In the New York Times article "Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet," a number of booksellers talk about their reasons for and against the trend of independent bookstores charging admission for author events. In some cases, bookstores charge a nominal $5 or $10, redeemable for store purchase; in some cases, they charge more, usually for a particularly big-name author and often include a copy of the book.
As often happens with me, I have both an emotional and a rational response to this trend. Rationally, I understand why some bookstores feel the need to charge. Oftentimes, attendees don't buy a book at the event. (I don't always. Sometimes, after hearing the author, I don't want the book; sometimes I'm just not in a buying mood. Sometimes my budget doesn't allow it. Sometimes- yes- I got it somewhere else and have come as a fan to meet the author.) Oftentimes people do treat independent bookstores disrespectfully as, as Harvard Book Store marketing manager Heather Gain is quoted as saying, an "Amazon showroom."And bookstores need to make money- they need to see some return on the time and money they invest in events. Freeloaders are a burden and a detriment. The rational side is why I don't mind paying $5 or $10- and I rarely remember to cash in coupon value if it's offered.
I get bothered when it goes beyond that. For big-name authors, I've paid upwards of $50 per event to attend with my husband or a friend. One event cost $21.99 per person- the cost of the author's latest book. In that case a copy of the book came with the ticket, but it's not like my husband and I needed two copies. Anyone want a signed copy of Squirrel Meets Chipmunk? Just kidding. But I had to buy an extra just to get him in and I wish he could have joined me without having to cough up for a superfluous book.
I've also heard of bookstores charging for signatures. So the reading is free but if you want to get your book signed and shake hands with the author you're going to have to pony up. Really? Because that just makes me sad. Having a moment with an author can be important in the life of a reader- it can bond a reader to an author and his or her work for life. It would be a shame to take special time and commodify it. What if money's tight and that's the only chance someone might ever have, and he or she misses a memory to cherish over a little money? Are independent bookstore events to become insiders-only receptions for the affluent only? Maybe privileged customers will start clamoring for more services or perks or something in return for paying for what used to be gratis. Or maybe those on the edge will give up on indies all together.
(Regarding charging for signings, I have a different opinion when it comes to people who show up with armloads of copies of a single title obviously destined for secondary sale. I see those people, usually the same people, at virtually every event I attend. They should pay per signature!)
So I don't mind paying a little but it bothers me to pay what feels like a lot. And I don't like being required to purchase a copy of the book. What if, after the reading, I don't want the book? Can I give it back for a refund? As a book lover and someone with time on her hands now and then, I like being able to attend readings when I need something to do. It keeps me coming into the store- it keeps the store important to me and it encourages me to shop there. The other night I went to listen to Michael Bronski read from and discuss his book A Queer History of the United States, a book which, alas, I am unlikely to buy, but I appreciated the opportunity to learn about it and browsed the store while I was there to get some ideas for later. I can't possibly afford to buy a copy of every book whose author I see or want to see and my life and my social calendar is made so much richer by the presence of bookstore events. So I do the best I can to buy what I can and what I want, and I do try to treat indies with the respect they deserve. We should all do the same.