June 22, 2011

To Charge or Not to Charge – That is the Question

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:40 pm

Come Meet the Author, but Be Prepared to Open Your Wallet – NYTimes.com.

Read the above article, and then let me put some things into perspective for those not familiar with bookselling.

In St. Louis, Left Bank Books hosts 200+ author events each year, most of which are free and open to the public.  For one such event last month we ordered 36 copies of the book, hoping to attract at least 100 people and sell to somewhere around 25% of the crowd.  The book in question is a very popular new nonfiction title, so we thought the chances of doing well were pretty good.

Our events coordinator, Danielle, talked repeatedly to the publicist to set up the event.  Sara, our special orders/assistant buyer/assistant manager/bookseller placed the order.  Bill, our receiving person, checked in, counted and tagged the books.  We publicized the event by creating a newsletter, window displays, email blast, multiple website postings, Facebook and Twitter mentions.  Our booksellers made displays, took phone calls, answered emails and talked up the book to our customers.  One bookseller wrote and gave an introduction, another set up the chairs at our Central West End store, closing 1/3 of our store’s browsing space for the event.

The night of the event we sold 22 copies of a book that retails at $28.95.  We kept some copies to sell later and returned 7 to the publisher.  So here’s the math:

We brought in $636.90 in sales.  We paid the publisher $453.27.  We paid Fedex about $20 to deliver the returned books.  That leaves $163.63 with which to pay for advertising, rent, utilities  Bill, Sara, Danielle, other booksellers who handled the book, the lost income from closing 1/3 of our store, insurance and office supplies used to promote and manage the event.

Attendance for that event was good.  The author loved the introduction.  The publisher was happy with the crowd.  The only loser here was the bookstore.  No, I’m not trying to guilt anyone into buying their books from us.  My message is simple – you get  what you pay for.  If the bookstore (which by the way is not a government program or nonprofit entity) cannot pay its bills or its staff, there are no author events.  There is no place to go and, by serendipity or other means, stumble upon a new author or book you would have never thought about before.  There are no staff picks.   There’s just your computer.

If you take the above example and multiply it by 200, you see our budget.  Except it’s more complicated than that.  The example above was a free event in our store that actually did well.  Many times we host or sell books for events that aren’t in our store, like the River Styx events at Duff’s or events at the Library,  Ethical Society or Christ Church Cathedral.  For many of those, we have to give the venue a cut of our book sales, meaning that of the $636.90 mentioned above, we’d also have to pay between $60 and $65 to the venue leaving only $100 to pay our other bills.

And what if we have a big crowd at the Cathedral, for instance – hundreds of people – half of whom bought their book on Amazon, the other half reluctant to buy the book?  What happens then?

The reality is that bookstores like mine are important parts of literary culture.  We offer a service that is impossible to replicate.  Historically, this service has been underwritten by inevitable book sales.  But we’re in different times.  Historical sales don’t matter anymore if you can’t pay your rent.  Independent booksellers have had to face this reality head-on for many years beginning with the giant real estate suck of Borders and Barnes & Noble and most recently with the monopoly of Amazon.  We’re flexible and smart, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived this long.  We know, that to survive into the future, we have to adapt.  We sell e-books on our website, we ship books worldwide, we host author events, we raise money for local charities and schools, we reach out to others in our neighborhoods and communities.

The article at the beginning of this post is odd because it insinuates that free literary programming is a right not a privilege, and that independent bookstores are trying to cheat our customers and the authors out of something.  Well, that just hurts.

Charging for our services isn’t greedy or unseemly, it’s necessary and fair.  After all, we’re worth something, right?



  1. Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA now charges $10 to attend an author appearance unless you are a paid member of the store, or if you have a copy of the book purchased from Keplers. If you pay the $10, I believe you get a gift card that can be applied against a future purchase. Hopefully, the book-buying public will soon realize that it’s a false, and community-damaging economy to buy from the big chains or that monolithic online purveyor of books, hardware, trinkets, and you-name-it.

