The Book Catapult

A Year of Reading, Week Nine (JPatt Edition)

Books read (all or part of) this week:
The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go
15 pages of Eyrie by Tim Winton when I forgot the other book at home one morning


This is what $1 million looks like

“I’m rich; I don’t need to sell more books. But I do think it’s essential for kids to read more broadly. And people just need to go into bookstores more. It’s not top of mind as much as it used to be.” -JPatt in the NY Times

I’m about halfway through Justin Go’s forthcoming debut novel right now, The Steady Running of the Hour – more on that next week when I finish. We all know what I’m here to talk about.

Last September, James Patterson announced that he would give $1 million to independent bookstores around the country as a way of promoting literacy and supporting small businesses. Starting last Thursday, he proved good on his promise, giving grants between $2000 and $15,000 to 55 different independent bookstores, including San Diego’s own Mysterious Galaxy and Yellow Book Road. Which is kind of awesome.

“I just want to get people more aware and involved in what’s going on here, which is that, with the advent of e-books, we either have a great opportunity or a great problem. Our bookstores in America are at risk. Publishing and publishers as we’ve known them are at stake. To some extent the future of American literature is at stake.”

I do honestly think this is a nice thing that JPatt is doing – really I do. A few thousand dollars goes a long way for a small, independent business and his generosity is welcome and wholly unexpected. Is the e-book the scourge of the independent bookselling world? I don’t know if I believe that. (I don’t know if that’s what he’s really saying, but I’m going to run with it.) Even more confusing is that Patterson proudly notes on his website that he was the first author in the world to “achieve ten million e-book sales.” (“Achieve” – give me a break.) So clearly he’s okay with the e-book as a format when it lines his pockets but… not if it runs the local bookstore out of business? Hmmm…. But didn’t he (at least in recent years) get to be so rich from online book sales – which includes the 10 million e-books? And isn’t that where the crux of the problem lies for indie bookstores – competing with online retailers?

All of which naturally leads me to the point I’m dancing around… you knew this was coming… A million bucks is fantastic, but this guy made 90 million MORE dollars last year alone, so if he really wants to make a difference… I’m just sayin’. Maybe throw out $2 million? How ’bout five? Would that kill the guy?

The completely un-doctored header from jamespatterson.com.


Okay, hold up – of course, anyone can do whatever they want with their money – that’s the nature of our capitalistic, democratic society and I accept (and to some degree, even embrace) that. But how did we get to this point? Creators of literary fluff like JPatt, athletes like LeBron, (seen here with JPatt!!) musicians like U2 ($125 million in 2013!) all make obscene amounts of money. Entertainers. We all seem to be okay with that – but for some reason we praise the shit out of them when they donate a small fraction of that money back to the businesses – nearly 40 years down the line in Patterson’s case – that essentially made them what they are today. We’re blinded by the glitz in all of this. $1 million sounds fantastic, but it’s just 1.1% of Patterson’s income from 2013. Think about what that would look like from your end – if you donated 1.1% of your salary. A bit of a blip, am I right? A few hundred bucks. A grain of sand on the freakin’ beach, as they’d say. Now imagine if you made, say, 2300 times more money last year – the difference between JPatt & myself. Would you stick to that paltry 1.1%? 

Alright, that last bit was obnoxious, I know – and a bit off track. I really didn’t want to harp on the salary thing. If JPatt wants to buy a 20,000 square foot house in Florida or fly to the moon or get a gold bust of his jowls or snort coke off a hooker’s ass that’s all entirely up to him. A million bucks is a million bucks, America. So thank you, James. (As if it was ever in doubt, any store I will ever be affiliated with will NEVER, EVER get a grant from him now, I can guarantee.)

However…

Salary aside, if he really and truly wants to make a difference for independent bookstores, wouldn’t the most explosive, poignant way be to yank all of his books off of Amazon.com? (I’ve said this before, people.) Why are independent bookstores in so much trouble, Mr. Patterson? The prevailing reason is because people buy your books from Amazon at a fraction of what they’d pay at an independent store. Either use your influence to level the price playing field or pull your books off their site. There’s no competing with a website that sells the same product at half the price, right out of the gate. And I’m afraid that paying stores with your JPatt subsidies isn’t the answer here either. It’s very nice of you, but it won’t solve anything. So some store replaces their carpeting with your grant – does that prevent people from buying all their James Patterson novels from Amazon?

Think I’m being ridiculous? Check out this sidebar taken from Patterson’s website, showing the myriad of ways you can purchase his books:

If he is indeed intent on saving independent bookstores, why are they listed as the 8th (Powell’s) and 9th (the rest of us) options for purchasing books? This might seem like snark to you, but I’m being serious here. It is very clear from this graphic that Amazon is still the #1 option – and his own preferred method, obviously – for people to purchase Patterson’s books. How can he donate money to the businesses that are being systematically driven out of business because of his primary benefactor? 

This is how I felt when I watched The Matrix for the first time. “Wait… what?”

Look, since the pulling of his books off Amazon will never happen, I’d much rather see JPatt donate his money to more national literacy programs instead. That’s where the real trouble lies, going forward. (If no one knows how to read, who cares if there are bookstores?) Bookstores will either be here in the future or they won’t – two grand to pay an electricity bill won’t make a difference in the long run of whether Joe’s Bookstore has a viable business model. Should stores factor in the possibility that James Patterson will bestow a grant upon them? C’mon. The indies that are still here are here because they are offering people things that Amazon cannot. A good bookstore is that “third place” – that gathering spot that’s not home and not work, where you can feel that ever rarer sense of community. You can meet the author of your favorite book one evening. Bring your kids to a storytime another day. Booksellers can recommend books to you that are not James Patterson, every day of the week. You want the latest Alex Cross? Go online – I have no problem with that. Discuss it in a chatroom with some dude in Iowa who also loves JPatt. You want to know more about Laura Van Den Berg’s short stories or this crazy awesome new book from Gingko Press? Argue with me over whether Cloud Atlas is the best book of the 21st century so far? This is what the independent bookstore can offer you. Let’s just talk.

Look, there’s room for all kinds of readers in this world – it’s up to you to decide where you spend your money and what you want your community to look like.

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