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The era of the free author reading is dead.

June 27, 2011

Would you pay to see Stephenie Meyer at a bookstore?

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?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2011 5:59 pm

    Very Interesting. I wonder if Mr. Kaplin also charges a small fee from the publishers also to hold a book reading? Nothing wrong with that. He has charged for years on the other side. Nothing really new about that.

    I found that in my case book signings were mostly successful from the efforts of the author to market themselves. They have to do much more than just the publisher., though it is important from the publishers be a strong marketing partner. I had one in my home town once. I marketed it by calling friends, sending letters to local Newspapers and following up the calls.. I did this for 2 months before. The result was 172 books sold in two hours. The over all sales went through the roof for those two hours for the store. I also had them set me up in the store by the register. (not a back room no one can hardly find). I had another with about half that sales. I recently met with a wonderful man who owns a publishing company and has published 120 million books. He is convinced the industry will continue to change. I think he is right. To survive the stores will have to do different things. That is the industry today.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 28, 2011 10:37 am

      If you read the story by the Penguin person, you’ll see that pubishers chip in signiicantly to support at least some readings.

  2. June 28, 2011 8:05 am

    Interesting. Occasionally, I will buy a book from Amazon, but I also make a point of buying a book (or 2 or 3) every time I walk inside a bookstore. I like to buy poetry books or books by local authors.
    When I’ve given a reading/signing at a bookstore, generally at least some of the people buy books. People who take the trouble to come to a reading I think naturally want to get a book, but if they’re buying the books from Amazon and bringing them in to get signed?? Then booksellers have every right to charge admission.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 28, 2011 10:39 am

      Amazon is the antichrist, Pat, in terms of books, literature and book culture. We should consider an absolute boycott. Otherwise, I’m in complete agreement.

  3. Connie permalink
    June 28, 2011 8:14 am

    I can’t actually say I blame bookstores for making you buy the book to come to readings of the more popular authors. The point is, after all, to sell books. To do it with every author is probably a bad idea, business-wise, and yes, you’d miss out on the casual reader who might come sit down and hear someone unfamiliar speak but wouldn’t pay $25 for the privilege of doing so. But if you’re going to have an event that will draw a big crowd it’s only fair you should need to buy the book to get in.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 28, 2011 10:40 am

      Yes, Connie, I agree. As you know, Books & Books has been doing this for years, and the world hasn’t come to an end. In fact, the practice has probably helped the bookstore continue its wealthy of free events with lesser-known authors.

  4. July 2, 2011 1:10 am

    I agree with the prior posts; I especially agree to the fact that it is within the book store’s right to charge for readings from famous authors. Fans pay hundreds of dollars to attend a concert; even when the economy is bad, people still spend money on entertainment. Having an author do a reading is a privilege, and I am sure most people would not mind paying a fee if they really wish to listen to the author speak. As far as the case where new authors are doing the reading, it would probably be appropriate to offer free admission, or to give a pass to customers who have bought a book, coffee, snack or so on at the store. Organizations develop strategies after studying their surroundings. If the book stores discover that this is the way they may be able to make some profits after analyzing what’s going on, then I would say go for it. It is definitely a strategy.

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