All About the Books: How Author Visits Work and Why They’re “As Free as Possible”

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(Above: Robin Roberts greets readers after her Salon@615 event.) 

Recently, we received a very thoughtful email from Susan, a Nashville resident who is a loyal customer of Parnassus Books and a frequent guest at the Salon@615 series. For those of you who live far away or don’t know, Salon@615 is a series of visiting author events hosted by The Nashville Public Library, Humanities Tennessee, The Nashville Public Library Foundation, and Parnassus Books. Together, we bring dozens of authors a year to Nashville for readings and discussions.

salon.001Most of these events are free to attend and open to as many people as we can cram into the venue; but this season, Salon@615 has started offering some “special edition” events where attendees are charged a ticket fee, which also includes an autographed copy of the author’s book. The structure of each event varies, but typically there’s a reading or presentation by the author, and usually that’s followed by a photo or handshake line or a signing line, where people can get their books signed. (Video of most of these events is also posted later on the Salon@615 website.)

Susan had just heard about the new change that allows attendees of Salon@615 readings to join the post-event signing line only if they’ve purchased the book through Parnassus, and she wasn’t sure she liked it. She’s not the first to wonder about Salon@615 changes, but she’s the first to contact us directly and say, “Hey, can you explain this?” Her questions made us realize we could do a better job clarifying how these events work and how we do all we can to keep them as open as possible to as many people as possible.

We’re grateful to Susan for opening up the conversation, and if you’ll pardon a longer post here than usual, we wanted to share our response to her. As always, we thank our lucky stars every day for the readers, writers, and book-lovers who make the cultural landscape of Tennessee so rich and unique. You’re the best, readers. We love you.

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Dear Susan,

Thank you so much for getting in touch with us. We’re thrilled that you’ve enjoyed so many Salon@615 events. We’re also glad you’ve shared your thoughts so candidly, and we very much hear what you’re saying. All of our Salon partners have read your email, and together we’d like to work to address your concerns.

The issue of what to charge for and how much is a tricky one. Historically, libraries and bookstores have not worked together in partnership. The people who sell books and the people who lend books for free have felt that they were on the opposite sides of the fence. Parnassus, the Nashville Public Library & Foundation, and Humanities Tennessee have sought to change that by forming Salon@615.

We’re searching to find a balance that will benefit all the parties involved, including the authors, the publishers, and the patrons. In our ideal world, we’d be able to host every event for free, authors would travel for free, and we could host a signing line for books purchased from anywhere, all night long. Realistically, though, we’ve got to work within some constraints.

These events don’t pop into being out of nowhere — it takes effort and funds to make them happen. For example, Parnassus does a good amount of the up-front work required to book the author, arrange the details of their visit with the publisher, promote and advertise the event, and then provide staffing at the event itself.

Additionally, the publisher is almost always funding a Salon@615 author’s visit to Nashville. What the publisher needs in return for supplying the author to us without a huge honorarium are strong sales of the current title. The only sales that count towards the event are those made at Parnassus Books — publishers don’t calculate purchases from Amazon and other bookstores into Nashville’s total as a whole. And without those strong sales, they won’t send more authors in the future.

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Next up at Salon@615 — Carl Hiaasen on Oct. 6

By asking that the front list title be purchased from Parnassus in order to secure a place in the signing line, we feel like we’ve found a way to meet everyone’s needs — the library can provide free admission, the bookstore sells books (which keeps us in business), and the publisher continues to pick up the bill. People who can’t afford to buy the book can still enjoy the event, and people who can afford to buy the book can help support a program they enjoy.

The process of hosting these events funds itself if the books purchased for those events come from Parnassus. However, if we do the planning and staffing of the event, but half the people in line are holding books they’ve purchased from Amazon, then Amazon earns the funds off of our staff’s hard work. If people show up to these author events with stacks of books purchased from other retailers, it makes this cost model difficult to maintain.

This is a balancing act, and we want to get it right for everyone. We share your belief that book-love is universal and that everyone should have the opportunity to celebrate it as often as possible. That’s why we’re committed to making Salon@615 events free to attend whenever the publishers allow us to — so that anyone can partake freely of the magic and wisdom of a live author performance. (Imagine if concerts could all be free, too!) We appreciate your patience as we continue to work out the best way to realistically operate in a way that values the time and talents of the authors and booksellers without whom these events wouldn’t exist. We’ll certainly keep you posted as our policies evolve.

All best,

Karen Hayes, Ann Patchett, and the Salon@615 partnership

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Need one more reason to support Salon@615? Because if our friends at the library can’t keep their day jobs . . . LOOK OUT, MUSIC BIZ.