by August Wainwright on April 24, 2013
I don’t know James Patterson personally. I have no doubt he’s a kind and thoughtful man; I have absolutely no reason to believe otherwise.
But his recent ad (shown below) that ran in the New York Times Book Review and in Publishers Weekly (along with the follow-up article in Salon) proposing a government bailout for failing bookstores and publishers is one of the most atrociously ludicrous ideas I’ve ever heard.
(And that’s saying a lot when you’ve got guys like Scott Turow who keep opening their mouths.)
Here’s the ad:
If you haven’t read the Salon article, you can read it here. WARNING: Be prepared for the desire to want to punch your computer screen.
First of all, let’s talk a little politics.
I thoroughly enjoy how the “elite”, as we’ll call them, seem to conveniently forget everything they’ve said and stood for when they find themselves in trouble.
Like when Republicans (and some Democrats as well) in Congress voted against stimulus spending, spoke to the media and their constituents about how the bailout money did nothing to create new jobs, and then, on numerous different occasions, tried their best to funnel that money to various state projects on the grounds that it would help create thousands of jobs.
You have to love that kind of blatant hypocrisy.
The publishing companies, to which I include Patterson among their ranks, are just like politicians; they hate the idea of regulations. They hate being told what they can and can’t do. They scream, “Stay out of my pocket because I’m a titan of industry and I’m creating jobs, creating wealth… hell, I’m creating America.”. They hate handouts. They hate when marketplaces evolve and the people at the bottom start to change the rules of the game.
But yet, as soon as they see things changing (which is always much much later than everyone else), they go running right to the government begging for help.
“I haven’t thought about it but I’m sure there are things that can be done. There might be tax breaks, there might be limitations on the monopolies in the book business.”
In the Salon article, Patterson is dubbed the:
“closest thing the publishing industry has to an ambassador… advocating for government intervention… in order to save an industry besieged by bookstore closings and consolidation of the few remaining major publishing houses.”
Yea… No. That’s not what’s “besieging” the publishing industry.
And isn’t that reminiscent of something an addict would say; blame everyone else, but don’t ever look yourself in the mirror, right?
What’s besieging the industry is the fact that they refuse to evolve, refuse to embrace technological changes, refuse to listen to what the REAL consumers (the readers) are asking for, and they refuse to respect the content producers (the authors) as they continually act like authors aren’t necessary.
Patterson goes on to say:
“E-books are fine and dandy, but it’s all happening so quickly, and I don’t think anyone thought through the consequence of having fewer bookstores, of libraries being shut down or limited, of publishers going out of business – possibly in the future, many publishers going out of business.”
Again, look in the damn mirror. E-books aren’t responsible for fewer bookstores or fewer publishers – shitty business practices are. E-books aren’t responsible for libraries being shut down or limited (a completely asinine idea to begin with) – that honor goes to TV, movies, Playstation, Xbox, Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, iPhones, and the Internet in general.
Now, at one point in the article, Patterson encourages people to pick a book they love and give it to a stranger.
Good, great. Do it. Sounds good to me.
But what it seems to me that Patterson is really saying here is pick up a physical (or better yet, go buy another) copy of a book you love, because, God forbid you own a copy of a beloved book in a digital format, and hand that to some lucky stranger because the only way we can keep writing and reading alive is through physical media.
Just like when iTunes and cheap digital distribution were going to kill the music industry – which didn’t happen. Instead we have more amazing indie and small market bands than at any other time in the history of music.
Just like when piracy was going to kill the movie industry – which also didn’t happen. Now we have new film festivals popping up every year and brilliant small budget films that are being made with D-SLR’s.
Because we all know digital media and technology are the bad guy here. Yea, right.
Seriously, how many physical books can one person collect? Where are all these kids that Patterson speaks about, who at one point, apparently had bedrooms full of classic literature? And who has room for huge collections of books anyways? If Patterson has room for a library full of physical books, well good for him (I’m sure lots of people would like that), but the 30-something New York professional with a wife and kid who lives in a walk up apartment, where the hell are they supposed to keep all these books?
And the last time I checked, you can read Tolstoy, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Bradbury just as easily on an e-reader as you can in hardback.
So what Patterson, including the publishers he represents, ultimately want, and what all the people who share his views want, is the continuation of the norm; they want to stop progress and keep things tilted in their favor.
If Patterson REALLY wanted kids reading classics, then instead of giving them a $15 paperback, he should be advocating for people to give kids an e-reader loaded with ALL of the classics.
Just for a minute, imagine a world where Amazon, or any company for that matter, could produce a bare-bones e-reader that removed the barrier of entry for even the poorest of families. Imagine if there were e-reader devices that cost the same as a single hardcover. Imagine a neighborhood where even the poorest kids could turn their attention to the screen of a device loaded with the most influential, controversial, and educational writing in the history of mankind.
You want kids to have books and information and knowledge at their fingertips?
Don’t give them a classic, give them the future. Remove the barriers that keep them from having that right now.
If Patterson really wanted to help, if he really wanted to do something, as he put it:
“… in service of his argument that the American publishing industry has, historically, been able to produce enduring classics – and that its power will be gravely foreshortened, and the number of classics limited by attenuated publishing and bookselling industries.”
Take a moment to re-read that. Specifically, pay attention to the part where Patterson says that the “American publishing industry has, historically, been able to produce enduring classics”.
