Saturday, February 22, 2014

Konrath on Patterson Deux

James Patterson, in an unprecedented act of good will, is giving $1,000,000 to more than 50 indie bookstores.

It's a generous act.

It's also a misguided one.

Last year, Patterson committed another misguided act, buying an ad in the NYT asking who will save our books, our bookstores, and our libraries, and then suggesting the government needed to step in.

He was wrong, and I explained why in great detail.

I'm going to quote Patterson from the recent NYT article, and from things he said on NPR, and show why he's wrong once again.

Patterson: We're in a juncture right now where bookstores as we have known them are at risk. Libraries as we've known them are at risk, publishers are at risk, American literature is at risk, as we've known it, and getting kids reading is at risk.

Joe: I agree legacy bookstores are at risk. They're at risk because people are buying their books online, and in different formats than paper. That doesn't equate to books becoming extinct. It indicates a change in customer preference, both where people buy their reading material, and what format they buy it in.

Libraries, like Bibliotech in Texas, are able to directly meet the new demand. For the link-lazy, this is what Bibliotech is doing:

Mission:
Provide all Bexar County residents the opportunity to access technology and its applications for the purposes of enhancing education and literacy, promoting reading as recreation and equipping residents of our community with necessary tools to thrive as citizens of the 21st century.

Through BiblioTech, residents of Bexar County will be able to access over 10,000 current titles through e-readers that they can check out to take home or read on the premises.  Residents will also be able to use their own e-readers or tablets to access the collection.  

BiblioTech currently has 600 e-readers, 200 pre-loaded enhanced e-readers for children, 48 computer stations, 10 laptops and 40 tablets to use on-site.  Additional e-reading accommodations will be made for the visually impaired.  

Am I the only one who wants to live in Bexar County?

So, no, I don't believe libraries are at risk. Nor do I believe American literature is at risk. Books are written by authors, who are able to self-publish. More American literature is available to readers than ever before.

Patterson: (Via CBS Good Morning) If we don't have good publishers, who is going to find the next Infinite Jest or To Kill a Mockingbird?

Joe: The readers, Jim. You know, the ones who have embraced those books and made them bestsellers.

Patterson: The government has stepped in to help banks, automobiles, anything where money is concerned, but nobody seems to care about books and our bookstores. And I'm telling you, American literature is in jeopardy.

Joe: Jim, once again you're conflating brick and mortar bookstores closing with books no longer being available. Amazon is a bookstore. Ebooks are books.

Asking the government to bail out a business model that is no longer attracting enough customers to support itself is just throwing taxpayer money away.

I like bookstores. I've visited over 1200 of them. I also liked record stores, and my 35mm camera, and renting VHS tapes. But I didn't call for the government to save Tower Records, Kodak, and Blockbuster when customers' preferences changed.

Books are still selling very well. Authors are doing well. Middlemen such as publishers and indie bookstores are no longer needed to fulfill the public need for books.

I understand that brick and mortar bookstores and publishers helped make you very rich. It's nice that you want to help them out. But stop confusing the trouble they're in with literature being in jeopardy. Literature is not in jeopardy. The way customers acquire literature is changing. That's all.

According to NPR, Patterson will give up to $15k to each store on his list.

Patterson: It ranges from Andover Bookstore, where a son and daughter wrote and their father hadn't had a raise since 1988. ... Children's Bookstore in Baltimore, they give books to schools and they want the kids to be able to keep the books. Book Passage out in California will do more book fairs with it. Little Shop of Stories down in Decatur, Ga., they're buying a bookmobile.

Joe: You're doing a nice thing, Jim. But is it a smart thing?

If a store has been having difficulty since 1988, $15k won't do much to help it. I don't want to be cruel, but perhaps it is time to pull the plug. No one owes anyone a living. My father was a small businessman who owned several shops. It was his dream, and his passion. Not all were profitable, and he closed the ones that weren't. That's how business works.

Giving books to schools is noble. I've donated a few thousand dollars to www.firstbook.org, giving books to children. But I also bought my grandchildren tablets for the holidays. Let them download the ebooks they want. Ebooks they'll own forever (unlike my childhood books, which were read to pieces).

And bookmobiles? Driving paper books around in a truck to sell to people sounds labor intensive and expensive. With a Kindle, there are no dead trees, no fossil fuels, a much bigger selection, and instant delivery.

