Aid to bookstores?
By Alberto Mingardi
Star novelist James Patterson is donating 1 million dollars in financial aid to independent bookstores. Patterson apparently maintains that “federal government’s financial support of troubled industries like Wall Street and the automobile sector should extend to the bookstore business”. This seems to imply that any industry which is troubled by technological innovation should be able to cash in on taxpayers’ support. To be kind, I find this a troubling statement.
I’d be, however, more sympathetic to Patterson’s general goal. He believes that “it’s essential for kids to read more broadly. And people just need to go into bookstores more.” If I understand Patterson right, he seems to believe that “browsing books,” the old way, is often a way to stimulate a more diversified and interesting reading diet. Besides Amazon’s sometimes helpful recommendations, people tend to buy online what they already wanted or desired–you could argue that they are a bit less likely to stumble upon new authors and works. Personally, my experience goes actually in the other direction: through the Internet I have immediately (and sometimes recklessly) purchased books that I found mentioned somewhere else (very often, I repent). But I can picture that for a more casual reader it goes the other way around. Stumbling upon authors’ names and talking with booksellers is a great way to get to know books you didn’t know about–and that may interest you.
I can also see why Patterson, though understanding the potential of ebooks, would like to see small independent bookstores kept in business. They add, so to say, to the biodiversity of the books’ market environment. Each bookseller has preferences, develops a personal relationship with her consumers, provides bottom-up information to the publishing industry. Booksellers are great thermometers of people’s likes and attitudes. Plus, I typically find this kind of conservatism rather understandable. We are used to paper-books, and some of us came to worship their materiality. It is an art that dates centuries back. No wonder an important novelist wants to help it to survive.
In a way, I believe that Patterson is doing something admirable. He has preferences–for the paper book versus the ebook, for the small bookseller vs the large chain–and he is putting his money where his mouth is.
One rather obvious question is: are Patterson’s checks big enough to make a difference? He “pledged to donate $1 million over the course of the next year; currently, he’s given away $267,000 to 54 bookstores”. This means that he has donated, on average, a bit less than $5,000 to each bookseller. It is rather unlikely that such a small amount of money helps independent bookstores to thrive in an increasingly difficult market. It’d be more interested to know something on the criteria Patterson is following to give away money to bookstore X instead of bookstore Y. He can do whatever he wants with his money–but I do not really understand how he could have an impact.
I think that at best his checks may be a “thank you” note to people that endure in a difficult business, in spite of temptations to change their trade.
Is this a way to subsidise inefficiency? Is it pure charity? Or is Patterson a pioneer in a way, in the sense that certain firms in the cultural market would need to be supported by donations, alongside sales, to stay alive? Is the independent bookstore the new opera house?