Please, Mr. Patterson, I beg you to tell me the last time Penguin wrote an enduring classic. What classic did HarperCollins write? How many years did Random House spend in front of a typewriter, producing their venerable classic?
The American publishing industry has never, unless I’m sorely missing something, produced a single piece of enduring literature. All they’ve ever done is market and sell it. Authors are the producers, not publishers.
You would expect James Patterson, of all people, to know that. But then again, Patterson really isn’t an author is he? At least not in the “classical” sense.
He’s more an idea man, who crafts stories and plot, and then outsources the actual writing of books to the real writers, like some apparel company who outsources production to sweatshops in China. Patterson is far closer to being a publisher than an author. This is not to say that he wasn’t once a writer himself, but that’s in the distant past, in a world that no longer exists.
Sorry, got sidetracked there.
Back to the point; if Patterson really wanted to help, he would be attempting to find ways to craft a new generation of writers to produce the types of works which he dubs “classics”.
Like a good leader, he would empower those beneath him. He would pass along the wisdom that he’s collected over so many years to the next generation of storytellers. He would fight to improve the craft of writing itself.
Instead, he finds himself on whatever mountaintop he calls home, looking down at those struggling below him, and thinks to himself, “How can I get higher?”
Because helping is not what Patterson and publishers want. They have no desire to help writers if it doesn’t help their bottom-line. And I have to believe they want bookstores to stay in business for one very specific reason, one that most people, even authors, seem to forget…
Publishers DO NOT sell to readers, they sell to bookstores and distributors.
When publishers talk about readers and what readers want and how to better serve readers, I want to scream at the top of my lungs. Publishers don’t know what readers want; if they did, they wouldn’t be in the position they are right now.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read about an author who self-publishes a few of their books, collects information about their readers, and then brings just a tiny piece of that information to their publisher, only to be met with a “Wow, really? We didn’t know that.” response.
Bookstores are publishers’ customers, not readers.
And what’s even more ridiculous is that if bookstores evolved and created a better business model, then they would flourish. Same with publishers. If Barnes and Noble realized that what people want is a place to experience books, they would be doing just fine.
Listen, Starbucks coffee stinks. Go to any Starbucks and it’s packed with people, sipping that burnt crap. I don’t go to Starbucks because of the coffee, I go because of the experience of the coffee shop. Sometimes I take comfort in looking over at the hipster next to me who swears he’s the next Annie Leibovitz. On rare occasions, I’ll even travel outside of my comfy little bubble and spark up a conversation with another human being. Crazy right?
If B&N understood that the reason most people go to their stores is to experience the joy of being surrounded by books, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation, or at least, they wouldn’t be included.
Hey B&N, make your stores comfortable to read. Create a club where customers pay a yearly membership fee and if they own a Nook, they can borrow any book they want while they’re in the store – when they leave, it disappears from the device. Do something, shit, do anything. Make me want to come to your store.
Bookstores, and we’re talking about the mega-stores here, are “suffering” because they sell a select number of titles, at a premium price, and don’t understand what the customer who walks through the door really wants.
Independent stores who offer unique buying experiences and gorgeous well crafted books will always have a place to do business. But mega-stores and publishers don’t want any part of that.
They don’t want to change. They don’t want to evolve. And because of that, they have been “besieged” and are “suffering“.
And because of their suffering, James Patterson thinks they deserve a bailout.
And because James Patterson thinks they deserve a bailout, now I have to attempt to forget I know who James Patterson is.
I’m hopeful that Mr. Patterson, or someone who believes the same things he does, would be willing to discuss their viewpoints. But I’m not going to hold my breath. Much like Scott Turow, they use their platforms to shout their opinions, but when asked for facts and examples to back up their ridiculous ideas, they are nowhere to be found.
So, instead, let me know what you think. Give me your opinions on Patterson and publishing and politicians. How do we fight to keep producing these “classics” and how do we make sure our kids have access to them. Leave a comment below.
*UPDATE* – apparently, Patterson also did a quick interview for Publishers Weekly. You can read that article here. In the article, Patterson expresses his:
“frustration at the lack of advancement of the future of books discussion. The discussion, Patterson said, is stuck in a rut and there are ways everyone can chip in to fix it.”
At one point, he says “Publishers should… get in attack mode” and that “The New York Times needs to wake the fuck up.”
No, seriously. That’s what he said.
Really Mr. Patterson, the New York Times is the one who needs to “wake the fuck up“? Really? You can’t think of anyone else who might be better suited to take on such a task?
What is even more brilliant about the Publishers Weekly piece is the overwhelming support Patterson is getting there, for apparently being: just the type of voice that publishers need and stepping up to put his money where his mouth is.
(I’m not sure how he’s doing either of those things – but that’s just me.)
There’s even some talk of how breaking up Amazon for monopolistic behavior would help all the little guys who can’t compete with them selling below wholesale.
Unfortunately, due to my stubborn nature, I refuse to join Facebook. Publishers Weekly will only allow comments from Facebook users, so I won’t be able to join in on that discussion. But to anyone who reads this, please go check out my piece on Amazon as a monopoly in the publishing/book business, and kindly suggest that the people supporting Patterson at Publishers Weekly come join in a real debate, either here or over at Joe Konrath’s site.