A typical scene during Toronto’s spring book launch season
You can hear the complaint at almost any book launch: “People spend more money on beer than books.” Some make buying the books at a small press launch a point of pride. Some compromise, balancing their bar tab with deferred hours of reading. Others unabashedly get hammered and go home, totally unimpressed with everything they heard.
Judgments on liquor-consumption aside, why is it so important that reading attendants spend their money on books instead of beer? These events are often free. They are essentially publicity meant to move units. If tickets were sold, it might be more comparable to a concert, where you go, drink beer, and if the band fails to impress, you skip buying the album on the way out. The venue and the musicians still collect a part of the ticket sales. At a launch, the book could be seen as the price of admission. Magazines sometimes knock down the price of the new issue at the launch if they charge an entrance fee. However, book readings are free because they often make up the majority of a book’s publicity. If the attendants aren’t moved to buy the book, that’s either a failure with the material or a failure with the marketing. Not to say that it’s bad, only that it hasn’t connected with the audience.
Every cultural industry is facing a similar problem: since the 1970s, real dollar incomes in Canada and the United States have stagnated while the real cost of living has increased, meaning people have less money to spend on recreation and entertainment. Buying an album “just to try it out” is not only an expensive way to listen to new music; it’s also far from necessary. In the literary world, digital magazines function, in some ways, as the Bandcamps of publishing, where readers can seek out new authors without shelling out for the chapbook, paperback, or ePub edition. If they recognize someone’s name on the billing of a literary event, maybe they’ll go, and maybe they’ll buy the book, but it’s not a requirement. Many of these publications do pay their contributors, but generally, the consumer expectation to pay for literary products has eroded.
Meanwhile, beer in Canada has changed, too. The industry is no longer restricted to the big three who own The Beer Store (Molson Coors, AB InBev SA, and Sapporo). At Toronto’s typical west-end literary venues, a drinker would be hard-pressed to find Blue on tap. They tend to carry products from breweries like Beau’s, Granville, McAuslan, and Mill Street, all independent businesses, all of them with the attitude that brewing beer is an art. Even if craft beer isn’t a priority in your drinking habits, small brew beers can be as much a creative labour as poetry chapbooks.
Beer isn’t strictly antithetical to books at literary events, either. Beer sales make hosting literary events worthwhile for venues like The Ossington and The Press Club, neither of which charge to book their stage, while organizers who use apparently lit-friendly places like The Monarch Tavern can be left on the hook for a deposit if sales don’t meet an expected amount. Paying a bar for a reading venue is a deranged practice that relies on bar owners’ expectations that these events will drive away their few regular clientele so they can serve ice water and a few Pabsts to college students. And while readings and launches really can kill an evening if they flop, so can musicians—and they actually expect the bars to pay them.
George Orwell, inveterate smoker
In his classic essay about the affordability of reading, “Books vs. Cigarettes,” George Orwell estimated that he spent about eight pounds a year on newspapers and periodicals. Today, a similar reader/writer might manage to read no fewer newspapers, magazines, and literary quarterlies than Orwell and spend nothing at all. Ultimately, Orwell guessed that he spent ₤15 per year more on beer and cigarettes than on books, and that he probably spent less on beer and cigarettes than the average British smoker.
StatsCan calculates that the average Ontario household spent $1,130 on tobacco and alcoholic beverages in 2013, with the average Ontario household equaling 2.6 persons. That’s $434.62 per capita. Meanwhile, “reading materials and other printed matter” cost $148 per household, a steep decline from $231 in 2012. That’s a personal budget just shy of $57 a year. The lower prices of digitally formatted reading materials probably contributed to that decline in expenditures between 2012 and 2013. However, even for 2012, the difference between money spent on books and reading versus money spent on tobacco and alcohol was proportionally three times higher than the difference Orwell figured for himself in 1946.
If the statistically average Ontarian spends $380 more on alcohol and tobacco than books and other reading material, the average book launch attendant probably spends more on both. But more on which? The price of a pint of Beau’s Lug-Tread or a similar craft beer at a typical west-end Toronto bar like The Garrison, which, according to Jess Taylor, dominated Toronto venues for book launches in 2013, is around seven dollars. With a dollar each in tips, a two-drink book launch runs to sixteen dollars. As for the books? Micropress chapbooks often go for as little as $10, whereas a new trade paperback of Canadian literature usually lands around the $20 mark. Let’s say a one-book purchase will average out to $15, higher or lower depending on the type of launch.
In this hypothetical scenario involving a one-book-buying, two-pints-drinking person, books and beer come out roughly equal. If they go out to two book launches a month, they will have spent $360 on books and $384 on beer at these events in a year, six times the statistical norm for a reading budget, while leaving room for a few packs of cigarettes that year.
Far more disturbing than the drinking habits of book launch attendants is that the annual reading expenditure in Ontario dropped by a third between 2012 and 2013. The $57 per head spent on reading in this province could buy you five or six used trade paperbacks, or six months’ of an online-only subscription to The Globe and Mail. By comparison, Québec and British Columbia were the only provinces to see an increase in household reading expenditures in that time, while Alberta and PEI spent on reading nearly $300 per household. If Ontario’s drop could be explained by online retailers’ steep discounts or the lower price of eBooks, it would make sense that a similar decline would be seen in other provinces, which isn’t always the case. There is another explanation, one that’s even bleaker for booksellers: either Ontarians have less disposable income to spend on reading, or they’re reading less. At a few hundred dollars per house, reading remains, as Orwell argued, one of the cheapest entertainments. There are too many ways to read StatsCan’s charts to draw any real conclusions; both housing and recreation increased substantially from 2012 to 2013, so it is impossible to tell from these numbers whether Ontarians were pinched for cash or just spending less time reading.
Nevertheless, there is something to be learned here for struggling booksellers, or those aspiring to enter into a struggling industry. The bookstore-café model is derided by some booksellers, and some might see echoes of Indigo’s gift and electronics retailing in such a move.
The Internet has ended the niche market’s relevance on Main Street, and it’s on the niche that so many bookstores rely. For dedicated readers, the question is either, where can I find this weird book I know and want, or, where can I find the most amazing book no one ever recommended. Today, the easiest answer is always online, and the time spent searching (or waiting for a special order) is a luxury. The most valuable thing on commercial streets today is an experience, one that online shopping can never replicate.
There is already an acknowledged, symbiotic relationship between bookstores and café culture, evidenced by Indigo’s deal with Starbucks as well as smaller, independent cooperative efforts. Readers need a place to go, and solo coffee (or beer) drinkers need something to read. The real boon of a book bar or café, though, might just lie in book launches and readings. If bookstores functioned as better social spaces and event venues, as spaces where you can have fun as much as exchange ideas about books, all those thirsty attendants of book launches and readings could drink without guilt. Rather than supporting bars and music venues that view literary events with suspicion and reluctance, audiences could spend their money in a place that may actually stock a reader’s titles. Running a bar is by no means a license to print money. It comes with its own headaches and difficulties. Still, as the bookselling industry looks to reinvent and reinvigorate itself, one option is ending the opposition Orwell posed in 1946, and use beer to help keep books on Main Street.