Paying admission at the bookstore

Retailers capitalizing on author events, something that Amazon can’t copy

Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel / New York Times News Service /

Independent bookstores, squeezed by competition from Internet retailers like Amazon, have long done something their online brethren cannot emulate: author events. And now many bookstores say they have no choice but to capitalize on this grand tradition.

They are charging admission.

Bookstores, including some of the most prominent around the country, have begun selling tickets or requiring a book purchase of customers who attend author readings and signings, a practice once considered unthinkable.

“There’s no one right now who’s not considering it,” said Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan. “The entire independent bookstore model is based on selling books, but that model is changing because so many book sales are going online.”

The Boulder Book Store in Colorado caused a stir in April when it announced it would charge $5 a person to attend store events. In April, Kepler’s Books, an independent in Menlo Park, Calif., began charging customers a $10 gift card, which admits two people to each author appearance. (They also have the option of buying the book in exchange for admission.)

McNally is overseeing the construction of an event space in the lower level of her store. As soon as the space is ready, she said, the store will start charging admission to its events.

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.

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.”

Novelist Ann Patchett, who is on a three-week tour for her new book, “State of Wonder,” appeared at a ticketed event at Kepler’s last week. While she said she is “sympathetic” to bookstores, she is concerned that people who do not have enough money to buy a hardcover book — especially students or the elderly — might be left out.

“I wouldn’t want the people who have no idea who I am and have nothing else to do on a Wednesday night shut out,” she said. “Those are your readers.”

While e-book sales have exploded in the past year, sales of print books have suffered, hitting brick-and-mortar stores especially hard. But the independent bookstores that have survived the growth of Amazon and the big bookstore chains have tried to retool over the years to become tougher, more agile and more creative in finding new sources of revenue beyond print books.

Anne Holman, the general manager of The King’s English Bookshop, an independent in Salt Lake City, said an industrywide discussion began a few years ago about whether to charge for events.

“We don’t like to have events where people can’t come for free,” Holman said. “But we also can’t host big free events that cost us a lot money and everyone is buying books everywhere else.”

The bookshop now requires book purchases or sells tickets for about half its 150 annual events, up from 10 percent five years ago.

Publishers can benefit from bookstore events, which are frequently covered in local media as news events, giving book sales a boost.

But privately, some publishers said they were skeptical.

“We pay for the author to travel and come to the bookstore, and then the store makes money from it?” one said.

Readers seem split on the practice. Helen Glikman, 54, a professor of social work from Cambridge, Mass., who regularly attends readings at local bookstores, said she would happily pay a nominal fee, say $10, to hear Paul Auster, whom she has seen twice, or Jonathan Lethem.

“You get a real sense of community at an independent bookstore,” she said. “You get an intellectual community that gathers around books, and that can only happen at a bookstore.”

Joshua Roberts, who works for Drexel University, attended a reading of Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel “10,000 Saints” at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan on Thursday night. He has known Henderson for years and was thrilled that her book was out, but he was disinclined to pay to attend a reading at a bookstore.

“Who would the money go to? Not to the author?” he asked. “That’s terrible.”

After the reading, Henderson said her initial reaction was that charging would be unwise.

“I’m not sure that charging readers would be a) useful or b) friendly,” she said. “While I understand the need for bookstores to make money, I don’t think they should discourage readers.”

Some bookstore owners say that while they understand the impulse to charge, they are not comfortable doing it themselves.

Barnes&Noble, the largest bookstore chain in the country, has never charged admission to its events, a spokeswoman said.

“We are retailers, we are selling a product, for sure, but, at the same time, we’re a cultural center,” said Neal Sofman, co-owner of Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco, adding that he would not rule out charging in the future. “You can never say never anymore.”

Others make an occasional exception to their no-charging policy. BookCourt, a bookstore in Brooklyn that holds about 300 author events each year, charged $10 a person for an event celebrating the magazine N+1 in December, at the urging of Keith Gessen, an author and an editor of N+1. More than 200 people showed up.

“I think it makes it more fun,” said Gessen, adding that he believed all events should charge admission. “I don’t think you should be able to walk into a Barnes&Noble and get to look at Joan Didion.”