Late last week, bestselling novelist James Patterson donated a million dollars to independent bookstores. The donation will go to selected bookstores without strings, though it will work for most as a kind of grant that will allow special programming, such as developing a children's author series, creating a book mobile kind of outreach, and the like. It is, simply put, a generous and wonderful gift. Patterson didn't have to do it.
Patterson has said that the future of American literature would be lost without independent booksellers. That statement may be a bit grandiose, for wherever writers ultimately sell their work, they will produce work and the there will be readers for that work, even if that segment of the population continues to shrink. However, his heart is in the right place. And the loss of independent booksellers will be extraordinarily sad and something vital for books, and for local communities, will be lost. Like Patterson, I am a fan of local independent booksellers, a fan of all things local really, but like most, I would be lying if I said I spend my book money exclusively with my local bookstore. And in the interest of full disclosure, my own work must be ordered by local booksellers, and it, absent a few fiery, risk-taking bookstore owners, will likely never be stocked on their shelves, for as an independent author, my fate, for better or worse, is mostly tied to eBooks and to print books sold via giants like Amazon. And this makes me incredibly sad. But my own situation points to some of the complications of current publishing and distribution streams, and the the Patterson donation offers strange evidence of much about the current book climate.
This situation is rife with irony and with telling details. (And while I am offering disclosures, I must admit that I have never read Patterson. What he writes simply isn't in keeping with what I look for in fiction. That's not a statement of elitism but one of personal taste. Indeed, writers like myself are in odd predicaments when it comes to big time bestsellers like Patterson, for publisher's devotion to such writers has eviscerated the mid-list among the Big 5, but at the same moment, writers like Patterson make so much money for their publishers that they essentially "carry" the mid-list writers publishers do still publish.) That last statement suggest one of the first ironies this news points towards. Here's another: while a percentage of Patterson's sales flow through independent booksellers, it's a tiny portion of his sales, for the Patterson brand is a billion dollar business. He cranks out more titles per year than is humanly possible, truly creating some kind of factory style of novel production for all ages and all markets, with YA titles alongside adult fiction with more than just a few titles that acknowledge writing partners. Patterson is a rare phenomena, an industrial sized writer who lands multiple titles on the bestseller list every year. His work is available in every format--eBook, audio, hardcover, large print, multiple languages, trade paperback and mass-market paperback and is sold everywhere--at the behemoths like Amazon and other Internet-based retailers, at Costco, at Walmart, in used bookstores and in independents, among others. Varying sources place Patterson's net worth at somewhere between $150 and $310 million. All this points to something else about the generosity of his donation--it must be genuine in its intent, for he has no need to maintain political capital with independent booksellers. Patterson is unique in his ability to try and sustain a foot in two worlds--in the shifting publishing climate of digital books and Internet sales, and in the old, charming world of small bookstores run by dedicated, knowledgeable bibliophiles. The book world is changing so fast most cannot keep up. Patterson sees steady sales growth because he has been very successful in the publishing new world even as he makes a gift to one element of the publishing old world.
Note something immediately obvious. We haven't exactly heard the story of publishers, let alone HIS publisher stepping up and matching his donation. This, despite that his titles have sold more than $1.5 billion in the US alone. Patterson is iconic, for he represents the sort of author in which both publishers and big box book retailers have placed all their eggs (and most of their marketing dollars). Yet this kind of focused investment of capital and marketing is much of what shifted the ground of the publishing industry, stripping the mid-list, and ultimately, once coupled with emergent technologies like digital publishing, Internet sales, and new distribution channels, paved the way for the book market that today is largely being shaped by Amazon. I've already disclosed my own dependencies on Amazon, and there is no accusation here towards Patterson, rather, Patterson has simply proven a genius at employing the market forces that exist and the forces of the modern market have combined to threaten independent booksellers with extinction.
Like most great entrepreneurs, the best of independent bookstore owners have proven crafty and resilient, and those that continue to survive have learned that they must own the niche markets, including selling the titles of small presses (to where many mid-list authors have fled), focusing more on children's books, developing community outreach, coupling with other enterprise (like coffee), and consistently outperforming all other book retailers with superior customer service. They will have to continue to be creative, including doing ever more to best represent authors local to their region, continuing to be the hub for writer and book events, developing (if financially possible) in-store print on demand ability, offering consignment sales for indie-publishers, and generally sustaining religious fervor for their support among the literati, the intellectuals, and the super-readers in their communities. There is little doubt that independent booksellers who gain direct benefit from Patterson's gift will put it to imaginative and productive use. Still, we have to ask, what does it say about the intellectual (and capitalistic) climate in the US when small business owners need donations to keep their doors open?
I do hope the independent bookstore will not just survive but will thrive. I want that. I want to sit among their selves in comfy chairs and read. I want to know that my money is going back into the community I live. But I fear, as my own publishing relationship with independents reflects, that we are living in the midst of change that will prove permanent. Indeed, with many reports that the giant Barnes & Noble may go the way of Borders, much of purchasing books has already changed. Perhaps there will be life in the niche markets for independents, but like schools, writers, small presses, and girl scouts, there will be more gifts and more bake sales needed to help make that happen.
I'll likely not read Patterson, but I certainly applaud his gift.