Like my colleague Kenny Brechner, I also find myself thinking about our school events program this week. We help facilitate about 150 author events across 6 school districts a year at this point, and it’s one of the most valuable things we do to get out in the community and build curious, enthusiastic readers. As Kenny wrote this week, these events are magical and transformative and important—not only connecting kids with exciting new literature to keep them reading, but engaging them in conversations that matter (especially if those conversations are about squirrels…).
The reason this is bubbling to the surface for me right now is that our wonderful school events coordinator moved on to another opportunity recently, so I’ve taken the events back over for a little while. This isn’t terribly unusual. Bookstores see a lot of turnover, so I think that anyone who has worked in one for a certain period of time feels vaguely prepared to make shifts like this on a moment’s notice.
Corralling the intricacies of a program in progress always offers challenges (thanks for bearing with me, Austin librarians). But there are actually good things about the cycle of delegating programs and getting them back again. First, other people can bring their own talents and focus and expertise to the table and push things forward in new ways. Several of the best innovations we’ve had have involved technological solutions to old problems. A few years ago Ellen Greene (now our Bookfair Manager) took over the program and helped build a credit card portal for the events that solved a lot of problems, Shannon Brewer recently introduced a Google form that has really streamlined our proposal collection from schools. New perspectives really do add a lot.
And second, when you take programs back, you can gain valuable transparency into what bogs them down. After all, we often make the greatest strides as a business when we question why we do things a certain way. Even before this transition we have been taking a hard look at our P&Ls. This kind of literacy outreach is at the core of our mission as a community store, so we are committed to helping the program continue to grow, but when you take a look at the network of tracking grids, forms, and emails with both publishers and schools that proliferate in a program this size and then add in event hosts’ time, mileage reimbursement, follow-up visits to the school to pick up books, reconciliations, and shipping back returns, you can end up with an infrastructure that not every event’s sales can support. We are lucky enough to get a number of powerhouse events every year that help make the whole program profitable, and Austin schools have been very understanding about the reasons for our sales minimums, but efficiency is very much on my mind right now.
The ability to get books drop shipped directly to schools the last few years has been a godsend, but I’ve personally started some conversations with our publishing partners about how we can make these events just a little easier. I also am thinking a lot about how to prioritize the success of each event while keeping a handle on the number of steps it takes to get us there. Forms and grids and binders and websites can be transformative when wielded judiciously, but they can also be albatrosses around our necks. I guess that at the end of the day, Kenny, my friend, this is less a blog offering solutions to your problem and more a bit of commiseration and heartfelt encouragement to keep fighting the fight. As we both know, the good work is worth it in the end.