Monday, June 27, 2011

Should Bookstores Charge Admission for Events?

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.


Rachel said...

Rainy Day Books here in Kansas City (the only book store in KC that brings in authors to read/speak to my knowledge) has been charging for author events since 2005. The price is the price of the author's latest book and you get a copy of the book and two tickets for that price. It has kept me from seeing several authors that I would like to see. Also, if a person is a big fan of the author, they probably already have the book the author is coming to speak about.
When I lived in NYC, it was nice to be able to just pop into a bookstore to hear an author speak and not have pay big bucks.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

Marie, I fully get what you are saying. An organisation of which I am a member also organises monthly book reading, inviting authors to come and read to us their books. If we are to charge no one would attend. lol.

They issue of payment falls under the free-rider and agency-principal theory. Should the author sign several copies for free for one individual who, possibly, did not buy the book from the very shop which is organising the event? So to solve the issue they use a blanket solution. I guess in this day and age where everything is being transformed into money-making machines, I am not surprised of the trend. I guess the best way would be to sign at most two copies per person if the books were purchased at the shop in which the reading was organised. Then you could eliminate the free-riders. But to compel participants to purchase a book is a bad precedence. People make purchases based on what they have heard from the author. It's the author who has to 'convince' the audience that his/her book is worth their dollars. And even if they would charge, a token of US$5-10 could be okay but US$50 is outrageous. What is this hollywoodification of writers... I thought writing was a sacrosanct

Thanks for bringing this up.

Amy said...

I do appreciate that bookstores need to be able to make money and so understand in that way... but I can't help but think that it is privileging the elite or the people who can afford to pay. Books and book events should be for everyone regardless of how much money they have in their bank account.

I've also been known to stop by a signing of an unknown (to me) author just to check it out. Often a very small crowd, often the book ends up sounding like not at all my thing but if it is free people can at least show support for the author by being there even if they don't want the book - how many authors want to do a reading to one person?

I think a better solution would be paying for the signing /signature itself rather than the event, or saying that books being signed have to be purchased at the store (or pay if you bring your own copy), or something like that....

Sandy Nawrot said...

I do get the profit end of it, I do, but I think if they feel they HAVE to charge, allow the fee to be applied to general purchases for the next 7 days or something. If I have a $10 credit, I will surely spend more than that, so it will boost business. Overall though, I think it is just sad that everybody has a freaking hand out. How about building goodwill?

TheEccentricLady said...

I have never heard of paying to see an author here in Ohio. I agree with you on the point-"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." I feel this is just an advertising method to get peolpe in your store and I'm sure many will return and be good customers. What truly bothers me is what this may do to the authors. People will not be so willing to come and these events will be a waste of time for the authors. I agree with Nana Fredua!

R. J. said...

Charging for everything seems to be a growing trend. It sounds like they are going to charge me to absorb their advertising costs as well as purchase their goods. It is like paying to see a movie and having to sit through more commercials than on TV. I have mixed feelings about this trend. Naturally, they are trying to make enough money to stay in business and it is tough in the book business in these hard economical times. They can charge anything they want and I can choose not to buy it or their products. I personally use public libraries and get my money's worth from my taxes. I've stopped buying books. I watch author interviews on Amazon. So far, they don't charge for those. I'm not so picky that I need to breathe the same air as the author just to see them speak in person in a bookstore. I don't feel that I need to own a signed book by my favorite authors. I have several that have sat gathering dust for many years and now I wonder what I will do with them other than donate them to a used book sale as I downsize. I love books, but I could never be a rare book collector. It is great to have a few famous works displayed in sealed cases in museums. Otherwise, I don't see the point. I'm also learning how to let go of material things.

Zibilee said...

I think part of this new trend is the fact that indies are losing so much money because of online competitors and feel like they have to charge to make it worthwhile to host an author. Or perhaps the visiting author is charging the bookstore for their appearance, and this is the only way the bookstore can afford to pay. Whatever the case, I can see that it would be aggravating for you when you tend to attend these events a lot, and I can see why you are frustrated with it. I can't see an obvious solution for the bookstore that needs cash, but perhaps you should forward this post to them in the form of an email with all the comments from other readers.

Kay said...

I guess I can see both sides of the question. I'm just sorry we're having to talk about it at all. Not sure what the best solution is. I'm sure each bookstore would consider various options. On the one hand, I think that charging $10 and then giving that as a store credit sounds entirely reasonable. I'd sure use it. Or requiring a customer to buy the book at that store if they want it signed - reasonable. Or buy a copy and get 2 tickets to an event seems to take care of the situation you had with your husband.

On the other hand, I do know that people are using the indies like a personal shopper and then buying at Amazon or other online venues. I heard one story of a couple of women getting a large amount of assistance from an indie employee and making a big stack of books that the employee presumed they would buy. Then, the ladies sat down and scanned the barcodes with their iPhones, stood up, left the big stack, and told each other, "Ok, let go shop somewhere else. I just got everything at Amazon."! What a letdown for the bookstore.

I've heard of some events being held in conjunction with local restaurants and people sign up to have lunch and hear an author. I think you get lunch, a book, and a nice event for $50 or so. Seems reasonable.

Again, I'm just so sorry that we are even having to have this conversation. It's a real shame. :-(

caite said...

I know bookstores are having a hard time and sure, they need to make money where they can...But isn't the point just to help promote the store, to get people in, for then to see the bookstore, in the future, as a place they want to return to? Not sure charging does that.

Of course, personally, I would feel bad if I went and did not buy a book. I have been known to buy a book at Borders when I stop in to use the bathroom.
At least that is my excuse and I am sticking to it!!

