Friday, June 24, 2011

To Charge or Not to Charge? And Does a Book Come with That?

The New York Times wrote a piece on the subject of bookstores charging for author events.  This has been an industry subject for several years now, and our friends at Boulder Book Store recently announced they would charge for more author events.

One thing to get out of the way here is that I'm not likely to ever charge admission for the small press, self-published, developing author and special interest events that we do. For many stores in the larger markets, this is not an issue, as they fill up their event schedule with authors on national tours.  That is likely to never happen to us. 

That said, we one day may have to ask authors at these events to share some of the event cost with us, a practice that is common at many other stores.  We currently don't do that , and I'm not planning on doing so in the near future. 

For major authors, we sometimes charge the price of the book for admission (Grant Achatz, our Alverno events), sometimes charge $5 (most recently Geraldine Brooks, some events at the Urban Ecology Center) and sometimes have no charge at all.  Oh, and at least twice we charged $10 (the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and tango concerts).

It's one of those tricky things.  Bookstores need revenue to offsite the cost of events.  But often times it's a balancing act between maximizing attendance and maximizing sales.  Publishers usually know that if the event is offsite, there will usually be an admission charge, with the exception of our library events.  Many other charges convert to a gift card.  But in the case of our $5 admission charge, we usually limit that to $5 off the event book in question, as part of our goal is to maximize sales of the book we are promoting.

To put this in perspective, we decided to charge $5 for Geraldine Brooks, but after talking to the publisher, decided to make the Ann Patchett event free, encouraging people to come, even if they bought their book elsewhere.

In the end, our attendance at Ann Patchett was substantially higher than Geraldine Brooks, and it's not that our attendance for Brooks was bad.  I've gotten feedback from Penguin that her attendance at Boswell was in the top third of events.  It's just that Patchett was our second biggest in-store author event we've had to date (with #1 being Sherman Alexie, and #3 being Christopher Moore).

But sales of their new books (Caleb's Crossing and State of Wonder) were almost identical at their respective events.  There's no question that the $5 ticket with $5 off the book incentivized sales of the book.  So what's going to make sure that Milwaukee continues to get top authors on tour--great sales or great attendance?  Actually publishers and authors want both, with the third demand being great media. You can be thankful that Milwaukee is considered a good media town. Very thankful.

Oh, and there's a fourth thing, a great author experience.  If the author leaves happy, that makes a difference.  Good thing there are sweet potato and black bean burritos nearby.

There's another reason that these admission charges are being discussed. Fewer folks are buying books at the stores they visit. and quite frankly, many of us need to make up the loss revenue to stay afloat.  I think this topic warrants a completely separate blog entry, but I'll share the comment that our Chicago pal Mary spotted on the New York Times site:

"When I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, we had a fantastic independent bookseller, Harry W. Schwartz. It was THE place for author events and they got some amazing authors. Within about ten to fifteen years of Amazon hitting its stride, Schwartz was gone. Amazon's rise and Schwartz's fall are not unrelated. They never charged for author events; if paying $3.00 or $5.00 to attend would have saved them, I would have been honored to do it, but now I'll never know."

We're in discussions with a publisher to schedule a major author for fall. The author and publisher are contemplating a free event at the Milwaukee Public Library or a paid event at an outside venue.  I'm really excited about both--the former because its always great to work with libraries and the latter because its a cool venue we haven't used before. But in the end, we're leaving it to them--do they want to maximize attendance or sales?

 We'll find out next week!

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