An Open Letter to James Patterson on Bravery, Optimism, and the Future of Books
I want to thank you, James Patterson.
[This is not a setup.]
Specifically, I want to thank you for three things:
- That you are clearly so passionate about your industry at a time when you could happily sit back and enjoy your successes
- That you have enough ready cash to be able to afford such a prominent display of pique as taking an ad on the cover of the NYT Book Review to ask “Who will save our books?” – and –
- That you then told the New York Times that it needs “to wake the fuck up” regarding its monochromatic coverage of publishing.
It’s refreshing, really. And brave.
I’m feeling a little more optimistic than you are about some things, perhaps because of where I sit in the industry.
Contrary to that blasted NYT point-of-view, I agree that Publishing isn’t dead. I would argue that it isn’t even dying—but rather it is transforming, and those who are in the best position to lead are those least prepared—namely the publishing establishment.
You are quoted in your PW follow-up as saying publishers should “get in attack mode.” But the truth is, publishers are more prey than hunter right now. It’s not their fault—institutional change is difficult under the best circumstances, and pretty neigh impossible when [they think] their core survival is in question.
It’s like zebras at the watering hole being asked to creatively change their stripes as the lions approach. Given the recent DOJ dust-up with the major publishers over e-book pricing, those zebras can’t even organize their own escape. Poor, poor zebras.
Innovation is going to come from where it always comes from: entrepreneurs.
Creatively, it will come from the talented young writers emerging on global platforms like Wattpad. And the entrepreneurial “indie” authors coming together at “fan cons” at the Sheraton in Kansas City, and selling a lot of books directly to their readers. We love these authors particularly, as they are some of our newest customers. And look at amazing career artists like Margaret Atwood who continue to embrace change. You, Mr. Patterson are a shining example of an entrepreneurial author who keeps evolving and experimenting.
On the business side, it will come from the digital-first publishing and experiments that are underway at the small press level. Book industry reporting is being expanded by quality projects like Publishing Perspectives. And amazing startups like BookShout, Atavist, NetMinds, BiblioLabs, BiblioCrunch, PressBooks, Demibooks, ReadSocial, Storybird, and LeanPub—to name just a few—are working hard to create the tools and platforms that will drive the publishing future. Like Travis Alber, I wish the establishment were better at interfacing with this innovation.
The big publishers have their role to play also. They will cherry-pick the most marketable projects from the layers below them, and they will continue to do the heavy lifting in the mass-market game. As agent Kristin Nelson pointed out at #WDCE a few weeks ago, you still can’t have an international bestseller without the big guys. At least not yet.
So I’m not that worried about the business and creative side sorting itself out, but I appreciate that there are many livelihoods at stake and therefore lots of anxiety in the halls.
But what about the cultural side? What about the potential CULTURAL effects of e-books, the loss of bookstores, and the closures of libraries?
“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.”
While I love paper books, I am bullish on ebooks for their ability to allow people to acquire and read what they want, anywhere they want. I think that leads to more reading overall, and it can have a huge impact in certain environments. Have you seen what Worldreader is up to? Amazing.
On the subject of libraries & bookstores, I agree with you. What is the future of book communities in the US? I believe there is a civic responsibility to support book culture, just as we support education. They are inextricably linked if we want to stay relevant in the world.
Like you, I believe this is the biggest issue facing us as an industry, and it is going largely unaddressed in our focus on the mechanics of the digital age.
Books need advocates, not algorithms. And I must say, you have proposed a wonderful solution.
“I think it’d be a cool and doable thing if we encouraged everybody in the country — it won’t be everybody — to pick a book they loved and give it to a stranger. I think it’d doable, and a cool thing for person giving and receiving the book. For a day we all think about books more. You go out, you go into wherever — the train, wherever — and say, ‘I just want to give you this book, I love it.’”
In the end, you have partly answered your own question, “Who will save us, et al?” It will be the ones among us who can create new and meaningful ways to connect readers with books, and authors with readers. These heroes will be on many different layers of the new ecosystem, not just in a single place or in a single channel.
But we won’t get there without asking the important questions. You are clearly one of the people asking those questions—someone willing to go and DO something grand and challenging. I am sincerely grateful, I will do my part to create solutions, and I look forward to more of your unique brand of provocation.