The New York Times reported that independent bookstores, squeezed by competition for Amazon, are now charging admission for author events. Many have begun selling tickets or requiring a book purchase of customers who attend author readings and signings. Bookstore owners say that too many people come to events having already bought a book online.
Most bookstores in the Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I live, don't charge admission, and those that do, only charge for the biggest names. A spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble, stated that the nation's largest bookstore chain has never charged admission to its events.
So what's your take? Should bookstores charge admission or require attendees to purchase a copy of your book? Have any independent bookstores charged customers attending your reading or signing, or required them to purchase your book?
Lawrence Block has done this for years. You must buy at least one copy of his book at a signing to get any of your own signed.
I'm not too thrilled with the idea of buying tickets. It's not really like an appearance at a local theater or auditorium. Charging tickets would be akin to seat licensing at stadiums, a dubious practice to finance pro sports if there ever was one. But requiring a purchase to get an autograph? Hey, the store's there to sell books, and so's the author. I see nothing wrong with requiring attendees to buy a book to sign.
Will they pay the authors?
Seriously, they will never do that for the average author. They may charge him to come for a book signing. And, no doubt, they'll get takers.
From the author's point of view, the reader with the book has purchased it. The author should be content.
But clearly that again points to the fact that only bestselling authors are wanted.
There you go. Nobody is even thinking about the other 80 % or more of authors the publisher has. Neither book stores nor publishers are the average author's friend, and we might as well not look for any support there. This is a closed playing field where bestselling authors, their agents, the stores, and the publishers all play to win profits.
However, it raises the question of how readers react to hype and to an increasingly smaller number of choices. As a reader, I confess, I buy names I recognize and avoid unknowns.
Considering most events look like this, I don't think charging is ever appropriate. As for the big names, get over yourself. They paid for admission when they bought your book.
(Thanks again, The Onion).
As someone who's published 45 novels, worked in marketing and editorial for publishing companies, and been a bookseller and co-owner of an independent specialty bookstore (Mysterious Galaxy) that focuses on mystery, sf, fantasy and horror and has been around almost 20 years (2nd location opening soon in Redondo Beach, CA), I have a somewhat different perspective.
First, charging admission for straight booksignings is still extremely rare, which is why the NYT considered in newsworthy. Most stores don't do it and have no intention of starting. The only time MG has ever charged admission is when we've held off-site events at which we have to rent auditorium space, or if we have a meal with an author--then we ask a flat fee which includes the price of the book, admission, the meal, and a small donation to a charity partner. That's a very uncommon event, since most signings are held in the store and don't involve a sit-down meal. For some events, especially those likely to draw hundreds of people, we do require that the book be purchased at the store. Asking for money to get into the store, though, is counterproductive, because people do come to stores during events for other reasons, and sometimes people want to check out an author who they haven't read.
That said, I can understand the impulse. And to preface the rest of this, I'm mostly talking about independent bookstores hosting real author events, not a Barnes & Noble or Hastings setting up a card table in the front of the store and abandoning the author to his or her own devices. There used to be an unspoken understanding, that may have just arisen out of the sort of common courtesy that our culture seems more and more to be allowing to fall by the wayside. It went something like this:
Say Joe Wambaugh is my all-time favorite author. Joe doesn't tour much, but now he's appearing at Store X in my town. I could buy the book at Walmart or Costco or Safeway or Walgreens or the airport, none of which do any good for the store that made the effort to bring him in. Or I could support the store financially with my purchase, which is a) good for the store, b) good for Joe, and c) helps insure that more authors I enjoy will come to my town to sign books. In the past, for someone to choose to buy the book elsewhere and bring it to a store signing was much more of a rarity than it is today. These days, people seem much more willing to save themselves $1.50 on the price of the book, even though that has a negative impact on the store and the author and the chance that the store will continue to bring authors to town. Since that is more common, charging admission to the event is one possible response that stores have to consider.
Author events aren't free for the store. They do promotion, they do mailings, they include the event in newsletters and the store's website and social media. They stock up heavily on the author's new book, and usually backlist as well. They do in-store displays. They staff up for the event. Sometimes they serve refreshments. Sometimes they stay open beyond usual operating hours. All of these things cost, both in direct outlays of cash and in staff hours. On some occasions, when a tour isn't being paid for by the publisher, the store has contributed financially to the author's travel expenses, and has employees picking her up from the airport, delivering her to radio and TV stations, and then taking her to a hotel after the event.
And the fact is, even for the publisher, a sale at Store X, where they've booked the author to appear, isn't the same as a sale at Walgreen's or Costco. Various factors played into the decision to put the author at Store X, and one of those factors is that Store X, more often than not, is a reporting store to the New York Times bestseller list and/or other regional or specialty lists. Part of why a publisher tours author's is not just for the sales on the day of the event, but to get local publicity in a variety of markets that will increase sales overall in the area, all in an effort to boost the author's numbers overall. Getting on the Times list or some of those other lists is an important part of that effort. If the author comes to town, he might do three or four radio shows, a morning talk show, and a store signing. If 80 books are sold in town, but only 40 of those are sold at the store holding the signing, those other 40 might not count toward any list. Planning an author tour is a big, complicated, expensive proposition, and the publisher obviously wants to get the most possible bang for those bucks. The author wants that, too, which is why the author would prefer to sign books purchased at the store.
Finally, anyone who's writing books should be best friends with booksellers--especially if you have an independent store with a strong section in the genre that you work in, or better yet, a specialty store dealing with that genre. A bookstore isn't just a place to buy books--bookstores develop communities of readers and fans. A core group of customers will come to just about every event that matches their interests--there'll be many of the same people at the store for every hard-boiled author, for instance, or every cozy author, or every international intrigue author. If you're part of that community, then when your book comes out, those people will be there for you. If you are known at the store, you buy books there when you can, you are courteous and kind to the staff, then when your book comes out you're more likely to get the prime display space, to be handsold, and to have a successful event. On the other hand, if you live in the same city as a good specialty store and the only time they ever see you is when you have a new book, their response to that book is likely to be considerably more muted. Good booksellers can have an effect on book sales that reaches far beyond what they sell in that store on any given day--their newsletters are read and passed around, their websites are visited, their social media outlets have fans who turn to them for suggestions.
For many of us, especially midlist authors, attendance at signings is pretty small and often discouraging. But I've known authors who really use in-store events to become known, to develop and maintain a fan base. Larry Block used to carry a legal pad with him and ask everyone who came to the signings to sign up for his newsletter, which was chatty, informative and fun. James Ellroy signed everywhere he could as often as he could, and built an active base of missionaries who went into the world extolling his virtues. Fantasy author Ray Feist hit just about every bookstore in California whenever a book came out, making sure every bookseller knew his name and that he would do whatever he could to make fans happy. These things work. There are other factors at play, of course: the books have to be good, the author has to be at least somewhat presentable and sociable, etc.
But to be a writer (even of e-books, which bookstores can sell in many cases--at MG, any book that's available as a Google e-book has a QR code on the shelf with the author's other books, so if a customer wants the e-book, all he has to do is scan the code with a smart phone and he can buy it on the spot) and to dismiss booksellers is to cut your own throat. Booksellers and bookstores are still usually the author's most direct conduit to readers, and you will do far better if they're on your side.