James Patterson: "Amazon could actually dedicate itself to saving books and literature in this country"

The bestselling author is launching a campaign to save books, and he wants Amazon and Obama to help

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published November 19, 2014 8:42PM (EST)

James Patterson    (Reuters/Bret Hartman)
James Patterson (Reuters/Bret Hartman)

Last week, Amazon and Hachette Book Group announced they had reached an agreement on a multi-year contract, ending a lengthy stand-off that prompted hundreds of authors to speak out against Amazon’s negotiation tactics. One of the highest-profile voices was bestselling novelist James Patterson.

That wasn’t his only or last shot against the online retailer. Earlier this year, Patterson pledged $1 million in grants to independent bookstores, warning against the dangers of an Amazon monopoly in the Book Expo America speech where he accepted an Indie Champion Award for his funding program.

Next week, Patterson will launch a new public awareness campaign to encourage reading. The campaign includes a television ad featuring a public book burning, and a request to President Obama that he pledge to make reading a national priority. And in an interview earlier this week, Patterson says Amazon could be doing more to encourage reading.

To call Patterson a “bestselling novelist” is actually an understatement. The prolific writer is the world’s best-selling author, with more than 100 books to his name, many of those co-written by writers he employs, and counting. According to Forbes, he’s earned $700 million and counting in the book business over the last decade alone. “It’s not about me selling books,” Patterson insisted when we spoke over the phone. “I could care less. I don’t need to. I’m fine.”

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tell me about the new campaign to encourage reading and book-buying.

We really try and discourage apathy and neglect as much as anything. You know I mean, look, we're in this transitional period with e-books. And what's happened in the last ten years or so is we've gone from 10,000 or so bookstores to less than 3,000. I don't think that's great. We have teenagers now reading books less than eight minutes a week. I don't think that's great. And I don't think people are paying much attention to it. So not to go crazy with puns, but I really want to try to light a fire under the issue and get people to pay more attention.

When the Amazon thing came up, I can't say that I did it by myself, but a few writers got up and we did light a fire under a lot of writers. And I think the same thing can happen here in terms of getting people upset about, hey, what is going to happen to our books? What is going to happen if we don't have any publishers around?

Since you brought up lighting the fire, I previewed the campaign commercial, and it has a ‘stop the book burning’ message, which is very eye-catching, very much a conversation-starter. I'm curious about the symbolism behind it. We associate book-burnings with intellectual purges. There's usually some ideology behind that purge, political or religious. What's behind this metaphor?

I don't think... "Fahrenheit 451," I don't know that there was any... It was science fiction. I don't know that there was any, you know, purge about it. Because I think that's what's happened, not just symbolically—literally. We have many less bookstores than we ever did. We have kids reading less than they ever have, we're going through a transition, so I don't think it's symbolic, I think it's actually happening. You know, I don't think enough people are paying attention, and I don't think it's being written about enough or talked about enough. This is not Nazi Germany. And nobody is suggesting that it is. But we are dumbing down.

The new Pew Research poll says that young Americans are more likely to have read a book in the last year than their older counterparts, but the numbers are “88 percent of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year.” A single book is kind of a low bar. What do you think would be an indicator that reading culture is turning around?

I don't think it is turning around.

But what would be the sign that it was? What's the goal here? More independent bookstores, more book sales?

I think the goal is just more people reading. And to do that, a lot of things have to happen. Actually, to me, the group that can do the most good here is Amazon. Amazon could actually dedicate itself to saving books and literature in this country. It really could. And that would be the easiest fix, directionally.

I think they probably think they're doing that, but they're not, at least not yet. Yes, they want to lower prices, and you know, theoretically that's fine, but I don't know how we'd do that on a practical level and keep stores... You know, in terms of evolving the system as opposed to fracturing the system, [Amazon is] in a position to do something. The government is in a position to do something. Ironically, you know, we have a very liberal president, and he doesn't seem terribly interested in the subject, unfortunately. I know he's got a lot on his plate already, but you know. I mean, look, all over Europe you have governments who protect the publishers and protect books.

