Authors on the celebrity circuit

So, after I appeared in the Seattle Times yesterday, I got an email from my father who points out that my officemate Kim Ricketts appears in today’s edition: “Authors on the celebrity circuit“. The article is about the types of literary events that she puts on, where an author comes to town and speaks to private groups at Starbucks or Microsoft (like the Al Gore event last week). Naturally, that’s countered with the notion that somehow these events are going to put traditional bookstores out of business. Third Place Books manager Robert Sindelar takes that role, saying:

But Sindelar insists that a large part of his business is attracting people like Winters, who might not otherwise make their way to a bookstore after work. “If we can get them to our parking lot just once — that’s the hard part — then we can give them the experience of being in a bookstore, which they’re not going to get anywhere else,” he says. A high-profile author like Albom is the best way to lure those “unlikely bookstore people” into his store.

I love a good bookstore as much as the next person, but one problem is that “the experience of being in a bookstore” often varies considerably. Will the staff be responsive or surly? If I’m listening to an author, will I be able to hear him over the sound of the people milling around but not part of the event? Will I have a place to sit down?

The problem I see with this dichotomy is that booksellers seem stuck in the mindset that everything is against them, that every new approach to selling books is an intentional jab at closing bookstores. Rather than making an effort to advance with the times and do something innovative to sell books, they retreat into a defensive posture, claim that everyone is out to get them, and moan that people just don’t appreciate the “bookstore experience.”

Well, times change, and you need to change with them. If you want big-ticket authors to take the time out of their book tours to come to your venue, make it worthwhile for the author, and make it worthwhile for the reader. Unfortunately, Sindelar doesn’t appear to get it:

But Sindelar insists that, when it comes to buying and selling books, “There’s a philosophical issue to consider: Is there a substitute for walking in to a bookstore? Is there a substitute for experiencing the physical book, browsing a few titles, rubbing shoulders with other book lovers, picking up books by authors you wouldn’t have heard of?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “But I hope not.”

Yes, there are lots of alternatives, and people are taking advantage of them. If I know I want to buy a certain book, it’s often easier (and cheaper) to order it from Amazon. Sindelar paints a nice picture of the bookstore experience, but it’s a romantic notion that fewer people have the opportunity to experience. The fact that he doesn’t appear to know about the alternatives, even in a philosophical sense, tells me that he’s not willing to accept the present and future.

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