The golden ticket

What economics has to say about the entry fee strategy for literature events

The Ekushey Book Fair is open now for public entertainment in Dhaka, and recently the city also had the Dhaka Lit Fest (DLF). DLF this year raised many questions around pricing strategies for literary events. Should they even have an entry fee? If yes, how much? I would like to use some economic theories to understand this question better. 

For the sake of full disclosure, I have never attended DLF. For the last 10 years, I could only manage to attend only two Ekushey Book Fairs. However, I regularly attend similar events in Pittsburgh, US (where I live). I also attended literature events in Princeton University and the University of Illinois (where I did my postdoc and PhD). For most of these events in the US, there is a very clear pricing strategy. Before going to the main points, I guess we all understand Bangladeshi people have a very strong inclination towards free events. The first problem around DLF was to keep it free for multiple years. Consumers get used to "free events". However, if the purpose was to create a brand before making a revenue out of the DLF, I guess they are kind of successful in marketing the event. The demand for the event looks pretty high, after all. People on social media are always eager to attend the event (however, they want it “free”). 

Now, being a microeconomist, I think about the importance of literature events, and there is no way I can say these events need to be free. Literature events with fancy foreign writers are not necessity products -- not even when you consider the necessity for knowledge. People can easily go to Youtube and listen to many lectures and interviews. They can download many articles, read many posts, and buy cheap books from Dhaka bookstores. I do not see any single point to keep making DLF (and similar events) free.

This is not a medical expense or primary education. 

Now, as you can see, I am a supporter of tickets. It is actually not a matter of “support” as economic theory and empirical studies on different other events suggest that these kinds of literature events should have a private market. Having said that, these are my suggestions for a better pricing policy for DLF going forward.

First, students should either get a free pass or a very low price like Tk50 per day. We cannot expect people under the salary range of Tk30,000 to spend Tk500 to attend one event. Many students live on part-time jobs or tuition for two to three years before getting a real job. The so-called “unemployed job-seekers” are not students, and do not get a free card. If there is a good way to identify income level, we could use that as a cutoff point. 

Second, I think we need a clear price discrimination strategy for these events. Tickets can be sold by the demand for seats. For example, the front seat price can be Tk500 but a back row seat will be only Tk50. Some simple demand studies should make the price differences clear. Marketing and consumer behaviour organizations often use surveys to understand this. This is not optimal to have a high price seat and then get it empty because people cannot afford it. 

Third, if somebody buys tickets in bulk (for more than one day), there should be a concession. Example: If Tk500 for one day, then maybe Tk700 for two days. Also, if people buy tickets as a group, they should get a concession. For example, a family of four should be able to buy a family ticket. Selling a bundle of tickets for a lower price has been a successful strategy in many similar cases. 

Fourth, there can be a price difference based on the timing of the events too. Normally, people have higher demand for the first and last days. People also normally have a higher willingness to pay for evening events. Again, a clear pricing strategy will help us to understand the demand. 

Fifth, now, this is the most controversial point. I support the idea of Tk10,000 price, and I think it was wrong marketing from the DLF side. The "VIP" label affected the idea behind it.

I think DLF should label it as "honourary" or "donor" tickets. Actually, this can just be open -- they can say anybody who wants to pay more than the regular price just to support the event, they can do it. It doesn't have to have a minimum or maximum price. Donors have always been a strong foundation for literary events all around the world, and there is no shame in getting money from people who can afford it and are willing to pay just to support the event. There could be a dinner event with big literary figures for the highest donors (as another incentive to pay more).

In Bangladesh, we still have a strong negative attitude toward “rich” people, and that is just harmful for the growth of the society. We need to understand the inclusion of capitalistic views in these events to make them successful. 

Now, yes, I think that DLF does not need to be free and publicly available. But I also think the government should not subsidize these kinds of events from tax money. If an event wants to go by market, let them survive the market pressure. 

I actually think the Ekushey Book Fair also should have a daily entry fee (Tk50-60) and spend that money to increase the quality of the events inside. The Calcutta Book Fair has a small entry fee, and we have no reason to avoid such pricing. This will help us to have control over the crowd. If nothing else, that will create a safer place for our women, at the very least. 

Aparna Howlader is Assistant Professor of Economics, Chatham University.