Giving Back to Bookstore Employees

An article came out on Shelf Awareness this week telling of James Patterson donating $250,000 to a program where bookstore employees can nominate other bookstore employees to receive bonuses for their work.

Now, James Patterson is somewhat controversial in the writing community. Many suspect he no longer writes his own books, that all these volumes coming out as written byzoo James Patterson and X are in fact written by X and he’s lending his name to them to get attention for their writing. I can see that as being something of a double-edged sword, not to mention a sad comment on the state of the New York publishing industry.

I don’t know if any of that is true or not. I’ll tell you what I do know: Mr. Patterson apparently cares about literacy. He started the website Read Kiddo Read in an effort to get kids—and especially boys—to read more. Girls read more than boys, and illiteracy is higher in boys. I applaud his efforts (and suggest you check out the site).

But this donation—which the article points out isn’t his first effort at contributing to the bookseller industry as a whole—is aimed at a more general audience. One of the members of our writing group points out that every bookstore employee should get a bonus just for working retail, and from the horror stories I’ve heard from retail employees, I can see her argument.

Her suggestion got me thinking. Why should Mr. Patterson be the only successful author doing this? Whatever you think of his writing, this is a commendable effort. And, while I’m an admitted cynic, I have trouble believing the idea that any public figure who does something like this is doing it simply for the PR value it’ll generate. Just because someone is in position where they are making money hand over fist doesn’t mean everything they do has to be out of self-promotion only.

But having said that, why aren’t more successful authors doing this? Why can’t Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, George RR Martin, and other bestsellers like them form some kind of organization that does this every year? Why not give back to the most basic level of their industry, the part that puts those books out there for readers to buy?

The Boulder Bookstore located on the West end of the Pearl Street Mall Nov. 11, 2008. (CU Independent file/ Sam Hall)

The Boulder Bookstore located on the West end of the Pearl Street Mall Nov. 11, 2008. (CU Independent file/ Sam Hall)

Like many readers, one of my favorite places in the world is a good bookstore. My finances won’t allow me to patronize them right now, but I hope to get back to it in the future. I don’t think anything satisfies me as much as finding a new book that looks promising and taking it home with me to read. And if you can find a good bookstore with one or more employees who actually know what they’re talking about, instead of just working there to have a job, it’s a plus.

No, I’m not dissing the people who work at bookstores simply as a source of income. I get it. You need to work somewhere, and I hope working at a bookstore is a little less stressful than working at, say, Walmart or Office Depot. I’m just saying that finding an employee who knows books and cares about them is a wonderful bonus to the book-shopping experience. Hell, even one who’s not that knowledgeable about books but is willing to go those extra steps to help you find a hard-to-get book is awesome.

Writers like the ones I mentioned above are living the dream so many of the rest of us strive to achieve: writing for a living and making a really good living off it. And I’m not saying they’re all basically ignoring the readers who make them what they are. But there’s that other level, the booksellers and their employees—especially in the indie bookstores—who, I think, are somewhat ignored. They’re the ones who put the books on the shelves, set up book signings when an author comes to town, makes sure customers are aware the thing is happening and a new book is out, and all the other things I’m not even aware of because I’ve never worked in a bookstore.

Why not give them a little love?



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