Writing: James Patterson

Who the heck is that? Never heard of him. Well was I in for a surprise. This gentleman seems to be a one man book factory. On May 30, 2009 James Patterson received the Guinness World Record for the “Most Entries on The New York Times Best-Seller List”. What? I’ve still never heard of him.
According to Wikipedia:

He retired from advertising in 1996 and devoted his time to being a writer. The novels featuring his character Alex Cross, a forensic psychologist formerly of the Washington D.C. Police Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation who now works as a private psychologist and government consultant, are the most popular books among Patterson readers and the top-selling US Detective series in the past ten years. Patterson has written 65 novels over his 33 years as an author. To date, James Patterson has had 19 consecutive #1 New York Times bestselling novels, and holds The New York Times record for most bestselling hardcover fiction titles by a single author, a total of 56, which is also a Guinness World Record. The world’s best-selling author, his novels account for one in 17 of all hardcover novels sold in the United States; in recent years his novels have sold more copies than those of Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined.

Good gravy. Where did this guy come from? [laughs] I should definitely clarify that last statement. Why haven’t I been paying attention all these years?

New York Times article from January 2010 talks about Patterson’s humble first effort released in 1976 selling a mere 10,000 copies. Now, according to Nielsen BookScan which tracks book sales, the combined sales of John Grisham, Stephen King and Dan Brown do not even come close to Patterson’s numbers. Such a statement seems quite unbelievable until the reporter explained how the author works with various co-authors and consequently managed to publish nine hardcover books in 2009 and had plans to publish another nine in 2010. Ah, now that makes sense numerically and I can see where the seemingly crazy statement of one in 17 of all hardcover novels sold in the U.S. is attributed to him. This isn’t just the number of sales; this is the number of titles put out. How appropriate that the journalist titled his article "James Patterson Inc."

Criticism
Is it that success attracts criticism or is the criticism warranted? An ABC News article quotes Patterson as saying that he wants to entertain and he wants "to play to a big house."

"I think that it’s important that they pick up books that they’re going to love," he said. "I think a lot of the stuff that are thrown at them is just not that interesting to them."

That is the quintessential Patterson. He wants to sell books that people read, not win some literary parlor prize.

"You know, years ago I read ‘Ulysses,’ and I went, wow! This is unbelievable and I’m not capable of this level of writing so I’ve got to find something else because … I can’t write something that great."

He might not be James Joyce, but so far James Patterson seems to be doing just fine.

Stephen King, yes the Stephen King has called Patterson a "terrible writer" who produces "dopey thrillers".

Critic S. T. Joshi, in his 2009 book Junk Fiction: America’s Obsession with Bestsellers analyses some of Patterson’s books and concludes they are dreadful.

What does Mr. Patterson have to say? In the Time article of July 2010, 10 Questions for James Patterson, we find the following Q & A:

Q: What do you say to critics like author Stephen King who say you are not a great prose stylist?

A: I am not a great prose stylist. I’m a storyteller. There are thousands of people who don’t like what I do. Fortunately, there are millions who do.

Thousands who don’t like his books, millions who do. Hmmm, is he laughing all the way to the bank? A New York Times article dated January 2010, talks of Patterson $17.4 million oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach and how, according to Forbes Magazine, Patterson has earned his publisher Hachette about $500 million over the past two years. That’s a lot of scratch.

It is curious in this NY Times article how the reporter explores the idea of a book being a consumer good and the author being a brand which is marketed the same way one would sell Skippy Peanut Butter or Grey Poupon. Mass-merchandising seems against the idea of art but this does raise the question as to whether anything popular cannot be art at the same time or whether anything popular has to be art at all. A Big Mac isn’t steak but it’s not pretending to be. It’s just a popular sin and sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Writer
Apparently, Mr. Patterson writes longhand. Wow. He passes the legal pad off to an assistant who types it up. How does he do it? What exactly does he do? Once again, the NY Times:

Patterson’s chapters are very short, which creates a lot of half-blank pages; his books are, in a very literal sense, page-turners. He avoids description, back story and scene setting whenever possible, preferring to hurl readers into the action and establish his characters with a minimum of telegraphic details.

The sheer number of books he produces involve a team of writers. His co-authors work with him to write a book according to his specs, his outline and his general idea of the story. Assembly line writing? The term could very well be applicable in this case.

The Earnings
There seem to be many different sources of earnings information and differing sources but let’s go with the following from the Houston Examiner dated August 2010:

James Patterson: $70 million
Stephanie Meyer: $40 million (author of the Twilight Saga)
Stephen King: $34 million
Danielle Steel: $32 million
Ken Follett: $30 million

Following the above are Dean Kootz, Janet Evanovich. Her earnings could actually rival Patterson’s, according to Forbes, but a move to a new publisher following a disagreement over an advance set her back.

Bringing up the rear is John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, and J.K. Rowling, whose earnings have slowed after the end of her Harry Potter series.

Janet Evanovich? There’s another name I’ve never heard of! Am I that out of touch?

Marketing
A gentleman by the name of Ron Knight has written two articles (part 1 and part 2) about James Patterson and marketing which provide an interesting analysis of how any author could better approach the idea of not just writing a book, but of merchandising it, an aspect of publishing many people probably miss. Yes, there’s art but there is also the process of getting the product to market. If you don’t get your product to market, nobody is going to buy it and if nobody buys it, well, we can fill in the blanks and those blanks add up to starving artist.

Final Word
I’ve never written a book before in my life. Like a lot of people I’ve done my share of essays, reports, etc. and now I’m doing this blog which amounts to nothing more than a thousand words or so of me shooting my mouth off about whatever my fancy dictates. But a book? Holy Hannah. I blogged about NaNoWriMo: Write a book in 1 month which seems like an impressive objective to give oneself: write a 50,000 word novel (175 pages) in November, in just 30 days. Could I ever do that? Or should I stick with a lesser goal: Writing: Less is more: the drabble. In my review of Stephen King’s book On Writing I described how the author sits down and does 2,000 words per day with the self-imposed rule of not getting up until he’s done his quota. 50,000 words in 30 days works out to an average of 1,667 per day so while difficult, it seems achievable.

James Patterson appears to be doing this all the time. Obviously he’s figured out how to remain focused and dedicated to the objective at hand and yes, in this world there are a lot of people cranking it out with the same degree of facility. [chuckles] Never mind making a million bucks, I would definitely surprise myself if I could even get through NaNoWriMo successfully. After that? Okay, then maybe I’ll try my hand at Mr. Patterson’s forte. Hmmm, how about "Harry putters in his ‘Twilight’ years"? Muggle vampires! Seems like a catchy idea for the best seller list. 🙂

Click HERE to read more from William Belle.

References

Wikipedia: James Patterson

NY Times: James Patterson Inc.
By Jonathan Mahler – January 20, 2010
This is an excellent article and very thorough in its exploration of Patterson. The reporter spent time with the author, interviewing him and visiting his home to see where much of the work is done.

Time Magazine: 10 Questions for James Patterson – July 5/2010

Guinness World Records Names James Patterson As New Record Holder
June 1/2009

James Patterson And You: Part I
by Ron Knight – Mar 22/2010

James Patterson And You: Marketing
by Ron Knight – Mar 24/2010

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