Monday, February 24, 2014

James Patterson, Amtrak Residencies and the Short Distance between Here and Awesome

What is the difference between a sustainable small business and a failed small business? To put this more precisely, what is the dollar difference between a small business staying open and a small business closing? It will obviously depend on what kind of small business it is, but a for bookstore it's probably far less of a difference than you might suspect, maybe even as low as a few thousand dollars. Yep a few thousand dollars one way and a store stays open. Enough to bridge the gap when the rent is raised a bit, or keep a credit line from publishers open until the holiday season starts up or to make up for one month of bad sales created by some bad weather. Of course, just like everything else, there can be bad book stores and bad small businesses who have really and truly earned their failure, and as with everything else, changes in society will hurt those who refuse to change along with it, but, with book stores, too often the difference between open and closed is paltry.

Which is why I love James Patterson's grant program for independent bookstores.  It's not just that he's giving $1 million to bookstores, is the way he's doing it; in relatively small no-strings-attached grants. Grants that will help them retain (and perhaps energize) experienced staff, that will improve the store's infrastructure, that will compensate for unforeseen costs, and that will allow stores to better meet their social missions. Though Patterson says he's only giving these grants to “viable” stores, every one of these potential uses contributes to the long-term viability of the stores that receive them. Whether it's a modern computer system or strengthening a relationship with local schools, Patterson's grants are helping create the resources needed to bridge that small gap.

But I think there's even more to this. Porter Square Books is using our grant to provide books to students who can't afford them when an author visits their school, so along with supporting literacy, most of that grant is going to be cycled right back into publishing and right back into all of the logistics and systems that get a book from the publisher to the store. Malaprop's is replacing their carpet, which, along with helping create a nicer store, means they will be buying carpets and having them installed, and cycling that money back through their local economy. Same with the store that needs to repair its roof, same with the store that needs to buy and install a new computer system. And even when stores plan on giving their grants to their employees, I'm pretty sure that money isn't going to end up in an off-shore bank account; it's going to be spent, it's going to be taxed, it's going to be productive.

If there is an economics PhD candidate in need of a thesis, I think tracking the effect of Patterson's grants and the amount of economic activity they generate is a pretty good option. We have plenty of data that micro-loans can be extremely effective in developing economies, but if you just scale them up a bit, why wouldn't they also work in our economy? Whatever positive effect Patterson's grants will have, they will have it for a relatively paltry sum. To Patterson, a million ain't all that much, but to the right store (and the right community) a few thousand dollars is everything. (More on this later.)

Speaking of low-cost, high impact projects, over the course of a few days Amtrak has found itself poised to be the primary mode of transportation for American literary culture. It could, simply create a more organized structure for it's residency program, which, as someone who writes on The Downeaster, is still pretty fucking awesome, but it doesn't really have to stop there. How much would it actually cost Amtrak to underwrite travel for book tours? If there are empty seats on trains, and as we know from their lack of profitability, there are empty seats on trains, really, pretty much nothing. There will be some administrative costs of course, but until they are packing trains with paying customers, every unsold ticket is a chance to send a writer somewhere. Even if you counted those given away tickets as losses, at a reasonable scale, it would amount to maybe a few tens of thousands of dollars a year. Maybe.

But that tiny drop in the bucket of Amtrak sales could have a huge impact on American publishing, especially small publishing, and on American literary culture in general. Book tours are an important part of the modern literary conversation, but they are also expensive high-risk, low-reward endeavors for publishers, especially small publishers that are already on tight budgets. (Remember that whole thing about the difference between open and closed small businesses above.) The potential to generate sales on a book tour is often just not high enough to justify the expense. But if travel cost were removed? If authors for Two Dollar Radio or Small Beer Press or Coffee House or Soho Press or Graywolf or (Yes, I'm just going to say it, because, yes, I totally want Amtrak to underwrite my book tour) Melville House could ride Amtrak for free to events, we could create, support, and enlarge an extremely dynamic, extremely diverse, extremely awesome modern American literary culture, again, practically for free.

Imagine if the Wall Street and big bank bailout had followed these principles instead. Imagine if all of those billions of dollars were distributed in relatively small, no-strings-attached grants to small businesses, non-profits, and art and culture organizations. Imagine if say, 10% of all small businesses in America were able to modernize their inventory systems. Imagine if another 10% were able to convert their properties to green and renewable energy. Imagine if another say 10% were able to give their overworked and underpaid employees a raise and a bonus. At this point, I'm not arguing that we should have let the banks and firms fail, but the more see from them, the more profitable they are and the longer our shitty economy persists in its shittiness, the more inclined I am to believe that, even if the principle behind the bail out wasn't 100% incorrect, it's execution couldn't have been worse.

But there is still time and there is still money. What is both maddening and heartening about James Patterson's grants to bookstores and the Amtrak residency and all the potential that has is how short the distance between here and awesome really is. How much would it actually cost to make sure every community with a certain minimum population has a local bookstore? How much would it actually cost to fill in the food deserts in our inner cities? How much would it actually cost to create a system where most writers don't need day jobs to pay the rent? How much would it actually cost to put a roof over every American's head?

And when you factor in the economic growth that would come from all of those spending efforts, when you put it in the context of corporate profits, the Wall Street bailout, and the military budget, and when you think beyond economics to wonder about the communities that would result from those projects, all it would cost is the willingness to do it. But for some reason, that willingness is the most expensive item on the planet.


  1. "all it would cost is the willingness to do it. But for some reason, that willingness is the most expensive item on the planet."

    Bravo, Josh. You've articulated here so many of the thoughts that have been occupying my mind lately. I plan to share this post with the rest of my booksellers.