Not many authors would pick the Inter-American Development Bank as the sole DC stop on their book tour, but it’s working out great for Annie Duke. The cognitive scientist and former World Series of Poker champion is onstage in the bank’s flag-lined auditorium, teaching a group of employees how she evaluates risk. Poker, Duke tells them, is a “really good natural laboratory” for decision-making. They applaud, then break for lunch. When they return, an autographed copy of her book will be on every chair.
Duke’s appearance represents a bet that paid off for the DC indie bookstore Politics and Prose: that local institutions would be willing to purchase nice quantities of books in exchange for an intimate audience with interesting authors. Begun in 2016, P&P’s corporate-events program now arranges five or more such talks each month at law firms, private companies, and other institutions, making it a little-known but growing corner of Washington’s book-sales business. “It’s such an information-hungry city,” says Heidi Lewis, who launched the program in 2016.
Authors appreciate the sales, of course, but it works out well for the hosts, too. “I love the perk of reading new books and having access to speakers who would otherwise cost thousands of dollars,” says Sylvia James, director of diversity and inclusion at the law firm Winston & Strawn, which has sponsored several P&P events.
Lewis was formerly a publicist for HarperCollins and Dey Street Books and has represented celebrity authors such as Amy Poehler. She moved to Washington in 2015 and soon hatched the concept with Politics and Prose owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine. It wasn’t long before Lewis was cold-calling area businesses. Writers who have participated include Gretchen Carlson, Steven Pinker, and Joanne Lipman.
These are interesting times for independent bookstores, which are in much better shape than anyone imagined a few years ago. Big chains are ever less a threat, but in-creased indie competition and cheap online retailers make it essential to emphasize what you can deliver that others can’t, whether it be cafes, events, or opening at midnight for the latest Trump book. Politics and Prose, which has a new outpost at the Wharf and another coming to Union Market, schedules 700 talks a year around town, including big stars like Tom Hanks and Alec Baldwin.
The corporate-events program fits nicely into that do-more strategy, drumming up new revenue while achieving some effortless brand-building with captive audiences. “A bookstore in this internet age has to create experiences for people,” Lewis says. So how does she match authors with the right corporate clients? Publicists help, she says, but so does “a very full nightstand.”
This article appeared in the June 2018 issue of Washingtonian.