Thursday, April 25, 2013

Konrath on Patterson

Perhaps you've seen the ad James Patterson recently ran in the NYT.

If you don't want to squint at the jpg, here's what Patterson wrote:

"If there are no bookstores, no libraries, no serious publishers with passionate, dedicated, idealistic editors, what will happen to our literature? Who will discover and mentor new writers? Who will publish our important books? What will happen if there are no more books like these?"

Then there's a list of 38 books, including All the President's Men, Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple, Fahrenheit 451, Catch 22, etc. I agree that many of them are great.
Then he ends with:

"The Federal Government has stepped in to save banks, and the automobile industry, but where are they on the important subject of books? Or if the answer is state and local government, where are they? Is any state doing anything? Why are there no impassioned editorials in influential newspapers or magazines? Who will save our books? Our libraries? Our bookstores?"

I respect Patterson for his marketing genius. I also like many of his books. He makes 94 million dollars a year, so he's obviously doing quite a bit right.

But I'm not finding much to agree with here.

"what will happen to our literature?"

Perhaps writers will write it? Aren't they the ones who wrote all of those books on that list?

One of those books mentioned above was Different Seasons by Stephen King. Does anyone think King will quit writing because the publishing world keeps changing and evolving? Is there anything that could get him to stop writing?

There are thousands of authors self-publishing. I'm sure some of them are writing great, important literature.

Bookstores, libraries, passionate editors, and publishers don't write books. They help books find readers. Like Amazon does, by connecting readers and writers.

Except Amazon has no barriers to entry, and gives writers a better royalty rate.

"Who will discover and mentor new writers?"

When did writers become invalids who are incapable of growing, learning, and improving without hand-holding?

Are books such rare, delicate hothouse flowers that the utmost care must be given to their nurturing and feeding or they'll perish without it?

With ebooks, the readers are the ones who discover new writers. And those readers actually have a chance to discover more books than ever before, because many of them were never mentored by the establishment.

I'm reminded of the story behind the publication of The Confederacy of Dunces. The author, John Kennedy Toole, was rejected by publishers, was supposedly very upset about it, and eventually killed himself. His mother took up the cause to publish the book posthumously, and eventually it was--by Louisiana State University. And then it won the Pulitzer.

Would Toole have been so disheartened if he could have self-pubbed via KDP? We'll never know. But here is a case where a great work of art in search of a mentor didn't get one, and only through the determination of the dead writer's mother did it go on to become recognized as one of the greatest works in literature.

Toole needed less mentoring, fewer roadblocks, and more opportunities to get his book published. Which self-publishing allows.

"Who will publish our important books?"

I'm the first to admit that I'm an entertainer. That's all I aspire to be. Whiskey Sour will never be Catcher in the Rye, nor was it meant to be.

But I'm pretty sure there are writers who have important books in them. And rather than go through what Toole--and no doubt countless others--had to go through with the legacy system, they now have the opportunity to publish those works themselves.

Perhaps, without the legacy system, there will be no Maxwell Perkins to guide those geniuses of tomorrow. But there have always been, and always will be writing classes. And critique groups. And freelance editors. And peers. A writer doesn't have to work alone. And in exchange for getting this assistance, the writer doesn't then have to pay a large percentage of royalties, forever.

Passive Guy has some smart things to say about the nurturing aspect of publishing:

"Does nurturing even belong in a healthy business relationship?

PG says maybe some baby authors want nurturing, but most grown-up authors don’t. If you simply must have nurturing, maybe a dog or cat is a better idea than an agent or publisher. They’ll love you to pieces and never ask for a contract (unless the cat hires an attorney).

Like many things in traditional publishing, maybe you get nurturing whether you want it or not.

Here’s an idea. Let’s make nurturing an à la carte option that the author can pay for:

Agency Commission – 15% with nurturing, 7.5% without nurturing

Publisher Ebook Royalties – 25% with nurturing, 50% without nurturing"

While there are substantive differences between mentoring and nurturing, I must say that while I was taught many things about legacy publishing by those in the business, I didn't require any mentoring, nurturing, or hand-holding. I was lucky to find a good agent, Jane Dystel, who believed in me and was willing to work hard on my behalf, even when countless publishers rejected my books. Books that never were traditionally published, but have gone on to earn me over a million dollars.

The publishing industry did not teach me craft. I never required much editing. And though I never considered my books "important" I sure tried in vain to get my publishers behind them. Which never happened.

But I'll answer the actual question. If the true concern is that great books (like the 38 on the above list) will get lost in the ebook tsunami of crap (which I debunked, but I digress), then I have a perfect solution:

James Patterson's Important Literature Series

All Patterson has to do is hire a group of editors to sift through self-published books, looking for great literature. Authors can also submit their work to this program. Then, when worthy books are discovered, Patterson can make a big announcement, re-publish it with a lot of press and fanfare and his name behind it, and these important books won't get lost in the kerfuffle.

I don't see this costing very much to do. Oprah did it with her book club. There are people other than those in publishing who can discover great books and help get them noticed.

If Patterson won't fund it, why not get a government grant for that instead of a bailout?

"The Federal Government has stepped in to save banks, and the automobile industry, but where are they on the important subject of books?"

While our nation does have an unfortunate history of helping the careless, uber-rich upper class continue to stay uber-rich by cleaning up after their greedy mistakes by using the tax money of the middle class, how about instead the publishing industry simply tries to compete? Maybe by embracing technology instead of repeatedly trying to halt its progress? Maybe by lowering the prices of books so more people had access to them? Maybe by treating authors fairly?

Barry Eisler and I did a post on this two years ago, showing publishers how they could compete.

The Federal Government doesn't need to intervene. Unless they can somehow force every executive in NY Publishing to read my blog. 

