Patterson: Random's power play
Who has had more number one bestsellers around the world in the past five years than Dan Brown, JK Rowling, Tom Clancy and John Grisham combined? The answer, Random House boldly proclaims, is James Patterson.
It doesn’t seem quite right to describe Patterson as a “writer” – this former chairman of ad agency J Walter Thomson is effectively a brand manager, presiding over a production line of thrillers with other authors. He sketches out the characters and plot twists – and then ensures delivery of his trademark punchy sentences and two-page chapters. As Time magazine wrote last year: “Patterson is the world’s greatest bestseller factory, and depending on how you look at it, he’s either a damn good writer or the Beast of the coming literary apocalypse.” He seized control of his own marketing in 1992, when he filmed the television advert for his first Alex Cross novel, and he still ensures all his American book jackets have with the trademark giant huge type.
The Patterson brand is so formidable, so trusted by thriller fans, that one of his own co-writers (Andrew Gross) has just debuted in the top 10 with his first solo novel. A few years ago Patterson’s British publisher Headline mooted the idea he could turn out five books a year – to the mirth of competitors. Yet his fans lapped them up and Headline reaped rewards. So now, with his new UK team at Random, he will step up to eight books a year from 2008 – including a graphic novel, romances, and teen fiction.
Having shelled out many millions to lure him, partly to match Hachette's UK book market share lead, Random has to deliver. It is promising primetime TV ads for every thriller, as well as a less testosterone-driven cover style to lure those all-important female readers. Random has certainly got a more reliable asset than if it had spent the same money acquiring an independent publisher - even if the backlist stays with Headline, But the big question is whether it can squeeze yet more sales from this already dominant fiction brand. Will another step up in output erode the impact of each book? Are there any mass market retailers left without glossy dumpins of cut-price paperbacks? And will romance readers really lap up Patterson-branded love stories?