An open letter to James Patterson
Dear Mr. Patterson:
As a novelist, former Big Pub editor and former literary agent -- and as a reader -- it was with great interest that I noted your recent full-page NYTBR advertisement.
What author could resist the ad's come-on: "Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?"
Like you, I don't want to live in a world without books or bookstores or libraries. (I'm even on the board of a local public library.) And like you, I agree wholeheartedly that the book publishing industry could be facing a crisis.
Where we may differ, however, is in our definitions.
- In the age of the Internet, what is a library? Is it still a collection of paper books, checked in and out by a person standing behind a counter? Or is it a place where people who otherwise can't afford it can access the latest technology, be guided through their research by experts, and borrow books in multiple electronic formats? Libraries pursuing this new model are doing quite well, according to my sources.
- What is a bookstore? Your ad implies that it's a box filled with shelves upon which rest books for sale. But does it have to be? Isn't Amazon also a bookstore? B&N.com? Powells.com? If exactly the same number of books per capita are sold through those venues as were once sold through other outlets, does it negatively impact the future of the book? I'm not sure it does.
- What is a book itself? Is it a sheaf of bound paper with words on it or does its identity lie in the words themselves -- the information or the story they convey?
Each of these questions is worthy of great debate, and I certainly don't have all the answers. But there's something implicit in your questions that intrigues me, especially coming from an innovator such as yourself.
As you know better than I, James Patterson -- the author and the entrepreneur -- through sheer force of personality once managed to get a book publisher to look at the world a whole different way than before. Prior to that, it was firmly believed that an author couldn't flood the market with his name, that his or her novels should be meted out in discrete increments. But you persuaded your publisher to violate this "rule" -- and good for you.
There have been other innovations you pushed: using advertising better than anyone in the book business had for years...sometimes employing co-authors to help you produce at a blistering pace.
I don't know if everything you tried worked, but a lot of it did, and you have the bestseller lists (and the cash) to prove it.
The broader point is that much of what you did flew in the face of conventional publishing wisdom, a frame of thought so entrenched, I might add, that even your success hasn't much changed the way that conventional wisdom is applied to the careers of other authors. In fact, some conventionally published authors are self-publishing in parallel because their publishers can't -- or refuse to -- keep up with their output.
You have been an innovator in the land of Big Pub, but out in the writing hinterlands your ad was interpreted by some younger authors -- such as Joe Konrath and August Wainwright -- as a defense of the status quo at the expense of innovation.
Why, they ask, should it matter whether big publishers or paper books or bookstore chains go the way of papyrus, so long as the experience of reading books persists or even thrives?
This reaction strikes me as similar to the one that we hear from many independent publishers whenever Scott Turow opens his mouth as president of the Author's Guild. Sometimes I think their reactions are a little knee-jerk or over the top, but their broader argument is valid. It is simply that the old system serves a few hundred bestselling authors very well, but it too often gives the rest of us authors the proverbial back of the hand. And therefore whatever one of those bestselling authors has to say in defense of the old system immediately comes under suspicion. On Wall Street, if you'll pardon the pun, this trumpeting of one's own vested interest is known as "talking your book."
Personally, I don't dare to presume what's in your heart on this matter. In fact, based upon your interview with Salon, it sounds like you haven't fully explored your own views on the changes wracking publishing. You saw something amiss, and you reacted. You posed it as a question because it's a concern of yours, not because you claim to have answers. I give kudos for that.
As a way of thinking through this problem, let's consider that the salvation of books and book publishing might not come from defending the past but from corralling the future. Because, besides the efforts you've exerted on your own behalf within the halls of Big Pub, it turns out that most innovation is happening away from those precincts.
There's no doubt that technology is changing the way books are sold and produced. Like you, I fear for the future of the book, but for different reasons than you've articulated. What I fear, for example, is competition for readers' time from other forms of entertainment. It used to be you had to go to the theater or to a certain room of the house to see a movie, for instance, but now you can have it served on your tablet in bed. Just like that, the convenience advantage that books had over movies and television has vanished. And consumers of entertainment have noticed.
- What I also fear is that the next great book may be difficult for me and other readers to discover because it couldn't fight through all the noise in our hyper media world.
- What I fear is that we -- authors and the industry -- will waste so much time worrying about the wrong things, that we fail to impress upon the public the most essential thing: that books have value beyond the cost of the paper they (used to be) printed on.
- What I fear most of all is that a marketplace undervaluing the contribution of the author -- through low price points or poor royalties or both -- will so discourage long-form writing as a career that the next Bellow or Mailer or Morrison or Didion will abandon all hope and never produce the future works that might have moved the next generation in unexpected ways.
If we don't want these things to happen, the time has arrived for established writers and up-and-comers alike to sit down together and speak with one voice in defense of books. The system is straining, I'll grant you, but I don't think it's for the government or the editorial writers to sort out, as you imply in your ad. It's our obligation as creators.
As it happens, one of the leaders in independent publishing is also named Patterson. Four years ago, Aaron Patterson was an unemployed building contractor collecting welfare checks. He self-published a few novels via Amazon and now makes an excellent living as an author. Incidentally, very few of his readers come to him through brick-and-mortar bookstores or libraries.
In the past two years, Aaron has gone on to become an independent publisher of several dozen authors, including me. Some of his authors are first timers and others he rescued from the mid-list oblivion of Big Pub. Many of the books he's published have sold a modest number of copies, but a few have become ebook bestsellers. His Amazon bestseller batting average, I'd venture to say, is better than Big Pub's.
As an author, Aaron is not the next Hemingway or the next Pynchon. Neither am I and neither are you. He won't likely publish the next Hemingway either, because his realm isn't literature; it's commercial genre fiction. But he may very well one day publish the next James Patterson.
There are quite a number of independent authors and publishers like Aaron. Just like you, these people look at writing and publishing both as a business and as a profession. But they can't rely on a distribution system that lends most of its support to brand-name authors, because they aren't brand names. They meet this challenge by innovating, by being entrepreneurs. These writers -- I guarantee you -- are not giving up on the future of the book. In fact, they may be creating it.
So why not convene a powwow in New York during this year's BookExpo America? Why not have a few established commercial authors like yourself sit down with a few author-entrepreneurs who dream of future bestsellers? It could be a restaurant dinner on neutral territory, for example, away from the BEA crowds. I'll join you, as will Aaron, and he's even volunteered to pick up the check.
This new age of rapid change is terrifying for all of us, but it's also empowering. As we all know, in the end the only two things required for books to exist are a writer and a reader. The rest (including the ever-important editor, by the way) is only a mechanism for bringing those two parties together.
So I add to your list one further question: Why should authors allow the fate of the book to be decided by some guy in Seattle or a bunch of executives in New York office towers or anywhere but among ourselves? Let's put our heads together, the old and the new, the established and the striving -- writers all, and all with a stake in tomorrow's books.
Let's sit down, break bread, and figure out how to guarantee that books by all writers, big and small, will have a prosperous future.
I respectfully await your reply.