for Mystery to Me.”

Like everybody else, booksellers and libraries have had to adjust to life in a pandemic. Madison libraries and bookstores like Mystery to Me offer online orders and curbside pickups. But for events, which often forge an even closer relationship between readers, authors and local bookstores, they have to adapt even more. To do that, the library and Mystery to Me are using the online webinar tool Crowdcast. 

“We were all trying to figure out what we were going to do, and how we were going to do it,” said Conor Moran, the director of the library’s Wisconsin Book Festival. “We just decided that we were going to see this as an opportunity.”

For the library, a silver lining of going virtual is hosting events with major authors that would have been tougher, and certainly more expensive, to book if they physically brought the author to town. Salman Rushdie and Stacey Abrams both did events in June. On July 14, Sarah M. Broom discussed her memoir “The Yellow House,” which won the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Irish author Shane O’Mara will talk about his book “In Praise of Walking” on Thursday, July 23 with Florence Williams, author of “The Nature Fix.” The authors will be half a world apart.

“There’s virtually no way in a world of in-person events, Shane would be able to come here form Ireland,” Moran said. ”This is a way that we can reach across many different time zones. We’re seeing the physical barriers to participation going down.”

Another upshot of virtual book events is that there’s no extra expense to bringing two or more authors to the same event. Colaluca’s seen as many as four YA authors appear at the same event, a logistical impossibility for most bookstores to do in person.

“(The YA world) is a very wonderful, unique, inclusive community,” she said. “I think this new thing of them being on virtual tour together is so appealing. It’s like getting to hang out with them in their house.”

This year’s Wisconsin Book Festival will be all virtual. Instead of packing all the events into three or four days like in past festivals, they will be spread out over a longer period of time so as not to counter-program against each other.

Yet as fun as the virtual events can be, so far they do not generate the book sales that in-person events do. And after all, the reason authors go on tour is to sell books. Bookstores will often include a link during the event for readers to buy the book directly from the store. Mystery to Me gets autographed bookplates from the publisher so customers can still have a signed copy, even if they don’t get the 30 seconds of awkward conversation while meeting their favorite author in person.

On the bright side, online events do build awareness for local bookshops for people who don’t necessarily live in the same town, Colaluca said. Mystery to Me has started doing “bookseller happy hours” where the employees uncork a bottle of wine and talk about some of their favorite new books.

“I think we have connected with people who are not in town and keep coming back,” she said. “And that’s not nothing.”

Whether they’re taking part in the virtual events or ordering online for curbside pickup, Colaluca’s gratified to see readers become aware of what local booksellers are going through during the pandemic.

“I am super encouraged to see so many people who we have never seen before, say ‘This made me reconsider my mindless purchases of things on Amazon,’” Colaluca said. “‘I know that you are struggling, and I know that Jeff Bezos is not struggling.’”

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.

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