James Patterson: the bestseller factor

James Patterson: the bestseller factor

<p>James Patterson has spent the past few weeks at his Palm Beach home, recovering from minor surgery, and has &quot;written 10 books in that time&quot;, he says. It is a joke&mdash;underscored by a throaty laugh&mdash;but not one that is as far-fetched as it sounds.</p><p>When we speak at 11 a.m., he has already been at work on three &quot;active projects&quot; and surveys a large desk with 24 more sat in piles awaiting his attention. Some are TV scripts but most are books. Only one or two will be written entirely by him.</p><p>Patterson is effectively a brand manager, presiding over a production line of commercial blockbusters written with other authors. He maps out the fast-paced storylines, full of plot twists, and then ensures delivery of the staccato sentences and two-page chapters that have become his trademark style. </p><p>As Time magazine wrote last year: &quot;Patterson is the world&#39;s greatest bestseller factory, and depending on how you look at it, he&#39;s either a damn good writer or the Beast of the coming literary Apocalypse.&quot;</p><p>Not surprisingly, he is quick to pour cold water on this description. &quot;Let&#39;s not talk about a factory. There&#39;s no factory. There&#39;s my little office. I have nobody here,&quot; he says, speaking like he writes. &quot;There is a level of frustration when people go &#39;oh, he probably doesn&#39;t even look at the covers&#39;. I mean, give me a break! Come and live with me for a while. I am a tireless machine.&quot;<br /><br /><strong>Early bird</strong></p><p>Patterson works from 5 a.m., seven days a week, and will spend up to two months structuring each plot. His co-writer receives 70 to 90 chapter summaries, each about four lines long, and produces a first draft. Then Patterson works on it for another three or four drafts. &quot;When I do as many as nine&mdash;when it&#39;s that bad&mdash;I wish that I&#39;d just done the first draft too,&quot; he says, wryly.<br />It is clear that this creative operation delivers. According to Nielsen BookScan, Patterson&#39;s books took a 2.4% share of the entire UK fiction market last year, and have taken a 2.7% share so far in 2007. </p><p>Random House claims that he has had more number-one bestsellers around the world in the past five years than Dan Brown, J K Rowling, Tom Clancy and John Grisham combined. He counts a roster of US statesmen and British royalty among his fans: &quot;Bush senior sends me a note after almost every book. Three or four lines. Clinton has written once or twice; Princess Di was a fan; Fergie is a fan,&quot; he says&mdash;before adding blithely that he is &quot;the number-one thriller writer in the world&quot;.</p><p>Patterson&#39;s eagerness to extol his own achievements is perhaps a hangover from his previous profession: before becoming an author, Patterson was an ad man, scaling the heights of the agency J Walter Thompson to become its global chief executive. It was a move driven by pragmatism. Patterson arrived in New York City to work as a writer, but very quickly decided that he &quot;wanted to eat, too&quot;. </p><p>&quot;I had about $300. I was staying in this hotel, the Washington Jefferson on the West Side and, honest to God, outside my window was one of those red Jesus signs&mdash;those crucifix things&mdash;blinking like in one of these bad noir movies,&quot; he recalls. &quot;The room had a 12-foot ceiling and there was wallpaper with cross-hatching all over it. Someone had pencilled an X into every one of them, and I just said: &#39;I must get a job. I must get out of this room.&#39;&quot;</p><p>The bread and butter job quickly turned into a career. Patterson puts his success down to the death of his girlfriend when he was in his mid-30s. &quot;It was a wonderful, idyllic relationship. And then she died of a brain tumour. That&#39;s why I sort of threw myself into advertising. I just couldn&#39;t stand to be by myself for 10 seconds.&quot; But the culture at Thomson changed; there was &quot;blood on the floor&quot;, so he decided to get out, find a new partner and follow his dream of writing. He now divides his time between Palm Beach and New York, living with his wife of 10 years&nbsp; and his nine-year-old son, Jack.</p><p>Patterson grew up on a diet of literary classics but humbly assumed he would always fall short of that sort of literary genius. &quot;I was reading Ulys&shy;ses for the second or third time when I thought: &#39;I can never do anything great.&#39; I thought: &#39;This is great and I don&#39;t just want to do a pretty good literary novel; it doesn&#39;t appeal to me.&#39;&quot; </p><p>Then he chanced upon commercial blockbusters and found a genre he thought he could excel at. Patterson recalls: &quot;I read T<em>he Day of the Jackal</em> and T<em>he Exorcist</em> and I went &#39;ooh, these are fun too, in their own strange ways, and I could maybe do something that could rival one of these&#39;. That seemed realistic to me and I tried to do it as well as I could.