James Patterson Is Destroying Books to Save Publishing

Credit: David Burnett

Most book campaigns to emphasize the joys of reading involve inspirational language or virtuous goals. James Patterson's involves an exploding book and a bomb disposal unit. 

The bestselling author's new thriller, Private Vegas, written with Maxine Paetro, is being offered in a self-destructing edition. Digitally, a limited number of books will be available, and must be read within 24 hours via a dedicated application. For those looking for a physical copy of the self-destructing book, one copy will be sold for just shy of $300,000. "We’ll do something crazy in the desert," Patterson promised. The author worked with the advertising agency Mother New York on the project, inspired by a desire to remind readers of the excitement of books. 

"It seems to me that publishing needs to compete better with the rest of the world, with movies and TV all the other things that are going on to get people's attention," Patterson explains. "So I went to a very good, small advertising agency and I said, 'Can we do something really relevant but crazy?'" The resulting campaign echoes big-screen thrillers in both the advertisements and in the application's design, in which readers' progress through the soon-to-be-destroyed books can be tracked across a map of the United States. 

Future books by Patterson may feature similarly dynamic approaches. "There were a couple of ideas that Mother came up with that I thought were pretty cool," he says. "We may well top the self-destructing book."

Patterson's literary advocacy also takes less explosive forms. In 2014, he gave a substantial amount of grants to a host of independent bookstore, and plans to advocate on behalf of school libraries in the coming year. He was also one of the signatories of the Authors United letter to Amazon.com criticizing that company's behavior during contract negotiations with publisher Hachette. When asked about the grant program, Patterson replied that "it shines a light on the problem, and that's what I'm trying to do. Shine a light on, okay, we need independent bookstores. We need bookstores, period. We need school libraries." 

Patterson noted a paradox that surrounds some independent booksellers. "I think a lot of people have a soft spot for bookstores, even people who, unfortunately, don't go in them enough," he says. "'I love that store! I never go there, but I love it.' Well, you need to go there. That's another thing that we’re trying to do: helping the stores to draw attention to themselves." As a new year begins, he seemed cautiously optimistic about the state of bookstores, and of reading in general. "It's tipping a little bit," he adds.

Patterson's own dedication to reading began when he was working night shifts at a mental hospital in Massachusetts. "Most nights," he recalls, "there wasn't a lot to do, so I started reading like a mad person. I would go into Cambridge two or three times a week. At that point, I was kind of a literary snob, so it was all more heavy-duty literary fiction. I was reading six or seven books per week. It was madness."

Whether he's donating money to independent bookstores or adding a ticking clock to one's daily reading, Patterson's goals are laudable. "I think a lot of people who read could read a lot more if they were, on a weekly basis, finding something exciting about books," he says. "Somebody who maybe reads one book a month might go to two books a month. That’s a big deal if a lot of people do that."