In today’s post, regular contributor Denise Neary returns with a dilemma.  Should bookstores charge for author events?  Would you still go?  It’s a tough call for stores, and tough choice for consumers – especially in this difficult economy.

I love free fun.  I live near Washington, DC, so I have great access to lots of amazing free fun.  Most museums in DC are free—the Kennedy Center offers free concerts every night of the week.   So many great free things in easy reach.

My favorite free fun is going to listen to authors.   Again, in DC there are lots of options…..bookstores and The National Book Festival are two prime examples right in my backyard.  I also travel for work, and love to sneak into a new-to-me bookstore, and listen to author events in whatever city I happen to be in.

So, the buzz about independent book stores charging attendance for author events has really got me thinking.

And after a lot of thinking, I’m not sure what I think.

Read this article from the New York Times, and see what you think.

I am very aware of the pressures on independent bookstores.  In fact, I’m a member of my local independent book store—the best bookstore on earth, in my humble opinion, Politics and Prose in DC. But sadly, all too often, I have seen people zip into the store with Starbucks coffee (the store has their own café) talk to the incredibly knowledgeable and helpful staff and then leave without making a purchase.

I have seen people come to readings with ten old books to be signed by a favorite author—not a penny to the bookstore.   (How do I know?   I am always behind them in line!)

Bookstores aren’t libraries, and don’t owe the public anything.  But it is complicated…..independent bookstores are part of a community.   One hopes that, with each person who comes in to the bookstore to hear a speaker, there is at least some value to the bookstore.  Don’t author events generate sales and publicity?

I often pay to listen to authors.   Pen/Faulkner has an author series, with a charge for admission. I’ve paid to attend programs sponsored by the Smithsonian, A host of amazing DC authors speak at programs to raise moneys for local charities—and I go to those.   (My favorite, just in case you are looking for a charity to support……Alice McDermott is a fan and sponsor of the McKenna Shelter, which ministers to homeless men in DC,

I guess I can afford to go to listen to authors at bookstores, even if I don’t really want to pay to go see them.  Will I?   I don’t know.

As a longtime member of a mother-daughter  book club, I took the group to see two authors—-Cornelia Funke and Stephenie Meyer.  I know I never would have been able to convince all of the parents to plunk down cash to take their children to listen to an author…..and I know the kids had the time of their lives. Those kids could have afforded the admission price, but how about the people who can’t afford to pay?

In short, I am confused.    I don’t think bookstores should charge, as a routine, to allow the public into a public commercial space to listen to an author.    Yet, I want independent bookstores (and all bookstores) to survive.

What do you think?

— Denise Neary, Regular Contributor