Yeah, there was that New York Times Bookends piece recently about how France treats books as an "essential good," like food and utilities. They're taxed at lower rates, price discounts are pretty severely controlled. Is that a model that you think would be useful?

No, I don't think it's a model, but I think it's something to pay attention to. I think the government could be more involved. I mean, obviously the government has stepped in when banks were in trouble and the automobile business was in trouble. I think it's something that local, state and federal government could be doing more.

This is once again symbolic, the kind of leadership pledge, you know. We're gonna ask people to write to the President, write to their Congress and their representatives. And have the President take a pledge that once a month, he'll appear in public carrying a book, he'll visit a library store, or you know, the local representative. And then to have some of these [politicans] going on record in government sessions that they're concerned about the state of reading in our country. And they should be.

Because, look, with our kids, and that's a big deal with me, kids are not reading as broadly as they should and as they used to. We're getting more and more of this kind of tunnel-vision, get on your little mission to become a doctor, lawyer, mathematician, engineer, etc., and [kids] really don't read. My son's at a very good prep school, and they don't read as much as I'd like them to do, in terms of breadth of reading. You know, they don't know who a lot of the famous authors [are]. Not that they should matter who they are, but … my own thing about kids at the top [is] that in the course of high school they're exposed to a couple hundred really good, interesting authors, you know, ranging from Toni Morison to Cormac McCarthy to Truman Capote to Saul Bellow, etc., etc., and just be familiar with different voices and ways of looking at the world. I think that's important in terms of really good readers.

More important, maybe, is at-risk kids, because, and this is a big deal with me, I do a lot, as much as any individual can do, but at-risk kids, if they're not... if they don't become competent readers—I'm not talking about readers for life, I'm talking about competent readers—how are they going to get through high school? If you're not a competent reader. And that's an epidemic around this country, kids who cannot read at a competent level. How you gonna do history, how you gonna do science? You just can't. I mean, you sit there and you struggle and it takes 15 minutes to read the first page. That doesn't work. In a lot of cases, it's correctible.

There's research that says that kids who grow up in a household where there are books in the house are more likely to become constant readers than those who don't. 

That's a piece of it. That's a piece of it. What happens in the schools is a piece of it. I just gave a talk, and I was asked to talk on this subject in front of all of the middle school principals in New York City, public schools, and they asked me to talk about the principals encouraging students to read for fun, to read extra stuff, to read outside of the Common Core, to read things, because the more they read the better they get at it. It's really simple. I'll go into schools and I'll go, "Who plays soccer?" "Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah!" "You better now or three years ago?" "We're better now! Yeah!" "How come?" "Cause we play a lot! Yeah!" "Okay, same thing, dudes." If you read, and you can read fun stuff, you can read comic books, you can read a lot of different... there's a lot of ways to get that exercise, get that reading muscle worked on. If you do that, you will become good readers, and school will be easier.

So how can that be encouraged with kids? Sports, in our culture right now, kids look up to college and professional athletes. There's a whole culture of that.

Once again, what I'm talking about here is just a higher awareness that there's a problem in our country. There's a problem with reading, there's a problem with books, there's a problem with preserving important books, and there's a problem with getting people, and especially kids, reading.

Look, I mean 20 or 25 years ago, people would have thought it was impossible to get people not to smoke in restaurants and things. That's all changed. People would have laughed at you. If we had this discussion 25 years ago about cigarettes, you'd go, Yeah, but that's not gonna happen, come on. But it happened.

I do a webcast every year with Dwayne Wade from the Miami Heat, and this last year we did it with Dwayne and LeBron James and Chris Bosch and half a dozen other NBA basketball players, talking about athletes. And they all come out talking about reading, and they do it because they believe in it. Dwayne Wade has three kids at home, and they're all, I've met them all, they're cool kids, and they read. They read. And he's not afraid to say it.

I've heard announcers on football games, these are guys that went to college, go, you know, somebody mentions John Grisham or something, and they go, Oh, puttin' on airs, huh? What the F is that? Are you kidding me? You went to college, asshole. You don't have to... Putting on airs, I read a John Grisham novel. That's insane.

