We’re all becoming familiar with the latest trend in the airline industry: those little “perks” (food, checked baggage, leg room) that used to be a means of attracting customers are now available only for a fee. Hotels are charging “guests” for clean linens, exercise rooms, and many other items that used to be free. Recently I heard of someone’s being charged $25 to print a boarding pass. The concept of beating the competition on service and amenities has given way to the bottom line. If you have to compete on price alone, then the costs of the business must be cut to the bone, and every “extra” has a cost and thus a price.
Sad to say, some recent reports from authors lead me to believe that this mindset has invaded the bookselling world. The image of the gracious small bookshop, careful to maintain the image of being a bit above any show of “filthy commerce,” has already been diminished by the large chain stores. Now it seems that in order to survive, some shops are following the lead of other industries in charging for what used to be a normal expense of the business. My information is anecdotal, and I would be interested in any comments indicating how widespread some of these practices have become.
First I heard that a local author had been asked to pay a fee to have a book signing at another shop. I know that authors of a certain stature are paid for appearances, but this is the first I have heard of the reverse. These events consume some time and money of the bookseller, who often does publicity, serves refreshments, and, of course, stocks the books. It also takes up the author’s time and resources in travel, preparation, and answering the audience question “How do I get published?” The financial compensation to bookseller and author is in book sales. The additional benefit, we hope, is in drawing attention to both the author and the shop. There is always the risk for both that no one will come, and much time is spent by both parties looking for a “hook” that will increase attendance.
Independent booksellers are approached almost weekly by self-published, small-press-published, or mainstream-but-first-book-published authors requesting signing events. I have hosted events for all three categories, but it never occurred to me to charge for them. If I think what is being offered is cr--, I politely decline. It would be hard to promote something I don’t think has potential, and I haven’t figured out the price at which I would sacrifice the trust I have built with my customers.
Next, I learned that another bookshop was selling advertising for books in its customer newsletter. Wow! I would get my intermittent newsletter out a lot more often if it was a paying proposition. I have not seen this newsletter, so I can only hope that the ads are clearly marked as such. I’m a bookseller, not a reviewer, but I think the same ethic applies: it should be clear if there is compensation for recommending a particular work.
“Ticketing” book-signing events is becoming more common. There is an admission charge, and it is the price of the book. You must buy the book to attend. This practice began to prevent attendees from purchasing the book on A#*$@% and bringing it for signing at the local bookshop. There is nothing wrong with requiring any books presented for signing to be purchased at the shop, and unless the event is huge, is not hard to monitor. Most attendees come with the intention of making a purchase, but I think it is justifiable to decide after hearing an author that the book is not the customer’s cup of tea. There are, of course, a few “regulars” who come for the entertainment and never purchase, but that is just part of the business.
Times are tough for both authors and booksellers. Marketing budgets at publishing houses have been slashed. It seems that the cost of the two-page spread in the New York Times Book Review for an author whose book will be No. 1 on “The List” no matter what could be better spent on the many fine works sitting unread because only small shops are promoting them, but that is a topic for another time. Most authors find that after the book is published, the work is not complete but just beginning; now they have to sell it. The independent bookseller has to deal with giant retailers who are selling books at or below the price the bookseller without market power pays for the same item. Is it wrong for the author who has poured years of blood, sweat, and lost family time into his effort to pay a bookseller who is struggling daily to keep the doors open to recommend his work? If it comes to that, something valuable will be lost in the bookselling world.
In a post earlier this year, Jessy Randall suggested that bookstores might need to begin charging an admission fee for browsers. I responded by pointing out that those who appreciated the physical display of books, the bookseller’s expertise, and the general ambiance, could support that effort by buying books. An idea that seemed preposterous to me at the time (we aren’t museums yet!) now has some appeal. Perhaps a $5 entrance fee, to be credited toward a purchase if one is made? It seems that bookselling may be going the way of airlines and hotels: if you want what used to be included in the package, you must pay an additional charge for it. Maybe I’m getting too old for modern commerce – retirement may be closer than I thought.