Recently, mega-author James Patterson took out an ad in the New York Times Book Review asking for the government to bail out libraries and the book publishing/selling industry. If Patterson’s name sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably either read one of his many, many novels (he’s written 72, as of this week). Or perhaps you’ve seen them in the book section of Kmart or the grocery store, or at newstands in airports and hospitals.
In the last few years, Patterson has sold more books than Stephen King, John Grisham, and Dan Brown put together. In total, he’s sold about 260 million copies, and as this article describes, he’s his own mini-industry. If Patterson has only–ONLY–received $1 for each book he’s sold, then he’s in the Powerball-winner wealth category, but you can rest assured that Patterson’s raked in much, much more cash than that. As Forbes points out, from May 2010 to April 2011, Patterson made $84 million, up from $70 million the year before.
But the king rests uneasily. In his ad, Patterson asks, “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?”
“The federal government has stepped in to save banks, and the automobile industry, but where are they on the important subject of books?…Who will save our books? Our libraries? Our bookstores?”
Who, indeed, Mr. Patterson? I tell you, it plucks at the strings of my withered heart to know that a bazillionaire who sub-contracts out the hurried scribblings of his modern-day penny dreadfuls is troubled by the impending death of “literature” and the publishing goose that has been laying sweet, sweet golden eggs for him. It’s almost a crying shame that Big Publishing is in serious trouble, but as the NY Times mentions, perhaps Patterson and the enablers who have made him (and themselves) rich bear some responsibility for the current predicament?
The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.
Please don’t let the Times mislead you into thinking that those poor, poor publishers were forced–held down with hands around their throats and guns to their heads!–to forgo gambling their cash on daring unknowns and solid-but-not-spectacular midlist authors who tenderly craft the “literature” that enlightens our society. Not when it was easier, so much more profitable, for them to shove most of their playing chips onto the squares of Patterson and his mega-star ilk and spin the rigged roulette wheel. Because books are like any other entertainment industry: there are a handful of top performers–most of whom unashamedly peddle derivative, lowest-common denominator crap–who pull in ridiculous amounts of money year after year. And those top performers–like Patterson–are where the money is to be made.
Or at least, until lately. The Great Recession + e-books + independent publishing has made life a bit less pleasant for those ruling from the book-biz Versailles:
A month before, Barnes & Noble was caught in the crossfire of a preholiday pricing war between Wal-Mart and Amazon, with Wal-Mart dropping its prices on several hardcover blockbusters, including “I, Alex Cross,” to $8.99, more than 50 percent off the retail price. The battle set off a panic inside an already-anxious publishing industry: such deep discounting may help move merchandise, but along with trends like the proliferation of e-readers that instantly deliver many blockbusters for $9.99 or less, it further devalues books. The days of $25 hardcovers are surely numbered. Without those revenues, publishers will be even more reluctant to devote shrinking resources to new, unproven authors, which will, in turn, limit the range of books being published.
So, the three-headed serpent that is Big Authors + Big Publishing + Big Distributors–the same serpent that made Patterson and his partners rich by cranking out about 10 of his books every year–is eating itself. Well, we can’t have that! What would be our society be without the “important books” that Patterson lists in his ad–as well as his splatterfests named after lines from nursery rhymes (Along Came a Spider, Kiss the Girls, Pop Goes the Weasel)? And what about Twilight? And the collected masterpieces of Danielle Steel?
No, something must be done, in the name of “literature” with a capital L. Mr. Patterson has gained hundreds of millions by scrawling out–or at least lending his name to–books where psychotic villains torture, kill, and/or rape their nubile victims (the snake-up-the-ass scene in Kiss the Girls? Why, that’s a literary diamond, right there). If he feels that strongly that “important books” must be available for future generations, surely he is willing to invest some of his considerable fortune in establishing and maintaining the aforementioned libraries and bookstores. Or he could start his own publishing firm and hire the “passionate, dedicated, idealistic editors” who will “discover and mentor new writers.”
What a lovely fantasy that is. Far easier, it is–and far less costly to Mr. Patterson–to call upon the government to “do something.” Which, of course, means, that it should use other people’s money to “rescue” the industry that has made Mr. Patterson wealthy by peddling his violence and smut. It’s like KISS asking the feds to “bail out” the music industry–and full disclosure here, I’m a big KISS fan. But I wasn’t a fan of bailing out the banks or the automakers, I wouldn’t be a fan of bailing out the music biz, and I sure as hell don’t want the feds helping out Patterson and his pals in Big Publishing.
If you think I’m jealous of Patterson, I’m not. If you think I begrudge Patterson his success, you’re wrong. I don’t read his stuff, I don’t like his stuff: he’s not an author, he’s a manufacturer. Every year, people buy millions of his books and that’s fine: they also buy millions of packages of hot dogs, and t-shirts with funny sayings on them, and rolls of toilet paper, and KISS records, and all sorts of other manufactured items you find at Walmart, and I don’t begrudge anyone involved with that their success, either.
But the folks who make hot dogs and t-shirts and toilet paper and KISS records don’t pretend that what they and their co-workers do enlightens society, and they don’t ask for my tax dollars, either. James Patterson, if you’re that concerned about saving “literature,” put your money where your mouth is. Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath waiting.
Kenton Kilgore is the author of DRAGONTAMER’S DAUGHTERS, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief. Look for his next work, LOST DOGS, a young adult sci-fi novel, coming Summer 2014.