Pay-what-you-want model works for convention room parties, Panera location; could it work for e-books?
February 19, 2012 | 4:29 am
In case you’re wondering why you haven’t heard from me much over the last few days, part of the reason is that this weekend is the weekend of VisionCon, the yearly science fiction/fantasy and gaming convention in Springfield, Missouri, which has been going on for some twenty years now.
Over the con, I met urban fantasy author Patricia Briggs and her husband, and attended a panel on the current state of SF that veered into e-book territory and I will probably cover in that respect tomorrow. I also met Palladium Games head Kevin Siembieda (for the third time), and had a fun time in general.
At the moment, I’ve just finished doing the rounds of the Saturday night room parties, and am now waiting for a while until I am (relatively) safe to drive home. And I had an interesting insight along the way.
Convention room parties, for those who have never attended conventions, are a funny thing. You can’t sell booze without a liquor license. But there’s nothing stopping a room party runner from giving booze away and prominently placing a “tip jar”.
As long as you make it abundantly clear that there is no connection whatsoever between getting booze and putting money in the jar, you can operate with impunity. (So far, anyway—I haven’t heard any reports of convention room parties being shut down by the ATF.) As far as I know, it’s this way at pretty much every SF or gaming con that allows room parties to begin with. (It’s certainly one of the fun parts of the cons for me.)
Tonight I asked the professional bartender who runs one of the longest-running VisionCon room parties I’m aware of how well she did every year on tips. She said that her goal is to break even on liquor costs or at least not lose more than $100 every year. (And to be honest, $100 seems like a decent amount to spend on having fun at con to me.)
She said that if she ever fails to meet that goal, she will keep running the party room until it happens again, then quit. So far, she hasn’t failed to meet it even once. (And given that she runs a really awesome room party, I have a hard time imagining her failing to meet it at any point in the future, either.)
Update: On my way out of the con after originally writing this article, I spoke to another fellow who has been known for several years for bringing Everclear-soaked cherries that are lit on fire before being consumed, which are offered on a similar tip/donation basis. The last couple of years, he has donated all proceeds to a local abandoned-pet charity. Last year he raised $215, and this year he more than met his $300 goal,
This put me in mind of other “pay what you want” models, such as the Humble Indie Bundle and the recently-announced Story Bundle. The Humble Bundle has done remarkably well in raising money both for the developers and for charity; the most recent Humble Android Bundle raised almost a million dollars in all. And an experimental pay-what-you-want location of the Panera Bread Company reports performing at 80% of retail and bringing in $3,000 to $4,000 above costs.
Only a few take advantage of the system – "lunch on Uncle Ron" as [Panera founder and Chairman Ronald] Shaich calls it. He still fumes over watching three college kids pay $3 for $40 worth of food. Generally, peer pressure prevents that sort of behavior, he said.
"It’s like parking in a handicapped spot," Shaich said.
Of course, the sort of people who attend cons are often hard-core fans who care about others in the fandom—the sort of folks who are more likely than most to feel obligated to chip in for what they take. While I will admit I’ve taken advantage of the room party system to get drunk for free in the past, nowadays I chip in at least $1 per drink I take—if not what a bar might charge for that drink, it’s at least enough to cover the bottled cost of the booze itself.
And perhaps that same sort of people are responsible for the success of the Humble Indie Bundles, and the Panera pay-what-you-want branch. Perhaps this might suggest that fears of piracy are overblown, and that when given the chance, people generally will pay (what they consider to be) a fair price for the goods they take? Perhaps the mainstream publishers should consider offering e-books on a pay-what-you-want basis, since they don’t have to pay printing and shipping costs?
I don’t know about all that. But what I can say is that the pay-what-you-want model has been generally successful for the Indie Bundle folks, that Panera branch, and the people who run room parties at cons. Perhaps it could be just as successful in other venues.