With over 350 million books in print, mega-seller James Patterson is diverging, slightly, from his usual mystery fare. His latest, due out in August, is The Store, which is a dystopian work that imagines an America caught in the grips of a monopolistic online retailer and Patterson isn't so sure that the world he portrays in his book is too far from reality. In conversation, he takes aim at online retailers, technology, and our addiction to convenience as signs of society in peril.
The Store is a radical book, and it’s a scary one, too. What is the threat you see in online retailers like the one portrayed in this novel.
The threat is the end of humans as we see them now. That might be a little bit of an overstatement but it’s directionally right. It is scary. The book is scary and the world is scarier. You can see a future where people just stay in their houses and look at screens all day long, and things arrive. We’re dealing with drones and fulfillment centers and a world that’s being controlled more and more by artificial intelligence.
It’s hard not to think about Amazon, when you read The Store. I assume you were you trying to paint the retailer as the villain of your novel, yes?
There are certainly connections to Amazon. Take your pick. Amazon, Alphabet, the next big thing, I’m sure there will be others. I don’t think they do enough. It doesn’t seem to me that they do enough to help out the world.
I think to some extent they believe they’re doing a good thing. I think they just think that the world can run a lot more efficiently and people can be taken care of better if we get people out of the way. Or that there are some very smart people who can run the world better than it’s being run. [But] you have to say that if they do believe that, then their view about human beings is pretty pessimistic.
My hope is always that at some point the light goes off for someone like [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos and he goes, “Okay, there’s more than just making this company super successful, and I do have a responsibility.”
This book feels a bit like the muckraking novels of the early 1900s, which were meant to get people to take action. If Amazon poses such a threat, what do you want readers, writers, and publishers to do about it all?
I think there are simple things to do. I think we can really try to support bookstores and libraries. We can make sure our kids are educated. We can make them readers. Younger people are reading less and less and less. We’re getting less and less educated as a country, which I think is terrible. We can help our local schools. There are things we can do as individuals. ... It’s so easy to buy people off in this country. To some extent they are being bought off by convenience. I can get anything dropped at my doorstep, and a drone will do it. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except if it makes us less and less human. We’re talking about this notion of buying local, but another way of saying that is, “Buy from humans.”
You’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to supporting independent booksellers. How is this community faring today?
There was a real fear, five or six years ago, that half of them were going to go out of business. They’re doing better now, but it’s always going to be a tough business. One of the things that I do, is that I give out Christmas Bonuses to booksellers. It’s all based on people or bookstores who write in and say that a bookseller is great.
I get the nicest and most thoughtful thank you letters, but you also get a feel for what it’s like out there. You’ll get a letter that says, “thank you so much for the [bonus] because it allowed me to go to the dentist.” That’s the reality out there for booksellers. You have people out there really working hard and making no money in a lot of cases, and that’s not ideal.