Yeah, that's pretty accessible stuff. Well you mentioned earlier that Amazon could be doing more. What do you think Amazon could be doing more of? 

They can save reading. They can get in there, they can just encourage people to read. One of the things, and I actually talked to Jeff Bezos about this, was when it was in their business interest to really get people knowing about the Kindle, I mean, you could not go on that site without getting tempted and blasted about, Try this Kindle, try this Kindle, you gotta try this, it's free, we'll give you a million dollars if you try this.

Right now what's happened is you've got about 30% less people going into bookstores, and that includes a lot of parents and grandparents or whatever. Kids have not switched to tablets for reading. That has not happened. They're not reading e-books. So what you have in a third of households now, is the kids aren't reading any more. The parents aren't going into the bookstores and they've switched to e-books, but they haven't switched their families. And what I said to Jeff was that you really need to educate all these people that are using the Kindle that a) It's okay to have more than one in the house, just like you have five phones in the house, it's okay, and secondly, don't be afraid that your kids are gonna wind up buying a dozen books in a year. That's okay too. That's excellent, actually.

But they have to be educated, because right now families say that they haven't really, they haven't thought about it enough, they don't, "I don't know, Kindle, can my kids have one?" They don't even think about it or worry about it. So net, you have a much larger percentage than ever where the kids are not reading anything except what they read in school.

Libraries, another big area. This past year, I gave a million dollars for independent book stores, and once again, that's somewhat symbolic, and what it's really doing is drawing attention to these bookstores and saying they need help. So for a couple hundred bookstores that actually did help, and it really has a tremendous effect on morale in the neighborhood, but it also allows them to get a lot of publicity, and it draws publicity to this thing about independent bookstores being a kind of national resource, and we need to make sure that they survive.

And we'll continue to help the indies a bit, but we're gonna go to school libraries as the next thing that we're gonna be drawing attention to and helping, because there are a lot of school libraries that don't have enough or any books, and there are a lot of school libraries that no longer have a librarian. So what can we do to help? So we're going to throw money at that, and once again, we'll help some schools, but we'll also draw attention to the fact that a lot of school libraries are not functioning the way they need to.

I did an interview with a bookseller who opened a third store focused on kids with one of the grants that you gave out last year. And they talked a lot about how children's books are still a bound-book medium, not necessarily an e-book. So for them, sales are great for kids' books because people still buy them for kids...

They're better. A lot of them haven't realized that they have a real window there right now. There's a store in North Carolina, Asheville, that we helped, and part of the thing that they did with the money was they moved the children's section up front, and their children's sales went up some insane proportion, because people went in, and it's all about creating habits. And all of a sudden, they're going, "Oh right, my kids. Yes." Or they were bringing their kids in more. And when I appeared there, at this store, half the people that came to the event were kids, which was tremendous.

I was thinking about what you were saying about the Kindle, and about kids not [having as many]. Maybe there's a market there for more durable, kid-friendly e-readers once kids get to chapter book age?

Yeah, I think they're fairly durable, but yeah, absolutely, they may be able to. I mean, I don't know what the economics are for those little machines, but it may be that they can put them out for $59, but whatever. People buy the phones for comparable... I mean right now I think the cheapest Nooks and Kindles are around $99, I think. And they probably could have them be even less expensive if there weren't any bells and whistles on them. Unfortunately the kids also want bells and whistles.

And those bells and whistles are distracting from books. Games are interactive.

Distractions you just have to live with. That's life. But that's certainly modern life. But a lot of it is just, once again, getting people in the government to realize that this is a big problem and a lot of their constituents are disturbed about it. That helps. We'll go to athletes and then entertainers, Hollywood. I mean, here's Hollywood, and just about every movie you see, somebody's smoking a cigarette. I never see anybody reading a book in a movie. Ever. I mean, here's Interstellar and there are bookcases, but there's nobody reading a book. There's bookcases and the bookcase is full, and you know whatever, and here's Castle, and there are bookcases, but I never see anybody reading a book. And I sure see a lot of people smoking.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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