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Should Bookstores Charge for Events?

Melody Schreiber

Staff Writer

Melody Schreiber is at work on a nonfiction anthology of premature birth. As a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., she has reported from nearly every continent. Her articles, essays, and reviews have been published by The Washington Post, Wired, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, NPR, The Toast, Catapult, and others. She received her bachelor’s in English and linguistics at Georgetown University and her master’s in writing at the Johns Hopkins University. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @m_scribe.

Recently, I attended a book event—a conversation about writing both fiction and nonfiction that was thought-provoking, humorous, and enlightening. Not a single question from the audience began with “This is more of a statement than a question.” It was held in a beautiful space, an art gallery with lovely lighting and exactly enough chairs for everyone to find a seat.

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That’s because everyone in attendance had paid $30 in advance.

Paying to hear authors, or any well-known public figures, is not new. I have even come to expect it when famous authors come to town. After all, if you’re famous enough that people would pay to see you, why would you not charge a fee?

But what about the case of less-famous authors—those who go on book tours to promote the book (and hopefully sell copies), not to garner speaking fees? Should bookstores start charging for their events as well?

I have to admit, I’m torn.

On one hand, I applaud bookstores experimenting with new models of generating revenue. Planning an event, staffing a store, keeping the lights and heat on—that’s not free. Charging a fee or requiring attendees to purchase the book is one way to guarantee that the event is worth the cost.

In the case of this event, the ticket functioned as an advance order for the author’s next hardcover book. Once the book is released, I can show my ticket stub to the store and pick up my copy of the book. This is a book I’d likely buy anyway, so I figured why not. (In addition, the bookstore asked that the author only sign their previously-published books that had been purchased from the store—another way to ensure revenue.)

But as someone who goes to many, many books events, I know that having to pay for them would mean becoming a lot pickier about which readings I attend. That means I’d likely go to the readings of authors I already know and love—and I’d miss out on discovering new books and authors.

But it’s more than that. When I first started out as a book blogger (and writer), attending readings was a great way to immerse myself in the literary scene—for free. It was when I needed to go to the events the most—when I couldn’t afford much else.

I worry that charging for more events will mean lower-income readers, or those with stricter budgets, will be cut out of literary events—and then the book world would become one of even more privilege than it already is.

The answer, I’m sure, is one of balance. If people want to pay to see an author, then why not charge once in a while? Bookstores have bottom lines, and keeping their doors open means experimenting with new ways of selling books.

But I will continue to support the stores that offer free and open readings to everyone.

Bookstores, especially independent bookstores, often function as the center of a literary community. I hope they’re able to find ways to continue offering this valuable service to everyone.