Deb: 49 Writers Interview with Rachel Epstein, UAA Bookstore

As part of our ongoing discussion on local readings and author events, we asked Rachel Epstein, Special Events Coodinator at the University of Alaska Anchorage bookstore, to give us her take on the subject. Worried about parking for UAA Bookstore events?  Wondering how many people typically show up?  Considering how to make the most of a UAA Bookstore event? Read on!

Tell us about author readings at UAA. How many does the bookstore typically host in a year? What kind of space should authors expect? How are they advertised? Who, and how many, generally attend? How did you arrive at the usual 5-7 p.m. time slot? And what about parking?

Approximately 30 special authore events are held at the bookstore. Most events are theme-related, which can include questions about writing and publishing. Events are informal. Themes have ranged from poetry, history, Alaska Native topics, the environment, globalization, classics, and UAA faculty research and generally about Alaska issues.

Special events are held upstairs in the Campus Bookstore where the TechZone is. Eighty chairs can fit in the space. For smaller groups chairs can be arranged in a semi-circle. There are cushioned chairs that are quite comfortable. The space is equipped for PowerPoint presentations; blinds can shut out the light. A lectern and mic are on hand too.

There is no advertising budget so I rely to PSAs to broadcast the events. Events are posted on internal UAA listserves, Green & Gold Daily, Northern Light Newspaper, KRUA radio and a bookstore email list. Posters are designed, printed and distributed on campus and at various locations in Anchorage.  I can only make guesses when it comes to attendance. Anywhere from two to 75 people may show up, usually 15-40:  one-third from UAA and the rest from elsewhere. Age and gender vary.

The 5:00 p.m. -7:00 p.m. timeslot seems to be the most convenient for people coming from Anchorage. The Campus Bookstore hours are Monday-Thursday from 8:30 am-7:00 pm and Friday from 8:30 am – 6:00 pm. Other times have been tried with less favorable results. (The exception is UAA Chef Vern’s Chocolate presentation). If there is a public demand to have an event scheduled for a different time, I can gladly discuss it with the bookstore staff, but is expensive to open the store on the weekends given staffing and utility costs.

All events are free and open to the public. People who attend a bookstore event do not have to pay for parking. If they receive a ticket they can return it to me within two weeks and I will take care of it. If someone pays for parking, I cannot reimburse him or her.

What ratio of local to Outside authors does the UAA bookstore host in a typical year? How is this balance struck?

I do not know what the ratio of local to outside authors would be. Having such a balance is not a consideration. The issues are attendance, themes, and quality of discussion. I rarely schedule a book signing alone. I discuss with the Trade Book Buyer, Carol Stephan, what new books are on the horizon and then attempt to invite authors to the bookstore. I have no funds available to offer guest speakers, unless there is another group interested in cosponsoring an event.

Garry Utermohle at University of Alaska Press has been a wonder to work with. He has helped to keep the UAA Campus Bookstore on the radar when it comes to authors coming to Anchorage. UAA faculty from the UAA CWLA Dept, English Dept. Languages Dept and History Dept, in particular, have engaged in many events at the bookstore over the years.

To what extent do readings generate enough sales to justify them from strictly a retail perspective? What less tangible but perhaps more significant benefits do a store and an author derive from readings?

The UAA Campus Bookstore is a self-supportive, non-profit department under Business Services at UAA. Although retail is key to the bookstore’s survival, we cannot compete with other retail operations in Anchorage, or advertise a sale to the public. The goals of special events at the UAA Campus Bookstore are to encourage people to come to the bookstore that might not consider visiting the store, connect with the public square mission of the university and encourage discourse from a variety of perspectives. It is important to increase book sales through special events held here, but this is not the heart of the matter, since events are held that do not have a book or author highlighted. I want everyone to feel welcome and have a good time. If people want to return to the store purchase clothing or a book from our general book section or faculty author section, so much the better.

As online book promotion increases, how do you see local book events changing?

The UAA Campus Bookstore website is a constant work in progress. The Special Events link on the left, and then the Past Events link include practically all special events that have been held at the UAA Campus Bookstore since 2000. Word of mouth support for bookstore events and book sales can go together.

My main concern is having a place for freedom of expression, in a shared space, where people can ask questions. This can happen online; however, I think many people hide behind online ways of communication. And I think people can become obsessed with online promotion using all sorts of media without getting to the text itself.

The UAA homepage has a link for Podcasts. Since there are many events held at UAA, not all events can be taped. I have received requests to have a live web stream of events, in real time. This may be in the near future. Technical details have to be worked. If this does get underway in the future, the meaning of local may expand to include people at UAA campuses: Kodiak, Homer, Kenai, Mat-Su, Valdez.
I’d like to add that people coming together at a bookstore event creates a unique, informal environment. One never knows what will happen, what will be said, or who will be there. I suggest people come and see what might unfold, without expectation. Maybe with an overload of online information and promotions more people will want to come to the bookstore.

As Title Wave, billed as Alaska’s largest independent bookstore, returns to mostly used book sales with a potentially drastic cutback in readings, in what ways might UAA pick up the slack?

The UAA Campus Bookstore may be able to pick up the slack by increasing our new hard cover book selection and promoting new books through more author events. It depends upon what people want.   The bookstore has a very tight inventory/sale system for general books and the other retail areas of the store. Besides space constraints, the life of a book depends upon sales. Special events are one way to have more titles in the store that otherwise may not be ordered.

What should authors know about promoting their books at the UAA bookstore?

To promote books at the UAA Campus Bookstore I suggest the authors decide how they want to present their work, and question whether reading their book or giving a craft talk is the best way to go. Another question is whether the author would be better represented if he or she joined others in a panel discussion, or had a book theme that can be elaborated on instead of focusing solely on their book.

From my experience the most amazing events did not occur because of the size of the audience or how many books were sold. When Joan Kane read her poetry is was amazing. But what really has stayed with me was Joan speaking about living and writing in New York when compared to Anchorage. This type of experience is what I strive for. And we had great book sales!

I encourage authors to attend bookstore events, decide if this is where they want to be, and give me a call at 786-4782.

1 thought on “Deb: 49 Writers Interview with Rachel Epstein, UAA Bookstore”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    That was enlightening. With all the media and bookstore changes that are happening, we needed these details and ideas. Thanks, Rachel & Deb.

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