another fine mess – Patterson, Amazon, and the commodification of reading

I’ve been mulling over how to respond to the amazing profile of James Patterson ™ in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, but this morning’s news that Amazon has instantly removed Macmillan’s books over a dispute on e-book pricing adds an interesting wrinkle.

“Removed” is an oversimplification;  used copies are on sale, because Amazon and the seller make money on those, but Macmillan and their authors do not. There is no indication, of course, that new books exist and could be bought elsewhere. Amazon will sell you the book, just not share profits with the publisher and, by default, the author. Full disclosure: I am one of Macmillan’s authors. I love my editor, and I appreciate them publishing me, but I also enjoy my day job and it’s a good thing because I’d never make a living writing crime fiction. I’m not too bothered that the listing for my forthcoming book is among los desaparecidos. I’d rather you buy it from an indie, anyway.  This is not about me. It’s about books and their future.

Comments on news threads like this tend to fall into patterns:

  • E-books are way too expensive.
  • DRM sucks.
  • My words as an author are MY PROPERTY and you will pry DRM from my cold, dead hands.
  • Traditional publishers should die already.
  • I’m a writer. How’m I supposed to make a living?
  • Amazon is great.
  • Amazon sucks.
  • Why isn’t everyone acting like  Baen/O’Reilly/Cory?
  • Self publishing is the future.
  • Self-publishing sucks.
  • Cut out the middleman. Sell direct.
  • But what about indie bookstores?
  • Indie bookstores suck. I get much better deals at Amazon.

[Sunday update: Amazon blinked, grudgingly. Their relationship remains “it’s complicated.”] But let’s set all that aside for now. Here’s what struck me about the Patterson profile (which didn’t go into his psychology as a fictional FBI profiler would … now wouldn’t that be interesting ? But I digress.)

Transformers – More than Meets the Eye

The subtitle of “James Patterson Inc.” is “How a Genre Writer has Transformed Book Publishing.” There are really two stories here: one aggressively business-minded author has created a highly successful brand and sold millions of books; publishers drool over big hits, and he’s hit his home run farther than anyone other than God when he wrote The Bible (but damn, forgot to inscribe “copyright shall last forever” as the eleventh commandment or he would be rolling by now. Think of all the derivatives! The children’s versions! The movie rights! But I digress.)

The other story is about changes in the book industry that set the stage for Patterson, inc.

Like movie studios, publishing houses have long built their businesses on top of blockbusters. But never in the history of publishing has the blockbuster been so big. Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.

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.

What did Patterson add to the mix? Television advertising. Swift and strategic development of new product lines for children and romance readers. Outsourcing the actual writing to hungry midlisters. Trusted product that has little swearing or challenges to family values (in one series the manly detective is a single parent of 12 adoptees – “’Cheaper by the Dozen’ meets ‘Die Hard,’ as Patterson describes it”).  But there’s lots of violence, particularly against women – you may want to avert your eyes from this tidbit:

The thriller genre is generally not for the squeamish, but Patterson’s tend to be especially graphic, and the violence often involves sociopathic sexual perversion and attractive young women. For instance, the villain in his second Alex Cross novel, “Kiss the Girls,” is a psychopath who kidnaps, rapes and tortures college girls in an underground bunker; at one point, he even feeds a live snake into the anus of one of his victims.

I can’t help but be reminded of a recent post by Peter Rozovsky on the most disturbing noir song ever, “He Hit Me, but it Felt Like a Kiss.”  But I digress.

The Ecosystem of Books and Reading

This is what I’m taking away from all of this.

Books produced this way are like meals at McDonald’s. They are filling and they’re fast. They provide a satisfying meal for people who have little time and can’t afford to try things they may not like because they work two jobs and just want a little predictable escape for a few hours. These kinds of books are bad for you, not because the nutritional value is harmful so much as the ecological harm they do.