Perhaps that's why ereaders far outnumber bookmobiles.

Again, I'm not trying to be mean here. But perhaps we should listen to what readers want, rather than romanticize the days of old.

Patterson: I just want to get people more aware and involved in what’s going on here, which is that, with the advent of e-books, we either have a great opportunity or a great problem.

Joe: If you consider ebooks a problem and are truly concerned about the future of bookstores, you could always refuse to release your work in ebook format, Jim. I'm guessing you earn more on ebooks annually than the $1M you're giving to bookstores.

If you consider ebooks an opportunity, and want to help children learn to read, I bet www.firstbook.org would accept a donation of 100,000 Kindles from you, loaded with all of your children and YA work. I bet that will get kids reading.

Patterson: I’m rich; I don’t need to sell more books. But I do think it’s essential for kids to read more broadly. And people just need to go into bookstores more. It’s not top of mind as much as it used to be.

Joe: Why do people need to go into bookstores more, Jim?

I love booksellers. I thanked thousands of them, by name, in the acknowledgements of my novel Dirty Martini. I've been to a bookseller's wedding. I've gotten more than my fair share of booksellers drunk.

Sometimes, when you love someone, you need to let them go. Life support can be crueler than just allowing nature to take its course.

With the advent of tablets and ereading devices, there is effectively a bookstore in every person's home. And those who can't afford ereaders can borrow them from libraries. Ebooks are cheaper, easier to read (backlights and adjustable fonts), are delivered instantly without having to travel anywhere, and a much wider selection is available on Kindle than in even the largest brick and mortar bookstore.

I tried, years ago, to help booksellers, showing them a plan on how to compete. Not one took me up on my offer.

I've mailed signed books to bookstores, for free. I've signed thousands of bookplates for bookstores. I've signed used books and galleys for booksellers (which they can sell by don't earn me any royalties). But those days are in the past, and nostalgia isn't a good enough reason to invest in an archaic technology.

You're a generous guy, and your heart is in the right place, but you aren't going to change customers' buying preferences by throwing a bit of money around. Bookstores won't be saved by your $1M, or by a government bail out. They'll continue to exist only if customers continue to support them. And customers are voting with their wallets.

If I were a cynical man, I'd believe this offer of yours is a PR stunt. $1M is a nice, large number, but you reportedly make over $90M a year, so this isn't straining you financially. So you make this donation, get a lot of press, and both publishers and bookstores love you for it, while you slyly resuscitate the meme that ebooks and self-publishing and Amazon are bad--zombie talking points that further the legacy agenda. As a former ad man, you know how publicity works. And at the end of your CBS piece, you hawked your newest novel. I bet all those bookstores you're helping will be selling more of your backlist than ever before. You've certainly incentivized them to.

Maybe that isn't the point, and you truly are worried about the state of American literature. But you mistakenly believe indie bookstores are somehow the guardians of it.

They aren't. Good books, and good authors, will survive without bookstores. In fact, more than ever before are thriving in this new environment.

Your agenda is wrong, Jim. If your main concern was getting kids to read, and making sure American literature survives, there are much better ways to spend $1M. Like gifting Kindles to needy kids, or running your own book club or imprint. I believe these are just flowery talking points for your ultimate agenda, which is to make sure paper continues to remain the dominant format for your books.

See, you have a huge advantage over me in paper. Your books are available everywhere, often heavily discounted. You don't want to lose that advantage, because on Amazon, you and I have the same amount of shelf space. Naturally you want the status quo to continue, because it has made you wealthy. Of course you want as many outlets for your work to exist as possible.

Because if more and more bookstores close, and more and more readers switch to ebooks, all of that shelf space real estate you once owned becomes worthless. If spending $1M and doing a media tour helps bookstores stay around a bit longer, you're directly helping yourself.

There's nothing wrong with that. But let's tell it like it is, and drop the "save literature" and "it's for the children" talking points.

BTW, I predicted this in 2011. One day, Jim, you will be self-publishing your new release as a $2.99 ebook. The bookstores that still exist might complain, but when they're no longer a viable revenue stream for you, you'll go where the money is. Like any smart businessman does. Of course, that will also mean abandoning your publisher, but that's fodder for another blog post.

You can't stop technology. You can't change customer preference. And you're not going to get caught on the losing side of a revolution.