James Patterson Is Unhappy

So the book business is all aflutter about a recent advertisement by ex-ad man James Patterson, in which he demanded that someone (unspecified) do something (unspecified) about the horrible problems in publishing (unspecified). The ad is histrionic, hectoring, and utterly vague.

(If this is emblematic of the keen sensibility and razor prose that Patterson commands, I feel better for never having read one of his books.)

I don't seem to be the only one confused about his aims; Patterson spoke to Slate yesterday to insist that he has no plans and can't really articulate exactly what the problem with "books, bookstores and libraries" is, but he definitely wants someone to do something to maintain the industry that pays him millions of dollars a year.

On the very unlikely chance Patterson sees this, let me make some suggestions:
  • If the problem is that libraries are underfunded, then the solution is to find stronger and more stable streams of funding. Libraries in the US are traditionally maintained and funded on the local level, but a federal program or private foundation could certainly step in to add broad financial support to the entire sector. Such a foundation could be set up relatively quickly by an individual or group of individuals with high personal wealth, and would enjoy broad support in the publishing industry and among the general public.
  • If the problem is that bookstores are closing, then the solution is to get more people to buy books in bookstores -- this is a capitalist economy, so demand rules. If that doesn't happen, the next most plausible option would be some kind of non-profit status or preferential tax treatment for physical locations for selling printed matter, to help make those businesses more viable. But, as Yogi Berra said, if nobody wants to come, you can't stop them. And Patterson seems to have missed that large swaths of middle-class retail -- from JCPenney to Best Buy to Staples -- are also in trouble; this is likely a big-box retail problem rather than a book problem.
  • If the problem is that big publishers -- primarily among them, the major competitors to Patterson's longtime publishing company -- are merging to better negotiate terms with ever-larger partners and retailers (e.g., Amazon and Apple), then someone first needs to articulate exactly how that is damaging and to whom. There are a lot of medium and small publishing companies; there has not been a notable flood of bankruptcies in that sector recently. If Hachette becomes somewhat less powerful in an industry dominated by Random Penguin on the one hand and Amazon on the other, that may be less than pleasant to Patterson, but it's difficult to see why the rest of us should care.
In short, Patterson needs to first define the problem. There can be no solution if we don't know what we're trying to fix. "Things are changing" is not a problem; it's a description of the world.