Bookplanet: There are people who are writers. Then there are guys who write for money.
The Man Who Can't Miss
James Patterson writes four best sellers a year. How does he do it? With a lot of help from friends
By LEV GROSSMAN
Literature is not a democracy. In the book world, being popular does not necessarily make you great. But if it were, and if it did, then the man sitting across the table from me in a canary-yellow mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., would be president-for-life of the literary universe, and Philip Roth would be a comptroller in North Dakota.
The man in the mansion is James Patterson. He is the author of 34 books, the last 18 of which have gone to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. All told he's sold about 100 million copies; last year they earned him something on the order of $40 million. At 58, Patterson puts out four or five books annually: mysteries, thrillers, romance novels, fantasy--he takes all comers. He's already got one out in 2006, The 5th Horseman, and it's only March. Patterson is the world's greatest best-seller factory, and depending on how you look at it, he's either a damn good writer or the Beast of the coming literary apocalypse.
When the apocalypse arrives, at least he'll be comfortable. Patterson spends most of the year in Palm Beach, three blocks from a world-class golf course. His backyard is the Intracoastal Waterway. Sitting in his airy, wood-paneled office, surrounded by about a dozen neat stacks of paper representing works in progress, he's amiable, chatty and deeply unpretentious--he refers to his writing as "scribbling." But it's at least a bit of a con--he's read practically everything, and he gets a sly kick out of reminding you of that. He references both Ibsen and Crichton, Joan Didion and Jean Genet. Before I arrived, just as a courtesy, he read my book.
Patterson grew up in a small town in upstate New York. He always wanted to be a writer, but he didn't find it necessary to starve along the way: he had a highly successful career in advertising, including a six-year run as chairman of J. Walter Thompson in North America. But he never gave up on his dream. In 1977 his first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, won an Edgar Award, the Oscar of the mystery world, although it wasn't a big commercial success. His evolution into James Patterson, The Man Who Only Writes Best Sellers, had yet to to be fulfilled.
First came the creation of the Patterson style, which dispenses with any flowery bits or extraneous details. A typical Patterson novel might have 150 chapters, but each one is just two or three pages long. His paragraphs are short too, often just one or two sentences. It's an approach that emphasizes action over style and pace over everything. "It was a little bit of an accident," he says. "I was writing a book called Midnight Club, and I'd done about 100 pages, and I was planning to really flesh them out. And I read the 100 pages, and I said, There's something interesting here. And that's where I went to just leaving a lot of stuff out."
One of the things that's fascinating about Patterson is his total lack of interest in received wisdom; another is his complete confidence in his own judgment. With 1992's Along Came a Spider, the first novel in his Alex Cross series, Patterson knew he'd written a best seller--so he took control of the way it was designed and marketed. When his publisher told him it wasn't interested in running a TV campaign, he called in a few favors at J. Walter Thompson and shot the ad with his own money. He wasn't jazzed about Spider's cover, so he redesigned it. "They'd done a cover that had a kid's sneaker on it, with a little blood on it, and I went, I don't know, it didn't do anything for me. I want the reaction to be, 'I want this!'" He blew up the title into huge letters that practically shouted across the bookstore that this book was going to give thriller readers exactly what they were looking for. Spider became Patterson's first best seller. He still designs all his own covers. Harvard Business School now teaches a case study on his marketing techniques.
But Patterson still wasn't done. He wanted to re-engineer his own creative process. He's never had a problem with writer's block, but there were just too many ideas piling up in his head. So when he and journalist Peter de Jonge came up with an idea for a golf novel, Miracle on the 17th Green, he thought, Why not just write it together? "Peter's a much better stylist than I am, and I'm a much better storyteller than he is. It's another way to do things. Why not?"
Since then Patterson has co-written eight of his novels. He'll whip up a detailed outline, then ship it off to his collaborator for a first draft. "I may talk to them on a couple-week basis," he says. "And then at a certain point I'll just take it over and write as many as seven drafts. There were a couple of them that really were a mess," he adds ruefully. "At least twice it's been, 'I wish that I just started this thing myself.'" It's rare for big-name authors to use co-writers, and rarer still for them to do it openly, but readers don't seem to mind. "When he first published a book with a co-author on the cover, we watched the performance of that book very nervously," says Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch, who edits Patterson. "But the sales were great, because his name was there, and it read like a James Patterson novel."
One collaborator, Andrew Gross, used to run the sports-equipment company Head, but his dream was to write novels, and he couldn't get any traction with publishers. One day he got a call: Patterson had seen his manuscript and wanted to have breakfast. "Basically what he said was, I've got a lot of stories to tell, and nobody has the resources to tell 'em all, and would I like to talk about a project with him?" That was the beginning of a seven-year partnership, a highly educational one for Gross--he jokes that it's the equivalent of getting an M.F.A. and M.B.A. at the same time. Gross now has a three-book deal of his own.
Patterson probably outsells Toni Morrison 10 books to 1, but his success comes at a price. He will never get respect from the literati. Most reviewers ignore him. In a culture that values high style over storytelling, pretty prose over popularity and pulse-pounding plots, he's at the extreme wrong end of the spectrum, and he knows it. And, yes, it irks him a little. "That's probably my biggest frustration," he admits. "There's something going on here that's significant, and it's not easy to do. If it was easy to do, a lot of people would do it."
It isn't easy, nor is it easy to put down, but it isn't quite art either. The fact is, Patterson is an affront to every Romantic myth of the artist we have. He's not tortured. He's not poor. He doesn't work alone, and he's way too unsentimental about his work. Of The 5th Horseman, he shrugs, saying, "I don't think it's terribly worth reading, honestly. I think it's fine for that kind of series." But maybe it's time to let go of a few Romantic myths. There's something to be said for good plotting, and for living in mansions instead of garrets, and for not taking yourself too seriously. Literature may not be a democracy, but it doesn't have to be bad business.