Note to the caption: The novelist Debra Dean doing a reading at Starbucks headquarters.
Note to the caption: Debra Dean signing her books for Starbucks employees in Seattle.
By MOTOKO RICH
Published: May 16, 2006
SEATTLE, May 10 On a sunny spring afternoon, Debra Dean, a first-time author, perched on a table before a lunchtime crowd of about 40 to read passages from her newly published historical novel, "The Madonnas of Leningrad." The group listened, seemingly riveted, then asked questions about her research into the Nazi siege of Leningrad and the collections of that city's Hermitage Museum. Afterward, nearly everybody lined up to buy books.
It was all fairly standard for a bookstore reading. Except it wasn't at a bookstore: Ms. Dean was appearing in a dull conference room at the corporate headquarters of Starbucks, the coffee-house giant.
With authors fiercely battling for attention in a media-saturated world, an increasing number of writers from first-time novelists like Ms. Dean to celebrities like Madeleine K. Albright, the former Secretary of State are visiting people where they spend much of their time: at work.
"It is easier to get people through the eye of a needle into the kingdom of heaven than it is to get people into a bookstore at 7 o'clock at night," said Suzanne Balaban, publicity director of Scribner, a unit of Simon & Schuster that recently started a program to bring authors into companies. "So we have to constantly reinvent what we do."
A growing roster of corporations, including Microsoft, Boeing, Google and Altria, the owner of brands like Philip Morris and Kraft Foods, have played host to writers in their offices. Even the United States Treasury Department has invited nearly 40 authors to speak over the last two years. Executives see the author readings as akin to other perks like in-house gyms, subsidized cafeterias and financial advice.
The idea is to reach people who rarely buy books and might otherwise never attend a reading. "I scarcely ever go to bookstores," said Carolyn Fletcher, an accountant in the Starbucks tax department, after she had her copy of "Madonnas" signed by Ms. Dean. Ms. Fletcher said she had been to at least 10 such events at Starbucks and bought books at most of them. "I don't think I had ever heard an author speak prior to coming to one of these."
The effort to reach new audiences comes at a time when book publishers are experiencing only modest growth and the population of readers is dwindling. According to a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts survey, only 56.6 percent of adults had read any book at all in the 12 months through the end of 2002, down from 60.9 percent a decade earlier. And the amount of time devoted to books has declined, too: according to a report by Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a private equity firm serving the media industry, Americans will spend an average of 106 hours reading books this year, down from 123 hours a person in 1996.
"Any kind of fresh way to attract people to books is exciting," said Jane Beirn, a director of publicity at HarperCollins.
Bookstore owners, however, are less thrilled about the idea. In-store author appearances are often crucial lures for book buyers, so booksellers worry that if their potential customers are seeing the writers at work, they won't make the trip to the stores.
The tension is particularly pronounced in Seattle, where several companies now welcome authors. "If we are doing an event at our Bellevue store, if there is also a Microsoft event, that can affect sales," said Stesha Brandon, events and programs coordinator at University Book Store, a 106-year-old independent bookseller with several locations in the area.
Company employees represent a totally new market, said Kim Ricketts, Ms. Brandon's predecessor at University Book Store, who now coordinates author readings at companies and nonprofit groups. "To expand the audience for books," she said, "we need to get them out into people's lives in a way that is easy for them."
In the three years since she set up shop coordinating corporate author events, Ms. Ricketts has expanded from organizing five readings a month to 20 or 30 now. In addition to getting a fee from the company holding the reading, Ms. Ricketts generally splits the revenue from book sales 50-50 with the publisher, just as a traditional bookseller does.
Ms. Ricketts said that most corporate events draw anywhere from 30 to well over 100 people. (Or, in the case of an author like Ms. Albright, many more.) On average, more than half of the people who come to a reading at work will buy the book, Ms. Ricketts said. By contrast, Ms. Brandon of the University Book Store said that about one-quarter to one-third of the people who attend author readings in bookstores buy the books.
But store owners say those figures do not take into account the multiplier effect of a reading. Long after an author has gone, the staff may continue to promote the book, and customers who come to readings often end up buying more than one book by that author, or books by other writers.
Criticizing corporate readings, Robert Sindelar, managing partner at Third Place Books, an independent bookstore in Lake Forest Park, a Seattle suburb, said: "The publisher who decides to do that kind of event in lieu of a bookstore event is being very short-sighted in terms of their future in this business. You get the illusion of breaking out into a new market, but ultimately you are only selling one book."
There is no question, though, that employers like having the authors speak to their workers. "We have a lot of people who are very smart and interesting and creative, and in some ways are bored easily," said Craig Nevill-Manning, engineering director in the New York office of Google, which employs about 500 people in Manhattan. "We are trying to provide an environment that is not just technologically stimulating but stimulating in other ways."
So on a recent Wednesday, Simon Schama, the Columbia University historian, appeared before a roomful of about 60 Google employees in New York. In his loose-fitting suit, Mr. Schama looked overdressed among the crowd sporting khakis, T-shirts and, in one case, a head of bright green hair.
Sitting on a stool not far from a pool table, Mr. Schama fielded questions about his most recent book, "Rough Passages," an account of the black slaves who fought with the British during the American Revolution.
The employees were particularly intrigued by an 800-page diary Mr. Schama said was available online. ("I was about to say, 'You can Google it!' " he quipped.) Afterwards Mr. Schama signed books sold by a local bookseller.
Mr. Schama, a veteran of the book tour circuit, said this was his first appearance at a private company. "It is fun to talk among the profoundly unconverted," he said. For the rest of his "Rough Passages" tour, though, Mr. Schama will be speaking at bookstores.
For now, publishers say they are committed to sending authors on tours that include plenty of bookstores. "Our booksellers are always going to be a first priority for us and our authors on a book tour," said Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House.
But the store owners may not be wrong about what corporate events could do to their customer base. At Ms. Dean's reading at Starbucks, Monica Minneman-Ioset, a senior buyer of store equipment, was one of the first in line to buy a book and get it signed.
"I try to go to as many of these events as I can," said Ms. Minneman-Ioset, who said she had heard authors like the thriller writers J. A. Jance and Ridley Pierson as well as the historian David McCullough at Starbucks. "I used to go to bookstore events, but I don't anymore. Mostly, I buy my books here now."