&quot;</p><p>His thrillers are a long way from horror, but they can get pretty bloody. Even his Women&#39;s Murder Club series&mdash;where the action spins out of domestic scenarios such as shopping&mdash;are populated by hardened cops and hacks in pursuit of psychologically damaged villains. His children&#39;s and teens&#39; series, on the other hand, are full of superheroes: Daniel X has &quot;the ultimate superpower&mdash;to create&quot;, while the stars of the Max&shy;imum Ride series are a group of flying child mutants, who wage war against global warming. None of them is verbose. &quot;I&#39;m a fan of character best revealed by action. What we do is more important than how we cerebrate about a certain moral problem.&quot;</p><p>He puts a lot of his success down to that famed staccato style, and a lack of extraneous detail. &quot;In a lot of books, you know more about the subsidiary characters than you know about your spouse. That&#39;s not the way life really works,&quot; he says. </p><p>&quot;My kind of storytelling is very collo&shy;quial. It doesn&#39;t have a lot of detail&mdash;but that&#39;s the way we tell stories to one another verbally.&quot;<br /><br /><strong>Brand magic</strong></p><p>The years Patterson spent in advertising have also continued to serve him well, and he is instinctively aware of what defines him as a &quot;brand&quot;. He has his own media company, which designs and produces all of his ad campaigns, and he &shy;occasionally gets involved with designing the covers.</p><p>But as far as the man himself is concerned, all the marketing and design paraphernalia is &quot;a whole ball of wax&mdash;something that people have just laid on&quot;. The essence of any brand is &quot;a connection between human beings and something, and it is all built on trust&quot;.</p><p>He points to Robert Ludlum as an example of what happens when that &quot;contract&quot; with readers is broken. &quot;He was insanely popular and wrote books that people responded to well. He changed editors and something happened&mdash;he went from being the most successful thriller writer in America to being an also-ran before he died.&quot; The weak links on Patterson&#39;s own list of bestsellers worried him so much that he went back to rewrite B<em>lack Sunday</em>.</p><p>So far, Patterson&#39;s co-author system hasn&#39;t compromised trust, but it has enabled him to produce far more books. Until recently he was publishing five novels a year with Headline, but Random House, his new UK publisher as of 2008, plans to raise that output to eight.</p><p>The bombardment will begin in January with <em>7th Heaven</em> (part of the Women&#39;s Murder Club series), follow&shy;ed by romance <em>Sundays at Tif&shy;fany&#39;s</em>, young adult novel <em>The Dan&shy;g&shy;er&shy;ous Days of Daniel X</em> and non-fiction title <em>Against All Odds</em>, in addition to his regular stream of character-led thrillers.</p><p>What drives a person to take on this workload? &quot;I just love to tell stories. I get a kick out of it,&quot; Patterson says. In fact, he enjoys mapping them out more than actually writing them.</p><p>A cynic would say the move to eight books a year has more to do with money. Headline is said to have paid Patterson more than &pound;1m a year for UK and European rights to each of his books, and Random House is believed to have upped the stakes on that by more than 25%, payable across all &shy;genres. Patterson will not be pinned down on how much he is getting, save to say: &quot;Lots, lots, lots&mdash;a lot more than I deserve. It&#39;s just a by-product now.&quot; But he adds: &quot;I don&#39;t think we drove a hard bargain; I don&#39;t think anybody blinked.&quot; </p><p>The move was brokered by Robert Barnett, the US lawyer now doing the rounds with Tony Blair&#39;s memoirs, and a popular figure with mega-authors because he charges for his time and not on a percentage basis.</p><p>Other publishers grizzle that RH&#39;s powerplay with Patterson was exclus&shy;ively about market share, and that it will be impossible to make a profit from his books. Patterson says not: &quot;Here&#39;s reality. Here&#39;s X company that does not have James Patterson. In comes James Patterson, bringing an insane amount of revenue; the publisher will hire maybe one more person. I&#39;m being paid lots, but not so much that you would put even a dent in those revenues. You do the math.&quot;</p><p>Random House lured Patterson after a group of its big hitters&mdash;Gail Rebuck, Peter Bowron, Richard Cable and Susan Sandon&mdash;flew out to visit him. &quot;They wowed me,&quot; Patterson recalls. &quot;They hit a lot of things that I thought were right-on. They felt the covers weren&#39;t very good; I had not liked the covers at all&mdash;I kept saying I wasn&#39;t keen on them. Smart, smart, smart, smart, smart. That&#39;s my thing about Random House.&quot;</p><p>They also came armed with detail&shy;ed market research, which found that only 50% of thriller fans in the UK currently know who Patterson is. &quot;They just sat there rubbing their hands together with glee when they found out. They went: &#39;Oh my God, this is great, because a lot of people have not been exposed to James yet&#39;,&quot; Patterson says. He wants to see that awareness grow to 80% or 90%. Random House is adamant that the goal is achievable.<br /></p>