The Endangered Book Reading

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How much would you pay for the latest book from your favorite author? Would you shell out the full ticket price at the local independent bookseller, or would you jump on Amazon and get the e-book or a discounted copy shipped from some centralized distribution warehouse? And how much would you pay to hear the author read a fraction of the book? Fifty dollars? Ten dollars? Nothing?

Partially out of survival, some authors and independent booksellers have begun charging admission for literary readings. The causes are numerous, and mostly digital: cheap e-tailing, social marketing, the popularization of e-books, among others. “It’s ironic, of course, that as writers become more available online, face-to-face interactions may be put behind a paywall,” laments Alizah Salario at The Millions. “And if open access to readings diminishes, will readers grow more familiar with an author’s brand than with the real person behind a text?”

Salario argues that an admission mutates author readings into “artistic commodities” and predicts that economic transactions will change the nature of book readings so that patrons will expect to get (and authors expect to provide) much more than a simple recitation. “Will authors feel compelled to offer something tangible in addition to words intoned?” she writes. “Will they pass out cookies and break into song?” Whether this cheapens or enhances the reading probably depends on the author and the venue. A few years back, Minneapolis’ punk rock concert venue the Triple Rock Social Club hosted Anthony Bourdain to read from his book No Reservations and field audience questions. The gritty atmosphere of the Triple Rock perfectly complemented Bourdain’s off-the-cuff, vulgar personality. With some creative presentation and unconventional venue choices, admissions may expand the realm of what a literary event can be, where it can be held, and who is likely to listen in.

This trend has spurred a lot of conversation and provoked a number of competing viewpoints. Vol. 1 Brooklyn finds nothing wrong with charging admission:

The answer is that (hopefully) you aren’t paying to hear them read. (Hopefully) you are paying to help keep your local indie bookstore afloat . . . Be excited you’re doing this, because you know what else you could be doing?  Hanging out in a bar you don’t like, among people you don’t know, who are talking about things you don’t care about, and then, all of a sudden, two hours have passed and you’ve spent double the amount you would have spent had you gone and paid to see Ms. Fancypants 20 Under 40 read from her work of historical fiction.

On the other side, Ellen at Wormbook thinks that free author events are crucial. “They offer a literary culture that is priceless, not priced,” she writes. Literary agent Miriam Goderich of Dystel & Goderich remembers all the literature she’s purchased on a lark after a free reading: “How many times did I walk out of a book store with a title I had no intention of buying when I went in after stumbling upon an author reading from his/her book?” What’s more, charging an admission (even a paltry $5 ticket) may further alienate the literati from the lay readership.

The work that independent publishers and undiscovered authors do is important and always in danger, but it’s still hard to tell whether monetizing author events and making them more exclusive will be benefit the literary community or beleaguer it.

Sources: Dystel & Goderich, The Millions, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Wormbook

Image by BEYOND BAROQUE, licensed under Creative Commons.

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