Why do virtual events have higher attendance but lower sales?


After a monumental shift to hosting 2020 author events online, many bookstores reported that attendance for virtual events is higher (sometimes much higher) than for physical book events–but event-related sales are way down.

In fact, during a briefing at the SIBA/NAIBA trade show in September 2020, Brooklyn bookstore Greenlight Books (who had hosted 150+ virtual events since March!) shared that one event drew 80 online attendees, but they only sold 12 books. And this rate is actually above average: many booksellers are reporting an average sales conversion of 10% for virtual events. So what’s happening?

There could be any number of reasons for this, but one intriguing possibility revolves around active vs. passive investment.

It takes effort to attend a physical event: you have to get ready (even if you just put on your shoes), travel to the venue, potentially spend money on fuel or food while you’re out, and spend at least a couple of hours outside of your home. That’s active investment; you’ve put work into being in that space, and this increases your stake in what you “take away” from the event at the end of the night, whether intangible (general enjoyment) or tangible (a book or other purchase).

Subtle social pressures may also influence sales at physical events: the signing and sales are public, and choosing to buy–or not buy–the book may feel “noticed” by other attendees, booksellers, or the author. At physical events, you have an opportunity to connect with an author directly, and even this brief interaction can create a positive impression, even a feeling of “relationship,” that incentivizes you to support the author with a book purchase.

Contrast this to a virtual event, where there’s no expectation to dress to “go out,” no travel is required, and you can turn off your video and “disappear” from the event at any point without scrutiny. This is more passive investment. You can’t peruse store shelves, or mingle with other participants in a physical space. The bar to attendance is lower than ever–but “attending” is not the same thing as engaging.

In addition, the instant gratification of the book signing a challenge. At traditional author events, attendees who buy a book during the event leave with it in-hand. Physical book signings also enable readers to have direct, personalized experiences with authors. Not so with virtual events: Book plates and mass-signed stock don’t have the same personalized feeling, and waiting on a book delivery is not as satisfying as leaving with it. A lack of physical connection and instant gratification also contribute to lower sales and event engagement.

During virtual events, book sales are handled privately and not publicly, and (much like any online shopping experience) passive investment, distraction, apathy, lack of peer pressure, and even the subtle inconvenience of writing in your payment/shipping details can result in fewer purchases.

Virtual events have lowered the bar for participation, which dramatically increases attendance — but not sales. It’s important to understand that, for the time being at least, online events revolve less around sales and more around:

  1. pure necessity (as some stores just aren’t able to physically reopen right now),
  2. enabling participants to join regardless of location (meaning you now have a better chance of working with bookstores that aren’t necessarily “local,” and involving nonlocal participants from around the world), and
  3. engaging with your audience in fresh new ways.

Online events are still your time to shine. Even if there’s not an immediate sales boost, increased attendance and exposure during virtual events can have a positive impact on growing your readership, relationships, and sales long-term. So if you’re wondering if you should participate in virtual events, the answer is a resounding: yes! Understanding the challenges and opportunities of this unique virtual space will help you set better expectations, get creative, and strategize how to best invest your own time and energy during your event!