June 23, 2011

Put your money where your mouth is: would you pay to get into author events?

In an attempt to escape the pile of student papers waiting to be graded (they're staring at me judgmentally as I type), I stumbled upon an interesting book-related NY Times article. It's all about the fact that independent bookstores are starting to charge admission to author events. The article purports that indie bookstores are losing revenue to sites like Amazon as customers start to use their local bookseller as a glorified library: come in, put some titles on your iphone, then go home and get them cheaply on the web. Owners are worried that if they don't shift their business model and start thinking of new ways to bring in the cash, they'll be in (even more) serious trouble. I don't blame them.

And so, some bookstores are charging people to come to their many author events, and I can understand the logic. I went to a book launch the other night and enjoyed free wine and snacks, a series of readings by emerging authors, and a Q&A with an Australian writer. I didn't buy her book at the event and I felt pretty guilty about it. Why? Because one of my favorite bookstores just spent money to make sure I enjoyed myself and they got not a penny from me. Author events both large and small are a fun form of entertainment. I pay to go to live music gigs, outdoor concerts, comedy shows, etc., so I think that bookstores are perfectly within their rights to charge us.

A lot of bookstores are asking people to buy the featured book as a form of cover. I think this is the ideal solution, because it means that the store, the author, and the publisher are all winning out. But I don't think it's a practical solution, because a lot of people just can't afford to pay $32.00 to get into an event, even if it means walking away with a novel. Prices like that will turn away a lot of students, young professionals, single moms, pensioners, and tight asses the world over. It'll also discourage walk-ins who don't know the author but like the idea of sitting in for a read-along. Some would argue that won't make or break an event, but some of the artists I've come to love and loyally support are ones I discovered by accidentally walking in on one of their free events. As Anne Patchett points out, "those are your readers". Authors may not be able to afford scaring them away.

That said, I'd be happy to pay five or ten dollars for a few hours of books and conversation, especially if I'm not going to buy the featured book. It's a way to show my support for the event and for the indie that runs them. Don't get me wrong, I'd love author events to stay free. Wouldn't we all? But it irritates me to hear people bemoaning the fact that indie bookstores are a 'cultural center' and that it's bordering on blasphemous for them to slap a price tag on what are supposed to be community events. Well guess what? Bookstores are also a business. Sometimes, when we wax on about the book as cultural lifeboat, we forget about that.

I'm a big fan of having my cake and eating it, too (and making it myself so I can lick the bowl and spoon), but the reality here is pretty simple: if we don't find ways to support our local indies, then they are going to go away.

So what do you think? Would you pay admission to get into an author event?

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