"Who will save our books? Our libraries? Our bookstores?"

Last I checked, books don't need saving. Ebooks are thriving.

Our libraries would be thriving as well, if the publishers Patterson is pleading for actually played fair with their digital rights. I have a solution for that, too.

And bookstores? Well, as my friend Ann Voss Peterson said, look how every musician stopped making music once all the record stores went out of business.

Oh, wait. People are still making music. Good music, in fact. And lots of it. Even without record stores in every town.

I also need to point out that there are a lot of great books released by legacy publishers that fail to ever find their audience, and then go out of print. Publishers can discover important novels, and then fail to properly promote them. Which brings up an interesting point: All of those important books on the above list are big bestsellers.

What about all the great books that don't hit the NYT list? Who speaks for those?

Patterson recently was interviewed in Salon to talk about the ad, and I didn't find much to agree with there, either.

"E-books are fine and dandy, but it’s all happening so quickly, and I don’t think anyone thought through the consequences of having many 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."

Because without libraries, bookstores, or publishers there will be no more books?

Of course there will be books.

Will there be places to get books?

Sure there will.

And the books will be cheaper, and the authors will make a higher royalty.

I'd also argue that books will be more accessible. Some people don't live near bookstores or libraries. But a Kindle allows people anywhere to buy ebooks, and to also get them for free.

If Patterson is worried that the poor won't be able to afford Kindles, how about asking the government to buy Kindles for all libraries to loan to patrons, and forcing publishers to drop DRM and sell ebooks to libraries as I described in my link above? Doesn't that seem like it will be more helpful, practical, and less expensive than a bailout?

And if the government doesn't do it, well, 94 million dollars would buy 1,300,000 Kindles. There are 121,000 libraries in the US, so each one would get ten.

Patterson is doing a great deal of good for the world, with, with his scholarships, with all of the books he gives away.

But maybe the industry he's working in doesn't serve the greater good. Maybe he should be backing a different horse.

Is Patterson really concerned about important books being lost? With his money and fame helping important books get publicity, and with every library having access to Kindles and inexpensive ebooks, shouldn't that alleviate his concerns?

"In Germany, Italy, and France, they protect bookstores and publishers. It is widely practiced in parts of Europe. I don’t think that’s outlandish."

I'm all for my tax dollars funding museums, protecting some endangered species, and even helping start-up companies with low interest loans.

But I don't want my tax dollars going toward capitalist ventures that are no longer valid because technology is changing while they continue to cling to outdated business models.

Great books will be written without the Big 5. People will be able to buy books without brick and mortar bookstores. And any enterprise that exists to make money should do so because it is good at what it does, not because the government is bailing it so it can continue to make bad decisions and inevitably fold anyway.

"There might be tax breaks, there might be limitations on the monopolies in the book business. We haven’t gotten into laws that should or shouldn’t be done in terms of the internet."

I'm all for limitations on monopolies in the book business. I call it collusion. Like the DOJ does. Scott Turow spoke of a "rich literary culture" which Barry and I took him to task for.

But I'm not for giving tax breaks to a billion dollar industry that hurts authors and readers.

"The press doesn't deal with the effects of e-books as a story. Borders closing down is treated as a business story. Where we are in Westchester during the summer, you’d think that’d be a bookstore haven, and there’s nothing. And that’s not unusual. I don’t think we can be the country we’d like to be without literature."

If you own a Kindle, Mr. Patterson, you don't need a bookstore in Westchester, and you don't have to worry about being without literature.

If you can't afford a Kindle, let's use our tax dollars for that. Get Kindles into all libraries, so everyone has access to ebooks.

Borders closing is a business story. They didn't close because people are reading less. They closed because people are finding their books elsewhere.

"I was in Nashville last night to go to a kickoff at Ann Patchett’s store. One of the things we agreed on is there are too many people talking about things who don’t do anything. She did something. She bought a bookstore. To some extent, it’s a symbolic act. But it got a lot of coverage. And it has to be out of love."

Just because libraries and bookstores are where people used to discover great books doesn't mean that without them people will never discover great books.

Just because the publishing industry published great books doesn't mean without them no more great books will be published.

Paper is only one way to deliver a story to a reader. And it's actually an expensive, archaic, slow, and extremely limited way to do so compared to ebooks.

I like bookstores. A lot. I visited over 1200 of them, signing books.

But it is possible to love books without patronizing bookstores. And it is possible for books to thrive without them being sold by bookstores.

That said, two years ago Blake Crouch and I came up with some ideas to help save bookstores. Not a single bookstore contacted us.

"I don’t think we have a real strong spokesperson in the publishing community, someone who can stand up. If they were, they got distracted by lawsuits [against Amazon and publishing houses]. That scares publishers, as it should. It doesn't really matter. I’m stepping up a little. But it’d be nice if it was the head of a publishing company."

What would be nice is if publishers actually cared about readers and writers, instead of their own continued existence. But I don't blame them for worrying about their stockholders. That's capitalism.

Which is exactly why, if the system is failing, they SHOULD NOT be bailed out.

They ran the industry. They were the gatekeepers. They made their fortunes, and also helped Patterson make his. Now they aren't needed. And it is entirely their fault they aren't needed. And asking the government to help them is like asking peasants to use their money to buy Marie Antoinette cake.

If James Patterson wants to step up, ads asking for the government to bail out the publishing industry isn't the way to lead a crusade to save libraries and important books.

Patterson could use his considerable weight to get publishers to work with libraries, instead of against them.

He could use his fame and money to help discover and promote important works of literature.

He could use his fortune to make sure all libraries get ereading devices, or he could lobby for that cause.

He could.

Addendum: After writing this piece, I read a blog by August Wainwright on this issue, and he brings up some interesting points that I missed.