The era of the free author reading is dead.
Here’s one more Hell you can blame on Amazon: Independent bookstores have started charging admission to author appearances. Sadly, free author events are not, as you might think, a right guaranteed by the Constitution. I looked it up.
The news that independents are starting to charge admission first appeared in a New York Times story on June 21. “Squeezed by competition from Internet retailers” (not to mention the poor economy and the precipitous glide into functional illiteracy), more and more stores see no alternative.
“We’re not just an Amazon showroom,” said Heather Gain, marketing manager at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. “If they aren’t purchasing the books from the establishments that are running these events, the bookstores are going to go away.”
No one’s happy about the evolving state of affairs, which is awkward and unwieldy anyway you look at it. Charging an entry fee, which usually takes the form of a voucher or gift card or the purchase of the author’s featured book, risks alienating devoted readers and regular customers.
“I wouldn’t want the people who have no idea who I am and have nothing else to do on a Wednesday night shut out,” says noveist Ann Patchett, currently on tour for her latest book, State of Wonder. “Those are your readers.”
But what choice do booksellers have, when customers visit their stores to browse books, then go home and order them more cheaply online?
“They type titles into their iPhones and go home,” said Nancy Salmon, the floor manager at Kepler’s. “We know what they’re doing, and it has tested my patience.”
And yet, and yet… The notion of having to pay to attend a reading rankles the tiniest molecules of my book-loving heart. It just seems wrong somehow, a violation of the natural order. And also wrong-headed:
How many times have I discovered a writer by stumbling upon an event? That’s how I got to know the work of Robert Olen Butler, Andrea Barrett, Laura Lippman, Mark Winegardner, Annette Gordon-Reed and others too numerous to mention.
On the other hand, I wish I could name all the times I’ve gone to a reading and wound up buying something other than the book on offer, like the time I went to hear Yann Martel at Books & Books, and came away with a photography book that caught my eye. I can look across to my book shelf and see it right now: David Bradford’s Drive-By Shootings: Photographs By a New York Taxi Driver.
Speaking of Books & Books, owner Mitchell Kaplan says that while he’s not considering levying an admission charge for most events, his stores have for years required a book purchase or the purchase of a gift card for tickets to select readings, which is to say the ones featuring the most famous authors.
“We feel it’s our responsibility to authors and their publishers to encourage as many book sales as possible,” Kaplan writes by email. “Also, the (New York Times) article left an impression that there were no costs to the bookstore for conducting an event.
“That’s not the case: we employ three event coordinators, we often cordon off a part of the store, we spend money advertising on our website, email newsletters, etc.”
For an excellent breakout of the expense to bookstores and publishers for putting on an author reading visit this 2008 blog post by Colleen Lindsay, who works for Penguin Group USA. So what do you think? Should bookstores start charging admission to author events that would previously have been free?