Let the free market work: Waning industries that beg the government for protection from competition deserve to fail

James Patterson novels

James Patterson sounds like a prime example of capitalism. He’s one of the wealthiest authors alive, frequently finding himself on the Forbes list of wealthiest authors.  He makes serious bank each year, in part because he puts out more books than anyone with any kind of sense could put out.

His secret is his “co-authors.” Patterson outlines the story while other writers, who are lesser known, do the physical writing. He makes millions without actually having to craft a word. He’s upfront about the process, so it can hardly be called fraud. Instead, it’s just a matter of marketing.

Unfortunately, Patterson seems to be a big fan of state intervention in business. At least, it’s easy to see where one can get that impression after Patterson’s comments at Book Expo America last week.

You see, Patterson’s publisher, Hatchette, is in an ongoing dispute with online retailer super-giant Amazon:

I’m trying to get people to focus on the perilous future of books in this country. And that future is happening right now, this year. There is an evolution/revolution going on and it affects everybody who reads, everybody who writes, everybody who publishes books. Small bookstores are being shuttered, book chains are closing, libraries are having serious trouble getting funding, especially school libraries. Every publisher and the people who work in these publishing houses is feeling a great deal of pain and stress. If we don’t fix those problems, the quality of American literature is going to suffer. Fewer or no more Infinite Jests, Blood Meridians, or Book Thiefs, less of a chance for young writers, like James Patterson back in 1976, to be published — or maybe that would have been a good thing?

Patterson may well be right about small bookstores closing down. Of course, in this economy, a lot of small businesses are closing down. Publishers, like many other businesses are surviving but maybe not exactly thriving.

However, Patterson also takes a moment to act like modern publishing is the only way new works of literature make it to the American people, something that just isn’t true.  More on that later:

I’d like you to think about this, and I’d like the press to think about this: Publishers are not terribly profitable. If those profits are further diminished, publishers will produce less serious literature. It’s just a fact of life. And that’s one of the reasons why right now, the future of our literature is in danger. I will say that there are no clear-cut villains —  yet — but there are no heroes either, and I think it’s important that major players involved in publishing, as well as the press, and our government, step up and take responsibility for the future of our literature and the part it plays in our culture.

Publishers aren’t terribly profitable? Well, if that’s the case, then maybe they should restructure their business models. I mean, that’s what other businesses are forced to do when things get a little tight:

Right now bookstores, libraries, authors, publishers, and books themselves are caught in the crossfire of an economic war between publishers and online providers. To be a teeny, tiny bit more specific, Amazon seems to be out to control shopping in this country. This will ultimately have an effect on every grocery- and department-store chain, on every big-box store, and ultimately it will put thousands of Mom-and-Pop stores out of business.

This sounds incredibly familiar. After all, this same hysteria follows Walmart everywhere it goes.  While I have serious issues with Walmart, I can say from my own experience that it doesn’t shut down every mom-and-pop store out there. Instead, it culls the weak from the heard, so to speak.

Amazon has been around for a little while now. Like Walmart, it’s tough to compete with.  Lower prices are hard to beat, though many stores do so through increased customer service with a personal flare, something giant retailers just can’t do.

Sure, they seek to be the sole retailer in this country. However, stores like Walmart will probably have something to say about it if no one else does:

It just will, and I don’t see anybody writing about it, but that certainly sounds like the beginning of a monopoly to me. Amazon also, as you know, wants to control book selling, book buying, and even book publishing, and that is a national tragedy. If this is to be the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed, by law if necessary, immediately, if not sooner.

And here’s the meat of the issue.

Amazon, like many businesses, has diversified in a lot of ways. One way is through it’s self-publishing arms like Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace, is essentially enabling tiny publishers to compete by then offering these products on Amazon, the largest book retailer.

However, Patterson is traditionally published. He’s not one of the millions of authors rejected by that same industry each year. Meanwhile, thanks to something like CreateSpace, these authors can then put their works into the market themselves. (Disclosure: I used CreateSpace and Kindle Direct publishing to put out a novelette, as well as a service called Draft2Digital to put out a short story).

I wonder how today’s opportunities might have changed the fate for Pulitzer Prize winning author John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole shopped his work around for some time, eventually despaired of ever seeing it published, and took his own life. Now, it’s possible that he, like many other would-be authors, would refuse to self publish or even create his own indie publisher and his fate would have been the same.  However, we’ll never know.

How monopolistic is Amazon’s approach to publishing? Through CreateSpace, your print version is able to be purchased by any other retailer with no cost to the author. Now, it only uploads digital versions to Amazon, but that has more to do with formats than anything else. Other services like Draft2Digital and Smashwords will easily handle the digital transfers for Barnes & Noble, iBook, and Kobo.

None of this matters to Patterson, however. Instead, he’s invested into pushing a model that seems to be struggling and rather than see the new possibilities (and for the record, few see traditional publishing going away. Too many authors aren’t interested in all the work that goes into indie publishing), he seeks your tax dollars going toward more private businesses that can adjust for the times:

I think that might have been a worthy subject for this BEA. I think it’s a subject that Indie Bound, the PEN American Center, the National Book Foundation, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Huffington, and NPR should latch onto with vigor, with passion, with urgency.

Personally, I think Patterson is off his rocker. Plenty of ink has been devoted to Amazon’s grudge with Hatchette, but why should they devote any to an industry which is still profitable (despite Patterson’s protestations to the contrary) while watching their stranglehold on the industry fall apart.

On second though, maybe they should look into it. However, they need to exercise some journalistic objectivity for a change and take a look at how things really are in publishing rather than listening to Patterson’s statist call for government intervention into private industry.

What’s next? Is Patterson going to push for a mandate Americans to buy new cars to support the auto industry? Maybe we should have been mandated to rent more DVDs from Blockbuster to have saved it from bankruptcy?

James Patterson has made a fortune from the relatively free market that is the United States economy. Now, he wants to destroy the very industry he claims to want to save.  After all, government intervention is like a reverse Midas touch. Everything it touches turns to crap.

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