Yesterday’s New York Times business section, had an article about independent book stores charging people to attend author events, Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet. I hadn’t thought of this as a trend even though I’ve coughed up more than a few dollars to see authors in person. It’s usually an experience that goes well beyond a sales spiel about a book.
For example, I went to an event last week with David McCullough who gave an hour-plus
talk about his book The Greater Journey and his career in general. The Bookcase, an independent bookseller in Wayzata, Minnesota, held the event at a local church to accommodate the large crowd. The tab: $20 per ticket, with $10 of that going toward the purchase of the book. I left the event having had the pleasure of hearing McCullough speak and I walked out with a new hardcover copy of the book. I was a happy camper. From the looks of it, the hundreds of people in attendance (who also left with copies of the book, many signed by the author) were equally happy, and it seems as a result The Bookcase and the author must have been pleased as well.
According to the New York Times article, “Bookstore owners say they are charging for author events because too many people regularly come to see authors having already bought a book online or planning to do so later. Consumers now see the bookstore merely as another library — a place to browse, do informal research and pick up staff recommendations.”
“They type titles into their iPhones and go home,” Nancy Salmon, the floor manager at Kepler’s, an indie bookstore in Menlo Park, Calif., told the paper. “We know what they’re doing, and it has tested my patience.” (I have to confess I’ve been a lurker at these events and left the store empty handed.)
The downside of charging is that it may discourage people from attending author events and thus diminish the sense of a readers’ community that bookstores create. That’s one thing that sets indies apart from the online booksellers, live interconnectedness, serving as a sort of cultural center. The article quotes novelist Ann Patchett, who is currently touring to promote her new book, State of Wonder and who says she is concerned that people who do not have enough money to buy a hardcover book — especially students or the elderly — might be left out. “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,” she said. “Those are your readers.”
Yet for every Ann Patchett or David McCullough, authors who can attract a crowd to events because they’re already well known, there are little-known authors who booksellers could never charge you to see. It’s every new author’s nightmare to stand alone in the back of the store with no one except the store manager to hear her presentation.
I say it’s okay for bookstores to charge for the big names that will draw people in and spur them to buy books, especially if a portion of the fee can go toward book purchases. It might even make more author events seem like a “hot ticket.”