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Readings as patronage events?

85/365 - Instrument Wednesday

Should author readings be free?

That’s what the New York Times wondered recently in a story about indie bookstores that charge admission for author events.

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 the SoHo neighborhood of 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.)

Now, there’s always been a tacit rule—at least among the writer-reader-teacher set I know—that if you attend a book reading, you should buy a copy of the book to support the author. (At the very least, you should NOT do what one woman at a recent reading did: say “I haven’t read your book—I’m sure I’ll get it out of the library at some point, though.”)

But charging admission? Or requiring a book purchase? On the one hand, I see the point: where else, besides a reading, would you expect to go and be entertained and enlightened for free? On the other hand, though, it just seems… crass. Forcing someone to buy a copy of a book feels like an intrusion: if there’s such a thing as Tea-Party literati, I can see them waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags as we speak. (And yet, demanding payment for a service rendered—in this case, the author’s and bookstore’s time and effort—is capitalism at its best.)

Maybe more people would be willing to pay if authors took this Millions essay about the (lost) art of the literary reading to heart.

What do you think? Are you less (or more) likely to attend a reading if you’ll be forced to pay admission or buy a copy of the book?

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