New Jersey Stage

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bask In My Glory For A Price!

By Donald W. Dunphy

How the publishing industry wants you to pay to attend author appearances, and why it is a bad idea.
In a recent New York Times article, it was reported how bookstores are charging patrons for the privilege of attending an author's appearance at that same bookstore all the while, one assumes, engaging in the process of selling the book. It is, in some bizarre way, like somebody dialing up infomercials on demand.

Not that any of this is new. The publishing industry is only following, once again, the path laid bare by the music industry. Remember when the Borders and Barnes & Nobles all said, "Nobody will want to read books on an electronic device. It's so impersonal! Where are the pages? This medium isn't like music at all!”

Cut to just a few days ago when Barnes & Noble announced Nook digital books are outselling everything else three-to-one. Those impersonal, pageless files are one of the few things apparently keeping B&N from circling the same drain Borders is being sucked down into. Amazon's been saying the same thing for over a year now, even as the purists jammed their fingers in their ears and chanted how it wasn't possible.

Count me in with the purists. I still like books on paper and haven't yet tossed my entire library to the data tides. I mean, do I really need one more video screen in my life? Regardless, for their lack of foresight, and for counting on the longtime sticks-in-mud such as I for their continued existence, bookstores are paying a price. And if you absolutely must have a seat in the audience of the latest self-help guru's pitch for their latest self-help opus, you'll pay too.

Some stores are leavening this latest inclination by accepting the entry fee as a purchase of said guru's book, or in the form of a gift card, but it is still at the core asking for money for the chance to have you hear them ask you for more money.

In the remaining record stores across the country, the in-store appearance and signing became commoditized several years ago. In fact, one of New Jersey's most prominent indies sells wristbands for events in advance, sometimes as far back as a month. The three-or-four song, stripped-down, acoustic jaunt has become a source of earnings.

Now, I'm all in favor of artists getting paid for their work. It is only right that if you made it and try to sell it, you should be allowed to profit somehow. It is unfortunate that digital media has dammed up a vital revenue stream. All this contributed to the summer concert season of 2010 being one of the lowest-attended, as prices per ticket were jacked up to counter the album sales shortfall. Consumers rejected the pricing, as if they had a choice. In a bad economy, what do you do? Hit the Def Leppard/Styx tour for one night, or pay your mortgage for the month?

The answer is clear. The mortgage company, because they know where you live.

So we have artists that can't make money from their CDs because people download them for free, can't make money on tour because the prices are sky-high, and all that is left is the in-store appearance where they can gladhand the audience, maybe play a tune or so with drastically altered arrangement, and sign a t-shirt or two.

That'll be $30 per signature, sweetie.

There was a store in Eatontown NJ that, on rare occasions, hosted in-store appearances, all for free and without the explicit exertion of sales lingering in the foyer...maybe a merch table, but that was the extent of it. On this particular night, at Red Bank's Count Basie Theater, Frank Black (a/k/a Pixies' Black Francis) was headlining a tour to promote his debut album on Elektra Records. Label-mates They Might Be Giants also had a new disc out called John Henry, their first with a full band backing them, and they were the opening act.

On this night at the music store, They Might Be Giants played a set of ten tunes (count ‘em – ten) without fear of watering down potential ticket sales for the later gig. Sure, this band is known for their short songs, but they offered up a wide-ranging batch that covered the entirety of their career thus far, from the earliest tracks on the Hoboken-based Bar-None label, to their Tiny Toons Adventures tie-in "Particle Man” (from the Flood album), to cuts from John Henry. It was a performance that they could have charged for.

But they didn't, and you know what? I bought their new CD that night, without a sales pitch or any coaxing, and certainly without the specter of having to buy it just to get inside.

Okay, that music store went out of business several years ago, but that's another story.

The point of this rambling recollection is that an in-store appearance ought to stand on its own as the commercial it is intended to be, and if the presentation is great, it will be remembered by the people in that crowd. If you have to lock in a sale in the process, it is something else entirely, and any expression of goodwill attached to it must be quickly disputed...or, the band better be offering a show's worth of material for the cost.

Publishing industry be warned. Unless you're prepared to have an audience expect an author read their book, from cover-to-cover to justify a performance fee (and isn't that really what we're talking about here?), maybe you'll want to rethink asking for money for the event. Books can take a long time to read out loud, and if I must plunk my money down, you, Mr. or Ms. Writer, better be saying every last word of it.

For more background, feel free to visit the New York Times for this article if, in fact, you haven't hit the paywall for the month: