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Sunday, October 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Books

Authors on the celebrity circuit

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Mitch Albom, best-selling author of the new novel "For One More Day," came to town two weeks ago, his was not a typical visit of an author on a book tour.

Albom began his day reading to about 600 employees at Starbucks' corporate headquarters, then answered questions from more than 250 fans at the Starbucks at Madison Park and finally read again at a candle-lit literary salon at the swanky Palace Ballroom in Belltown. Instead of folding chairs and shelves of books at the local bookshop — the customary accoutrements of book readings — these events boasted free lattes, a velvet-skirted stage, and a catered crostini bar, not to mention the presence of Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, whose chain of thousands of coffee stores is selling Albom's book.

Albom's day of book readings, during which he never stepped foot in a bookstore, is emblematic of the way — for better or worse — that the bookselling world is changing.

Kim Ricketts, founder and owner of Kim Ricketts Book Events, hosted both Albom's event at Starbucks' headquarters and the following $50-a-ticket literary salon in Belltown.

"It's a win-win situation," says Ricketts, who organizes authors to do readings at the workplaces of Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft and public venues in both Seattle and San Francisco. "When I organize an event at, say, Microsoft, those employees get to hear about something they're interested in. The author gets an audience with a group of people interested in what he's doing, and the publisher gets a room full of people who are buying books."

But bookstores, the traditional venue for author readings, aren't necessarily getting a slice of that win-win situation, and it's hurting their bottom line. When a touring author reads at a bookstore, he or she attracts anywhere from a couple-hundred to a thousand people — often generating that bookstore's most substantial sales for a month. So when publishers opt for book tours of literary salons, a bookstore's bread and butter is at stake. In the case of an author like Albom, whose "Tuesdays With Morrie" has sold millions of copies, that's a lot of bread and butter.

"I know for a fact that there are bookstores out there that rely entirely on their five big author events a year. If those big authors stop coming, they'll shut their doors," says Robert Sindelar, manager and buyer at Third Place Books.

While Sindelar acknowledges that because of the robust literary culture in Seattle the bookstores here will be able to sustain "a bigger hit," he worries about bookstores in other towns in Washington and, as the trend expands, across the country as well.

A different customer

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With the number of events hosted by Kim Ricketts Book Events up from an average of 15 to 20 readings a month in 2004 to 30 a month in 2006 (there were 51 in October alone), the future of the average bookstore looks bleak to some. But the issue is more complex than merely pitting literary salons against traditional in-store book readings.

"The whole way media is being marketed is changing dramatically and bookstores are scraping uncomfortably in the crevasse. It doesn't matter how you get your information anymore," Ricketts says, citing iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon.com as examples of new sources of media. "People want books, but they don't have to work to get them anymore."

Ricketts, a former reading coordinator for the University Book Store, concedes that some bricks-and-mortar bookstores will shut their doors in the coming years, but she says that's a result of neither her business nor the rising popularity of literary salons. "Most of the people who buy books from me aren't the type that go to bookstores regularly. They're not going to go to the 7 o'clock reading after work at Elliott Bay regardless," she says.

Brittany Winters, 24, who attended her first Starbucks literary salon at the Albom event, isn't sure she would have made it to see Albom at a bookstore. "It's convenient because I'd be here anyway," she says. "And it's nice and feels more accessible than a bookstore."

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.

Publishers in the middle

Publishing houses are also caught between encouraging literary salons, which sell large numbers of a single title, and continuing to support bookstores, which sell all the most current books on a publishing house's roster. Indeed, publishers rely heavily on booksellers to "hand sell" books by more obscure authors — that's how an little-known book like "Cold Mountain" turned into a million-copy seller.

"It's bad business," Sindelar says of publishers' endorsement of literary salons. "They're excited because it's new and cutting edge, but these events don't sell their backlist."

Carol Schneider, executive director of publicity and public relations at Random House, says each book tour is designed to connect the book with its specific audience. "Sometimes the best place for an author to visit is not a bookstore, but that doesn't mean we're abandoning our bookstores," she says. "There're room for both." Although Schneider admits that often authors only have time for one event in each city during a book tour.

Ricketts, a self-described "book matchmaker," has built her business on connecting each book with its (increasingly elusive) reading audience. "A lot of people actually need to be reminded they like to read," she says. "And when I'm able to do that by going to places where people aren't actively seeking out books, it's good for everyone. If people start buying more books, where are they going to go? A bookstore, right?"

Maybe. But in the case of Albom's book, people can just go to Starbucks and pick it up along with their double lattes.

"A win-win situation"

This past summer, Albom agreed to become Starbucks' first promoted author, heralding the expansion of Starbucks Entertainment. In addition to selling CDs and DVDs, Starbucks will begin selling novels in-store. While Albom prefers reading in a "comfortable place where they serve food," he jokes, it's not the access to customers, the ambiance or the free latte that made him sign on with Starbucks.

"You get a certain amount of success and you have an obligation to direct that toward charity. This is an easy way to do that," he explains. For every copy of his book Starbucks sells, it donates $1 to Jumpstart, a anti-illiteracy partnership.

"It's a win-win situation," says Schultz, Starbucks' chairman. "We add texture to our brand, we can guarantee a certain number of books sold, and authors have a great place to connect with their readers."

But Starbucks as an up-and-coming literary salon is just the beginning.

"We're looking into publishing books, too," reveals Schultz. "There's so much talent out there, and they can't find a publisher. It'd be a great service for emerging authors. Even as we speak, we have someone at William Morris [Literary Agency] who is reading scripts and treatments. It's more than an idea. It's something we're serious about."

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."

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or hedwards@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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