22 June 2011

Some reasons bookstores should not charge for readings (besides "I'm cheap")

The Times today had a piece about bookstores charging for in-store events, which I don't think is a trend so much as something one store in New York City just announced it was going to start doing, and everyone's hackles were raised.

I understand why bookstores do this, as some in the New York area already are by requiring the purchase of the book in question as a 'ticket' in. (WORD Bookstore and the late, lamented B&N Lincoln Square are the two that come to mind, which could not be more different... which must be why they didn't make it into the article.)

That said, here are a few reasons free events are good for bookstores:
  • They attract attention to new and unfamiliar authors. One author featured in the Times article, Eleanor Henderson, is a debut novelist whose book TEN THOUSAND SAINTS just came out. It's really good! I know, because I got a review copy and reviewed it (disclosure). But debut authors might want a full audience soaking up their prose more than they want four people who have each paid $10 (to the store, not the author, one imagines) to be in their presence. 
  • They might prompt shoppers to stay and make other purchases, even if they don't buy the author's book. I always like eavesdropping on readings I stumble into, and the longer I spend in a bookstore, the more likely I am to spend money there. (Insert economic theory backing this up here.) (Surely there is one?)
  • They offer a literary culture that is priceless, not priced. Okay, this is sort of like the "I'm cheap" defense, but here's my point: I have paid between $5 and $30 for various author events in and around New York. (Not counting readings at bars with the de facto charge of a drink, which no one will demand of you, but... it's the right thing to do.) I wouldn't go to as many readings as I do if they weren't free. And I don't always buy the book when I go. (The article posits that bookstores are trying to fend off competition from online bookstores, but it discounts that some might just get it from the library, or borrow it from a friend.) If it were mandatory to purchase the book, I would probably go to fewer readings to save money, and see fewer authors, and be less happy. During more straitened times in my New York existence, I was grateful for these readings because I could get out of the house and do something free that wasn't people-watching or window-shopping.
The counter-counter-argument is that the big box bookstores will be able to continue to offer these free readings, whereas independent bookstores need the additional source of revenue. That's a fair point (although not exactly true, as B&N has done this kind of event in the city before). I definitely think there's room for ticketed events in a bookstores schedule; I just don't think they should be a given.

Also, the article ends on the following quote from author Keith Gessen:
“I don’t think you should be able to walk into a Barnes & Noble and get to look at Joan Didion."
Maybe we ask Joan Didion how she feels like that, eh Keith? In the end, it's authors who decide whether they're going to do free or ticketed readings (with little to much interference from their publishers, depending). I wonder how you can say that and also appear at the FREE Brooklyn Book Festival in front of unticketed hayseeds like me. Also, what a disgusting snobbish thing to say.

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