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Author James Patterson campaigns to save books

Author James Patterson stands in a small second-floor office in his home in Palm Beach. 
Published Apr. 26, 2013

Megabestselling author James Patterson wants to save the book, and he's willing to put his money where his mouth is.

In a full-page ad in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, in this week's Kirkus Reviews and on the four glossy pages of the front and back covers of the current issue of Publishers Weekly, Patterson asked, "Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?"

Patterson, whose 107th novel, 12th of Never, will be published Monday, has sold more than 275 million copies worldwide, according to his publisher, Little, Brown. While he's had phenomenal success with his Alex Cross and Women's Murder Club series, he's concerned about how digital innovations are changing the publishing industry.

According to Publishers Weekly, sales of print books fell 9 percent in 2012. The Association of American Publishers reported that in 2012 e-books accounted for 22.5 percent of the industry's net revenue — compared to .05 percent 10 years before.

"Because of the e-book phenomenon, the whole (publishing) business has been shaken up," Patterson, 66, said from his Palm Beach home. "Not that there's anything wrong with e-books; e-books are terrific. But it's all happened so fast that no one has sat back and said, what can we do now to protect our books?"

Among the issues are the diminished number of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, harsh cutbacks in library funding and the consolidation of the publishing industry — all threats to the foundations, he says, of a healthy community of readers.

Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association, says from her office in Washington, D.C., "I was just writing (Patterson) a thank-you letter."

The ads were heartening for librarians, she says: "To have an author of his reputation, and one whose books are so important to so many readers and to libraries, understand the problems we face as part of the whole publishing ecosytem is just wonderful."

The changes Patterson cites have had a huge impact on libraries, Sullivan says. "The real issue for us right now is coming to terms with the publishers about making e-books available for sale to libraries at a reasonable price."

Patterson also is concerned about the survival of independent booksellers: "What would happen if we ultimately wind up with a monopoly, with one or a few companies supplying all of our books?"

Stefani Beddingfield shares that concern. As of April 1, she is the new owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa. "Obviously I felt hopeful to buy it. I really did my homework, and there's no age, no demographic" that predicts whether readers will prefer print or digital books.

"I liken it to when VHS came out and people said, 'Oh, no one will go to the movies anymore.' But there's still that shared experience people want, of the third place other than work and home."

What does worry her, she says, is the "discounted mind set" created by Amazon and other online retailers.

"Over the holidays this guy came in with an iPhone app that lets you scan a book cover and then go directly to Amazon. 'I just love to touch the books before I order them,' he said. He had no shame.

"So I just told him, sure, it's like when I go to McDonald's to use the bathroom and don't buy any fries." She's pleased, she says, to see an author as well known as Patterson bringing up the question of "what will happen if Amazon takes over the world."

Patterson doesn't need to worry about his own books disappearing. Writing alone or teaming with other authors, he has been enormously prolific and successful. You'd be hard pressed to find a bestseller list — adult or children's, hardback or paperback or e-book — without a Patterson title, or several.

But, he says, his concern is larger than his own book sales. The ads include a list of several dozen classic American books by such authors as William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon. Patterson says he believes great books like these are a fundamental part of American culture.

"But if all we end up with are really diluted publishing companies, where's it going to happen? It's a hard thing to find and nurture really unusual writers." In today's publishing climate, he asks, "Would we have Ulysses (James Joyce's masterpiece)?"

He also questions whether the increasingly dominant model of authors promoting themselves through social media serves everyone well. "Would some really oddball writer self-promote? People with that kind of personality, I think they would throw up." Imagining J.D. Salinger hawking Catcher in the Rye on Facebook is tough. "Ken Kesey, well, maybe," Patterson says. "Cormac McCarthy, certainly not."

The ads (whose cost he declined to give) aren't Patterson's first foray into promoting books and literacy. In 2012, his ReadKiddoRead.com website gave away 300,000 children's books, and he also donated 250,000 books to U.S. troops.

Patterson says he doesn't have solutions to the problems he highlights in the ads. He just wants to start a conversation.

"I don't think the press has done a very good job of covering it. You just see business stories, like when Borders closed, about how the book business is hurting.

"I think what's happened with the environment needs to happen with books. Once you get a lot more coverage, things start to happen. People start to notice. It will rise up."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

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