Teresa said...

I actually wrote about this yesterday because I attended an author event (which I rarely do) on the day that article was published. My feelings are similar to yours.

I'm happy to pay a small fee, especially if it can go to store credit or a gift card, but I really wouldn't want to be told I have to buy a book I get signed at the store. I don't tend to buy hardcovers in general, and a lot of the time, if I'm attending an author event, it's because the author has written something I love and already own and would love to have signed. That was the case this week, when I wanted Mary Doria Russell to sign my treasured copy of The Sparrow but wasn't sure about her new book (which I did end up buying after hearing her talk about it). I suppose if the store could make copies of the author's previous books available as well, that would help, but I'd rather not buy two.

Cassandra said...

I'm from a small town that never had author events. Now that I live in Houston, which has authors visit on a regular basis, I have a little experience with how it works. There are three main Indie stores. Each does the same thing - the event is free, but you have to buy a book from them to get it signed. I'm okay with that, because they'll usually let you get other copies signed, too. At least 2 of them will. I haven't tried the third.

This makes sense to me because at least 2 of these 3 stores schedule a lot of their signings in the evening, just after regular store hours. They've got to make up the difference in payroll. Sometimes they even sponsor off-site events, so there's added cost there, too. All of that makes sense to me.

What doesn't make sense is paying admission to an event where you might end up standing or not get a seat, or get a seat on some random chair they had in the back. Why would I do that?

I see two things that might help problem. First, many bookstores (and publishers) need to do more to publicize these events. Make the readers/customers want to be there. Second, perhaps they can be a bit more selective in who they let speak in their store.

I don't want to limit authors, but I do think the author shouldn't just walk in and take questions. They should have a reading or something prepared. Don't bring in an author who isn't interesting as a speaker, because it's going to make their book seem uninteresting, too. I don't know how to accomplish this, exactly. But it's a thought.

oblongirl said...

Marie, thanks for your post - it's a nice follow-up to the Times article.

Here's a great post Colleen Lindsay did about the economics of bookstore events:

As a bookseller, I can say that events cost a lot of money to put on, and many of them lose money for the bookstore. But our customers expect us to put them on regularly, so we do.

Our store does charge for a few events each year - usually offsite in large venues for nationally touring or celebrity authors. We either charge a $5 ticket (redeemable toward the purchase of a book) OR if we are holding an event very close to the pub date of the book and the the publisher wants to see HUGE numbers of pre-sales for the event, we'll charge the price of the new book (but that ticket lets in at least 2 people).

Please know that bookstores who charge for events are not doing it to make money off of their customers. They're just doing it to cover the costs they're incurring by hosting the event and (in the case of book-as-ticket) guarantee sales to keep the publisher happy and keep them sending more authors to that store.

Marie said...

Oblonggirl, thank you for the bookseller's perspective. I love indies and want to support them and I appreciate your comments. I'm sure that over time the marketplace will determine what's best for bookstores and customers alike!

Booksnyc said...

I had the opportunity today to attend an event at an indie - it was a reading by J.Courtney Sullivan from her new novel Maine. The cost was $25 and it included a copy of the book and lunch. I felt the price was more than fair especially considering there was a lively discussion between the audience and the author which really added to the experience. By comparison, readings I have attended at B&N have lacked that intimacy and seemed much more anonymous - but they are generally free. I think you get what you pay for but having both options available for consumers will allow people to see authors regardless of means. Maybe the solution is for the larger national chains to continue to host the free events because they can more easily absorb the cost.

Great discussion topic!

Alexia561 said...

What an interesting discussion! As someone who doesn't attend very many author signings, I think a large cover charge would discourage me from attending.

I see nothing wrong with requiring you to buy the book from the store if you wanted an autograph, or even a small $5-10 charge that you could redeem within a certain time frame.

Really like the idea of an intimate lunch with the author, or even an offsite reading to keep things private so other customers don't disrupt the event!

Will be curious to see how this plays out, as I assume hosting an author event can be expensive.

Anna said...

Hmm...I can see why they feel they need to charge, but not sure I agree with it. I think it would be fair that if you want to get the book signed to buy a copy, but then what to do about the person who already has a copy they bought or received prior to the event? I see the need to generate business, but I also would like author events to remain accessible. I know I don't have the money to buy hardcovers every time an author I like is in town.

Florinda said...

It's not uncommon at fan events (Comic Cons and the like) to have to buy admission tickets and then pay separately for each autograph you want (usually you have to buy a photo to get signed). It's not perfectly analagous, since that money usually goes directly to the "celebrity" signer and not the Con, but this discussion reminds me of that. I'd much rather be required to purchase a book than someone's publicity photo!

Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena occasionally hosts off-site author events which require purchase of a ticket - it's usually the price of the author's newest hardcover, which is included. But they also host many in-store readings at no charge and with no purchase required - they don't even mind if you bring in a book you already have, and there's usually no limit on the number or type of items signed unless the author has imposed one. However, Vroman's does make backlist books available for purchase as well as the new one the author's promoting at the event, and I'll almost always buy something while I'm there.

Having said all that, I'd pay a cover charge ($5 or so) to attend an author event, but then I probably wouldn't attend unless I already knew the author's work and felt the event would be worth the money.

stacybuckeye said...

I've never paid to attend an author sppearance and signing, but might if I liked the author enough. It would stop me from attending signings of new to me authors though. Author events are a little different, but I've never been to one of those. And I think it is awful to charge for an autogragh.
An interesting article and great post.