    Comment by Jim Reed — June 22, 2011 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  2. Well, D’oh! If I had read the NY Times article first, I could have refrained from posting. Ah, me…

    Comment by Jim Reed — June 22, 2011 @ 2:10 pm | Reply

  3. Here here. In this day and age of ‘if it’s free, it’s for me’, it’s hard to get people to pay for something that previously was free. Amazon.com and other mega-vendors have made it nearly impossible for small, independent businesses to compete, and the majority of customers don’t really understand the bigger picture of the costs involved in creating an event like an author signing. Thank you for pointing them out .

    It’s important to continue to inform and educate consumers about the very real costs of operating a small business in a community, and also to point out the very real value of a community of its having its very own local businesses. Particularly great indie bookstores!

    Comment by Robin K. Blum (@inmybook) — June 22, 2011 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

  4. This is why supply-side economic thinking lacks intellectual and progressive content. When people purchase a book from Amazon they may get a good deal dollar-wise, but they are destroying what they claim to desire; access to literature. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    Comment by terrykoch — June 22, 2011 @ 5:41 pm | Reply

  5. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the way the world is going, and we’re all caught up in it. The bookstore “publicized the event by creating a newsletter, window displays, email blast, multiple website postings, Facebook and Twitter mentions. Our booksellers made displays, took phone calls, answered emails and talked up the book to our customers.” I run a small local newspaper that relies on paid advertising to survive. Most small businesses these days don’t think about advertising in a local paper because they can get all the “free” advertising mentioned above. That’s the way it is. We have to adapt to it, just like every generation has to adapt to changes. I don’t think that “free” electronic advertising is equivalent to what I offer our customers, but maybe it is and I just have to figure out a way to deal with it.

    Comment by Ed King — June 23, 2011 @ 4:40 pm | Reply

  6. Ed, bookstores would love to use paid advertising – we just can’t afford to. I don’t think electronic advertising is a full substitute for print/radio/tv advertising, but in the world of Amazon, every bookstore penny is going to things like salaries and buying books and paying rent. It would be awesome to be able to afford to advertise somewhere other than on our Facebook page. I think most of us would love to be able to buy some ads.

    Comment by Melissa — June 25, 2011 @ 10:46 am | Reply

    • But this is my arguement as a consumer as well. Every penny I own is going into my home, fuel for my car, feeding my children. I wouldn’t own a book if I always had to pay full price.

      Comment by appel — June 25, 2011 @ 12:37 pm | Reply

  7. I think that you should charge. The people who show up would show up regardless–they wouldn’t even blink an eye at a small charge.

    Comment by Barb Loehrer — June 25, 2011 @ 11:33 am | Reply

  8. I would read the article but it says I have to have some sort of account. I kinda loathe the NYT so it isn’t going to happen. Anyway I agree as much as I can without reading the article and hope you guys can make it through.

    Comment by m31plusus — June 25, 2011 @ 11:50 am | Reply

  9. What about free for Friends of Left Bank and charge for other folks?

    Comment by terrykoch — June 26, 2011 @ 8:33 pm | Reply

  10. I’d just like to add that bookstores and booksellers like you are an important part of civilization. Good luck.

    Comment by Delia Yeager — June 28, 2011 @ 11:37 am | Reply

  11. http://seattlemysteryblog.typepad.com/seattle_mystery/2011/06/index.html

    In the spirit that this is a larger issue than competition between remote stores—even with the Internet abolishing geographical distinction to some degree—I offer the above link.
    The Seattle Mystery Book Store announced that there was a publisher with whom they were not going to do business. Well, that is not unusual, as they don’t do business with , say, speciality Art book publishers, either. If it makes no economic sense and does not serve their clientele, chances are there is no business, aside from an occasional special order.
    What makes this blog link special is that the discussion roars back and forth because SMB is not going to do business with Amazon publishing.
    An interesting multilogue for book lovers and lovers of reading, with insight into bookselling much as in the above.

    Comment by D.F.Downing — July 2, 2011 @ 12:51 pm | Reply

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