Where your responsibility not to be a feminine hygiene product meets the store’s

Another interesting article from the New York Times–this one about how some independent bookstores have begun charging admission to author events. This caught my eye because a couple of weeks ago Colleen Lindsay, who works for Penguin and helps manage their Book Country writing community/workshop, was tweeting about more or less the same thing.

It would not have occurred to me that there are a lot of people who go to book signings and spend no money at the store–enough for it to be a problem for the stores hosting these events, allegedly. Now I totally get already having books by the author in question. When I go to a signing, usually it’s by an author whose books I already love, if I’m going to be motivated enough to figure out their schedule of appearances. That being the case, it’s a pretty safe bet I already have that person’s latest release–and possibly all that person’s novels, period. I have walked into a bookstore already carrying the author’s titles, and worried that the store management will think I’m a schmuck.

But every time I go to a signing in a bookstore, I make a point of buying books by other authors. It’s not hard to convince myself, either.

Look, maybe you’re reading this and you’ve never given it a second thought. Putting on a signing costs the bookstore money–money they expect to recoup in sales. Going to a signing means you love books, and, by extension, bookstores. Which means–come on, let’s be honest–you want to buy something. You’re looking for an excuse. And I’m giving it to you: Buy a book. Buy two. You have a moral obligation. Nay, you are doing God’s work. When you buy a book at a signing–even a book by another author–you are virtue in action. You ought to get a prize, but instead you’ll have to settle for, well, a book. Or five.

That said, I don’t know how much I buy the argument that a cover charge is necessary. Are there a limited number of wolf-children without the common sense to buy a book when they go to a signing? Sure, I suppose. But guess what? If there had been no signing, those people wouldn’t have gone to the bookstore that day anyway, because they obviously did not intend to buy books. On the other hand, a signing for a writer of some prominence is going to bring in anywhere from a handful to a few dozen people who would not have otherwise gone into that store that day. It’s advertising, and if it didn’t work, bookstores wouldn’t have gotten on board with it in the first place. Getting people in your doors is a good thing for a business; you’re not going to convince me it’s not.

No, I think this is about something else. There are several clues in the article. The first paragraph doesn’t talk about people who come to signings but don’t buy; it talks about capitalizing on something independent bookstores can offer that online retailers cannot. It’s about countering a practice that’s hurting independent bookstores, sure, but the villains here aren’t the folks that come to signings; it’s the folks who buy their books from other venues. In the fourth paragraph, Sarah McNally is quoted as saying, “The entire independent bookstore model is based on selling books, but that model is changing because so many book sales are going online.” Sure they are, and sure that’s costing the bookstores, but that’s only tangentially related to the people who attend signings.

Slightly further in, the unattributed charge is made that “Bookstore owners say they are doing so because too many people regularly come to events having already bought a book online or planning to do so later.” Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t buy that this is a problem specifically when it comes to events. These are people coming through the door who otherwise wouldn’t have, and I bet most of them spend money at the store.

More telling, I think, are the next two paragraphs:

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,” said Nancy Salmon, the floor manager at Kepler’s. “We know what they’re doing, and it has tested my patience.”

Note to store managers: when you start seeing the customers as adversaries, you’ve got a bigger problem.

On the second page, a bookstore owner from Madison, Wisconsin, defends the practice, after which the article notes that ten percent of her store’s revenue now comes from events. Unfortunately, this is an incredibly vague statistic, because there is no comparison made to the revenue that was brought in prior to the ticket policy, by people who saw the event for free and then bought books. It’s too bad, because ten percent of a store’s revenue strikes me as a staggering amount, and I’d like a clearer picture of just what the statistic means

If bookstores have become libraries and cultural centers, you can lay a lot of the blame for that at the feet of Barnes & Noble, which was the first place I ever encountered the mentality that it was okay to pick up the merchandise, read as much as you want while sitting in a comfy chair, and go home. It seems to work for them; can that really be explained away by pointing at their market share?

In any case, I don’t doubt that there are people walking through the store, browsing titles, and leaving. I’m just saying I think it’s a different group of people, and that it seems like bookstores that charge for events are taxing their best customers to help pay for the freeloaders. And heck, I’m happy to help bookstores survive, but this move feels like a slap in the face. It feels like I’m being accused, preemptively, of being one of the freeloaders. And again, that’s no way to treat someone you want as a customer.

Would policies like those described in the article deter me from attending an event? Most of the stores in the article run it more like a minimum than like a cover charge. I go to a signing expecting to spend some of my money, so no, such a policy wouldn’t chase me away.

There were at least one or two stores, though, where it was unclear that the cover charge could be put toward the purchase of books. That leaves me more troubled. I certainly have paid money to attend cons where writers were present, but I think it’s the critical mass I’m paying for as much as anything else. I think I can count on one or two fingers the number of authors I’d pay to see, above and beyond the cost of buying their books–and it’s worth noting that the authors do benefit from book sales, but they don’t benefit from cover charges paid to bookstores. And as Joshua Roberts noted, I’d be especially disinclined to pay to hear an author who is already a friend talk.

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4 Responses to Where your responsibility not to be a feminine hygiene product meets the store’s

  1. Marlana says:

    Great write-up. “Note to store managers: when you start seeing the customers as adversaries, you’ve got a bigger problem.” I think what you said captures it perfectly!

  2. Tom Emmons says:

    I come into a store and buy author or no. If I attended an event that was free and brought in my books to have signed, then it’s likely that I bought those books at that location, or some books, anyway. Between my wife and I, we tend to spend a lot of money in these establishments. Just getting us in the door will likely produce some kind of purchase.

    And my favorite line was the one that Marlana quoted above. It reminds me of when I was in a local independent bookstore in the dark ages, and the clerks were discussing the “fickle nature” of their consumers. I’m not fickle at all, and didn’t enjoy being characterized as such. In their case, the books that they had put out thinking me and my ilk would snatch-up had been out long enough that I’d already purchased them elsewhere. Your customers are not your adversaries. In any retail setting! They are great allies and fans who must be catered to–That’s what you do as a service providing business!

    These types of promotion could make small booksellers a different niche altogether. It’s in their interest to provide local real-world interaction.

  3. I agree with everything that’s been said so far, and would also add: if as an author, these are your fans — the people that want to actually show up and see you — then wouldn’t you want them to be treated as valued customers rather than adversaries?

    I mean, technically, authors could do signings anywhere. Yes, doing so at bookstores simplifies the transaction for those who want to buy the book. But should the author care if the book they sign is bought online or at a bookstore? (or if it even an ebook or a hardcover or trade paperback).

  4. Joe says:

    Yeah, I noticed that the one or two authors interviewed in the article were a lot more wary of the practice.

    As for whether or not authors should care where their books are bought, I think that’s becoming a muddier question to answer. Authors can actually order up a box of their own books at cost to sell at events, like say at a school. As an author, you’d have a larger profit margin, but then those sales won’t show up on Bookscan, I don’t think. (Note: too lazy to verify, so I’m just going with what I think I’ve heard)

    An advantage of holding a signing in a bookstore as opposed to in a mall or something is that your rabid fans will come see you anywhere, but in a bookstore, you also have a chance to sell your books to people who had no idea there was a signing today, who just happened to walk into the store to do their own shopping and got drawn in by curiosity.

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