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Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Marketing Mistake: Charging For Author Autographs

There is a disturbing movement stirring about, according to a recent New York Times article.  Some independent bookstores are experimenting with charging for customers to attend author readings and book signings.

First off, this will only work, at best, with a handful of best-selling or celebrity authors.  No one is paying to hear an unknown, first-time novelist speak at a bookstore.  That is why you have these events, to give a free introduction to the author.  You want to attract people into the store and then seduce them into making a purchase.  If you charge an admission fee, even one that is applicable to the book purchase, you will alienate people.

Second, how practical is it to pull this off?  How will you segregate people paying to hear an author while five feet away you have non-payers browsing bookshelves and listening in if they choose to?  Will small stores with limited resources be able to staff and police this?

Certainly, author appearances outside of bookstores have been charged for.  That’s fine.  Usually, the author is speaking at length and perhaps is part of a panel of speakers.  You sit in cushy auditorium seats and you experience something special.  But an author doing several signings in local bookstores to drum up business for his or her book, shouldn’t be charging people so they can advertise to them.

Barnes and Noble and Borders don’t have a policy of charging for author appearances.  But independent bookstores are struggling.  They don’t want their stores turned into showcases where people listen to authors, browse the shelves, and then go online to download a half-priced ebook from Amazon.  I feel for the independents and applaud their willingness to try something different but what they should do is not charge for what used to be free but rather provide something extra for free.

Or upsell.  Provide added value.  Sell something in addition to the book being sold.  Maybe you package other books – at a discount – if purchased simultaneously.  Maybe the store sells some kind of premium item, like a T-shirt or mug, that celebrates the author.  Perhaps the store partners with a local business or restaurant and offers a Groupon-type deal for anyone showing they bought that author’s book that day.

We can do better than taxing loyal customers and potential readers. No one wants to be nickel and dimed or be treated this way.  If the bookstore wants to survive, it will depend not on desperate maneuvers but on innovative, supportive, and encouraging actions. 

I get it.  The book publishing industry is under a triple threat – bad economy, major changes in how books are sold, major changes in how books are promoted. But the road to recovery has yet to be paved and charging to attend a book signing is a road best left untraveled.

Brian Feinblum is the chief marketing officer at Planned Television Arts (www.plannedtvarts.com) and blogs daily at http://www.bookmarketingbuzzblog.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert.

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