Think about McDonald’s. We stopped growing people food to grow corn to feed cows to butcher and grind up in enormous, karma-destroying meat factories, shipping the resulting pink sludge in ozone-destroying trucks, subsidizing crops that are genetically engineered intellectual property owned by giant corporations that will sue your ass if you save seeds or if seeds accidentally end up growing in your fields without their permission; we import real food from Chile and elsewhere that lots of people can’t afford even if there was a grocery store in their neighborhood. And we wash that burger down with sugared beverages sweetened by subsidized corn in a production process that exhausts both water and land but makes big brands like Coke and Pepsi rich and exportable to the world.

You can’t really blame people for eating at places like McDonald’s if they’re working hard and need fast, cheap, filling food that they can count on. But it’s ruining our planet and our health.

Likewise, if we alter book production so that it’s streamlined, predictable, easily accessed by people who can’t afford to experiment by buying books they might not enjoy, then corporations will be able to churn it out. Okay, there’s a power struggle of Godzilla proportions going on between the book equivalent of agribusiness and McDonald’s, but in the end they’ll settle their differences and readers will suffer.

Some people have already joined the equivalent of a “slow book” movement. Some people will save writers like saving seeds. There will be independent bookstores just as there are local farmers markets and food coops helping members savor flavors they wouldn’t discover otherwise. Lots of people are growing their own stories. But none of that works for the person who works long hours, has little paycheck to show for it (or has a big paycheck but doesn’t read except on airplanes), and can’t spend a lot of time seeking new authors when they know a book with James Patterson on the cover will give them the escape they enjoy. Everything else is for elitists and snobs.

The analogy, thank goodness, doesn’t really hold up.

First, the government doesn’t provide subsidies to publishers to plant more James Pattersons. Avid readers constitute a significant share of the book buying market and they have adventurous pallets. We are likely to see a growing divide – with small publishers providing variety and the big six focused on fast food, or folding because the big bets they place on finding the next Patterson don’t work out. But not all of our arable land will be planted with Patterson-engineered stories because the book business hasn’t swung subsidy deals as agribusiness has.

Second, our ace in the hole: public libraries. They do a good job of helping people get their hands on the books they enjoy without passing judgment, and they are great advisors about what to read while you’re on  a waitlist for the latest James Patterson. Libraries grow readers, and readers love books. All is not lost. But we’re in for some interesting times.

photo courtesy of Libby taken at a free-for-all when a book warehouse in Bristol let people take what they wanted last year. The business’s lease had run out.

One Response to another fine mess – Patterson, Amazon, and the commodification of reading

  1. bernadetteinoz says:

    I have three half-finished draft posts responding to the Patterson article but you’ve encapsulated what I would have said had I been remotely as eloquent in my thinking. Likening Patterson to McDonald’s is spot on from a business sense (I certainly don’t view him as a writer any more).

    People laugh at me when I say I feel a moral dilemma as a reader but it’s true. I read about 130 books a year and simply could not afford to buy all of them at RRP (especially Australian prices) but what are my alternatives which provide authors and publishers and sellers (and anyone else who needs to be in the chain) with a sufficient slice of the pie? I don’t want to contribute to the loss of Declan Burkes or other new-ish writers who can’t get a foot in the door but how do I avoid doing so? We don’t have much in the way of independent bookstores here and nor are our public libraries particularly useful. Well mine isn’t – its new books section always has a whole load of Mr P’s books which they can buy cheaply whereas they can only afford one or two copies (if any at all) of the latest home grown crime writers.

    Despite the fact I would quite like an e-reader I avoided buying a Kindle partly because I thought something along the lines of what’s happened with Amazon freezing out of a single publisher’s titles might happen. I don’t claim to be particularly smart at predicting the future but it’s not difficult to make comparisons between what stores like WalMart do and what Amazon had the potential to do if it owned the means of getting the product to the consumer. But again, what are my alternatives (yes the new iPad appeals to my sense of aesthetics but will it be any better for producers of content?)

    I feel like most of what I read about these subjects is so influenced by people’s particular agendas – authors, publishers, sellers – that it’s impossible to make anything like an informed, ethical decision as an avid reader who would like to do the ‘right’ thing by as many people as possible (especially authors because without them there’s nothing) but has no idea what the ‘right’ thing is anymore.

    Sigh

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