THE BLOG

Panic or Profit: Two Distinct Approaches to the Literary Revolution

05/01/2013 04:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2013
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Thriller novelist James Patterson has us on the edge of our seats, having recently taken out advertisements that paint a picture of a dystopian society undone by its collective failure to nurture the literary arts.

"If there are no bookstores, no libraries, no serious publishers with passionate, dedicated, idealistic editors," he worries in his ads, "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?"

This suggests an odd lack of imagination on the part of one of the world's bestselling literary figures. And it shows an even worse sense of public policy, as Patterson suggests that the federal government step in and rescue our libraries, our bookstores, our publishers, and yes, his precious books.

Patterson's ads and his posturing may be ill-conceived publicity stunts rather than serious discourse, but he nonetheless comes off as the exemplar of an extinct species protesting its fate. Yet a less-well known group of literary figures have taken an opposite approach to championing books -- by capitalizing on the very changes that spook Patterson.

The Book of Books, edited by a longtime colleague of mine, Tim Knight, and published by Les Krantz, originally came out in 2007 as a lively but thorough survey of the best works within both fiction and nonfiction. Now that ebooks are ascendant, the two joined with a team of professional editors and contributors to recreate The Book of Books in a hyperlinked Kindle format that allows a reader to quickly peruse (and effortlessly purchase) the many works that are summarized within its virtual pages.

The book surveys 116 different genres, literally from A to Z -- from African American novels to Zombie Lit. On the fiction side, it covers the classics as well as introducing readers to newer figures such as Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon and Louise Erdrich, and books from Iraq as well as Ireland. On the nonfiction side, it covers terrain ranging from work by Will Durant, Winston Churchill to Stephen Sondheim. And yes, they even include The Angel Experiment by a certain James Patterson.

As sweeping as The Book of Books is, Knight and Krantz have developed companion titles devoted narrower topics such as children's literature. Intriguingly, they've embraced the Internet model to deepen their relationship with readers, periodically offering mini-ebooks, such as the free "Best of 2012" update, to readers who sign up for them.

Patterson has sadly missed the power of the literary revolution occurring in front of his own nose. Ebooks such as The Book of Books are a new and probably better way of curating our literary world, of discovering and nurturing new writers and of distributing their work easily to receptive audiences.

Some may miss the days of the small, independent bookstore, managed lovingly by an owner who was thrilled to share her experiences and recommendations with customers. (Borders crushed that model anyway, on its own way to getting crushed.) To those who are paying attention, we now are all able to get the same sort of service, with far greater breadth and depth expertise. It is indeed a revolution to be embraced, not resisted.