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James Patterson: the bestseller factor
04.10.07 | Katherine Rushton
James Patterson has spent the past few weeks at his Palm Beach home, recovering from minor surgery, and has "written 10 books in that time", he says. It is a joke—underscored by a throaty laugh—but not one that is as far-fetched as it sounds.
When we speak at 11 a.m., he has already been at work on three "active projects" 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.
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.
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."
Not surprisingly, he is quick to pour cold water on this description. "Let's not talk about a factory. There's no factory. There's my little office. I have nobody here," he says, speaking like he writes. "There is a level of frustration when people go 'oh, he probably doesn't even look at the covers'. I mean, give me a break! Come and live with me for a while. I am a tireless machine."
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. "When I do as many as nine—when it's that bad—I wish that I'd just done the first draft too," he says, wryly.
It is clear that this creative operation delivers. According to Nielsen BookScan, Patterson'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.
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: "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," he says—before adding blithely that he is "the number-one thriller writer in the world".
Patterson'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 "wanted to eat, too".
"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—those crucifix things—blinking like in one of these bad noir movies," he recalls. "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: 'I must get a job. I must get out of this room.'"
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. "It was a wonderful, idyllic relationship. And then she died of a brain tumour. That's why I sort of threw myself into advertising. I just couldn't stand to be by myself for 10 seconds." But the culture at Thomson changed; there was "blood on the floor", 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 and his nine-year-old son, Jack.
Patterson grew up on a diet of literary classics but humbly assumed he would always fall short of that sort of literary genius. "I was reading Ulysses for the second or third time when I thought: 'I can never do anything great.' I thought: 'This is great and I don't just want to do a pretty good literary novel; it doesn't appeal to me.'"
Then he chanced upon commercial blockbusters and found a genre he thought he could excel at. Patterson recalls: "I read The Day of the Jackal and The Exorcist and I went 'ooh, these are fun too, in their own strange ways, and I could maybe do something that could rival one of these'. That seemed realistic to me and I tried to do it as well as I could."
His thrillers are a long way from horror, but they can get pretty bloody. Even his Women's Murder Club series—where the action spins out of domestic scenarios such as shopping—are populated by hardened cops and hacks in pursuit of psychologically damaged villains. His children's and teens' series, on the other hand, are full of superheroes: Daniel X has "the ultimate superpower—to create", while the stars of the Maximum Ride series are a group of flying child mutants, who wage war against global warming. None of them is verbose. "I'm a fan of character best revealed by action. What we do is more important than how we cerebrate about a certain moral problem."
He puts a lot of his success down to that famed staccato style, and a lack of extraneous detail. "In a lot of books, you know more about the subsidiary characters than you know about your spouse. That's not the way life really works," he says.
"My kind of storytelling is very colloquial. It doesn't have a lot of detail—but that's the way we tell stories to one another verbally."
The years Patterson spent in advertising have also continued to serve him well, and he is instinctively aware of what defines him as a "brand". He has his own media company, which designs and produces all of his ad campaigns, and he occasionally gets involved with designing the covers.
But as far as the man himself is concerned, all the marketing and design paraphernalia is "a whole ball of wax—something that people have just laid on". The essence of any brand is "a connection between human beings and something, and it is all built on trust".
He points to Robert Ludlum as an example of what happens when that "contract" with readers is broken. "He was insanely popular and wrote books that people responded to well. He changed editors and something happened—he went from being the most successful thriller writer in America to being an also-ran before he died." The weak links on Patterson's own list of bestsellers worried him so much that he went back to rewrite Black Sunday.
So far, Patterson's co-author system hasn'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.
The bombardment will begin in January with 7th Heaven (part of the Women's Murder Club series), followed by romance Sundays at Tiffany's, young adult novel The Dangerous Days of Daniel X and non-fiction title Against All Odds, in addition to his regular stream of character-led thrillers.
What drives a person to take on this workload? "I just love to tell stories. I get a kick out of it," Patterson says. In fact, he enjoys mapping them out more than actually writing them.
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 £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 genres. Patterson will not be pinned down on how much he is getting, save to say: "Lots, lots, lots—a lot more than I deserve. It's just a by-product now." But he adds: "I don't think we drove a hard bargain; I don't think anybody blinked."
The move was brokered by Robert Barnett, the US lawyer now doing the rounds with Tony Blair's memoirs, and a popular figure with mega-authors because he charges for his time and not on a percentage basis.
Other publishers grizzle that RH's powerplay with Patterson was exclusively about market share, and that it will be impossible to make a profit from his books. Patterson says not: "Here's reality. Here'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'm being paid lots, but not so much that you would put even a dent in those revenues. You do the math."
Random House lured Patterson after a group of its big hitters—Gail Rebuck, Peter Bowron, Richard Cable and Susan Sandon—flew out to visit him. "They wowed me," Patterson recalls. "They hit a lot of things that I thought were right-on. They felt the covers weren't very good; I had not liked the covers at all—I kept saying I wasn't keen on them. Smart, smart, smart, smart, smart. That's my thing about Random House."
They also came armed with detailed market research, which found that only 50% of thriller fans in the UK currently know who Patterson is. "They just sat there rubbing their hands together with glee when they found out. They went: 'Oh my God, this is great, because a lot of people have not been exposed to James yet'," Patterson says. He wants to see that awareness grow to 80% or 90%. Random House is adamant that the goal is achievable.