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James Patterson Thinks That Books are Precious Snowflakes That Need to be Rescued From Oblivion
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  • April 29, 2013
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JPSaveOurBooks_NYTBR NEWLIST.inddJames Patterson is a well-known and well-respected author, but lately that hasn’t been enough for him. It looks like he recently decided to also take on the role of the publishing industry’s curmudgeon emeritus, a job that Scott Turow has more than adequately filled of late.

Last weekend Patterson bought full page ads (at right) in major newspapers which called for the government to take steps to rescue books, the publishing industry, bookstores, and libraries from the scourge of technological progress.

Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense to me either but Patterson has been getting press attention. Earlier this week he gave an interview for Salon.com in which he laid out his complaints:

Tell me about the decision to place the ad.

I do a lot of things to try to raise level of awareness of what’s going on in country right now. This is an unusual and different time for books, the most unusual in the history of this country. E-books are fine and dandy, but it’s all happening so quickly, and I don’t think anyone thought through the consequences of having many fewer bookstores, of libraries being shut down or limited, of publishers going out of business — possibly in the future, many publishers going out of business.

If you are thinking that he sounds like an old man screaming “get off my lawn you damn kids”, you’re not alone. But before you write me off as simply a jerk let me explain exactly why Patterson comes across that way.

He laments the death of bookstores, libraries, and publishers when in fact the first has been withering for the past 30 years, the second is dying an unrelated death, and the third isn’t dying out so much as it is being replaced.

Bookstores aren’t suddenly going out of business as a result of increased ebook sales; they’ve been under attack by the major bookstore chains and Walmart for the past 30 years. It was big box retailers and their deep discounts that harmed bookstores the most, and while the move to online book sales and then ebooks exacerbated the effect the root of the situation started in the mid 1980s.

Where was Patterson 20 years ago when B&N and Borders were doing their best to kill off the competition? Where was Patterson 10 years ago when Amazon was doing the same?

I’ll leave that question to my readers.

Libraries are struggling to stay open, yes, but it’s disingenuous to mention them in the same breath as publishing and bookstores and it’s foolish to ask the government to rescue them. The biggest threat to libraries is a lack of funding, and given that tax revenues are down in most states it’s a little unrealistic to demand that libraries get more funding.

But never mind bookstores and libraries; it’s when Patterson calls for the rescue of publishing that I feel he has truly missed the point. Patterson is lamenting what he sees as the demise of the publishing industry when it’s really not dying at all. First, as a reader has pointed out, much of the industry is turning a profit. What’s more, the AAP reported that the industry as a whole saw an increase in revenue in 2012. Rather than a dying industry what we have here is one that is growing and changing into something new, and at worst it is being replaced by a new industry that is going to fill many of the same roles.

I get the sense that Patterson worships publishing as the guardians of culture, and that he thinks that the great and classic books of yesteryear would not exist without the publishing industry. Given that this is the same industry that publishes celebrity bios, I have to wonder about his selective vision.

But in spite of everything legacy publishing has created some lasting works. Can the same be said about the new publishing industry?

It’s too early to tell, really, but I don’t see how that is relevant. The role of a publisher is to be a business and make a profit, not to create a lasting work of literature. To pretend otherwise is to simply ignore reality.

All in all, I don’t see Patterson’s full page ad as a plea to save books so much as it’s an admission that he doesn’t understand the culture that surrounds him. It has changed too much from the one he grew up in, and he wants the govt to change it back.

Good luck with that.

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