Several years ago at a gathering of marketing experts in the United States a Harvard Business School professor named John Deighton had a disorienting experience. The Direct Marketing Association—which represents that maligned segment of society responsible for sending junk mail, unsolicited faxes and ‘commercial email”—had invited thriller writer James Patterson to deliver a lecture. By some measures Patterson is the world’s most commercially successful author and as he listened Deighton began to see why.
Patterson didn’t discuss literary technique.
He spoke of TV advertising and brand penetration and about how and where his books were displayed in shops. ‘I’d never actually heard a product speak,” said Deighton, recalling the lecture. ‘It was like listening to a can of Coca-Cola describe how it would like to be marketed.”
These days Deighton uses Patterson’s example to teach his MBA students the secrets of creating a blockbuster product. And Patterson continues to prove a worthy case-study. Despite a relatively low profile compared with authors such as John Grisham and Tom Clancy, and a near-total absence of critical acclaim, Patterson (60) has had more number-one bestsellers in the past five years than Grisham, Clancy, JK Rowling and Dan Brown combined. He reportedly sells more than $120-million worth of books a year.
The ‘by the same author” page of his latest novel lists 48 previous titles, which he produces at an average of three a year, and sometimes far more, often working with collaborators in a back-and-forth process whereby he supplies detailed plot outlines, then edits drafts written by others.
He is a former advertising executive and has on occasion paid for his own TV advertisements and market research. ‘James Patterson has mastered the art (if you can call it that) of writing mindless, page-turning bestsellers that sell millions of copies, then disappear as quickly as last night’s fast-food meal,” a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper once wrote—an assessment the author’s US publisher still uses in promotional material, albeit in subtly altered form: ‘Patterson has mastered the art of writing page-turning bestsellers—Chicago Sun-Times.”
The headquarters of the Patterson blockbuster factory—though he hates the word ‘factory”—is the enormous colonial-style home he shares with his wife, Susan, and 10-year-old son on a spit of land in Palm Beach, Florida, an enclave of the ultra-rich. Here in a small, upstairs study overlooking an inlet, about 15 of Patterson’s projects are spread out in neatly labelled stacks.He works on them from about 5.30am, seven days a week, in longhand.
Something about him seems at odds with his surroundings; he is a compulsive worker in a playground of the wealthy, gazing at the sparkling Atlantic Ocean as he concocts sordid storylines about dismembered bodies wrapped in bin liners. On the wall there is a photo of Bill Clinton disembarking from Air Force One with a copy of When The Wind Blows, a Patterson novel, tucked under his arm.
Patterson’s books are designed to be addictive in an almost physiological way, cycling rapidly between tension and resolution.
Sentences are short. Chapters are rarely more than three pages and usually end on cliffhangers. His titles are completely unimaginative, but they dangle the promise that the next fix is imminent.
His most famous series, featuring African-American pathologist Alex Cross, are called Jack and Jill, Cat and Mouse, Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue; the Women’s Murder Club series, starring the hard-bitten detective Lindsay Boxer, are called 1st To Die, 2nd Chance, 3rd Degree and so on. (Patterson deals with the challenges of writing in the first person as a black man and a woman mainly by ignoring the matter.) His latest, 7th Heaven, is loaded with crime-fiction clichés: ‘I stared at the fire-ravaged body of Patty Malone—who had committed these brutal murders? And why?” (But you read all the way to the end, despite yourself.)
Patterson has no pretensions to highbrow literature. ‘Look, I’m good at parts of this,” he says, in his strong New York accent. ‘I’m certainly not a world-class stylist. But the storytelling is pretty cool and the narrative power of the stuff is usually pretty strong.” He writes ceaselessly, he sayss, because it doesn’t exhaust him. ‘These books are entertainments,” he says. ‘It’s a very different process than if you’re trying to write Moby Dick or The Corrections. That’s painful. That’s different from very simple, plot-oriented storytelling. If I was writing serious fiction, I’d want more rest time.”
Patterson is open about using collaborators, though he insists his plot outlines are much more than a rough sketch of an idea. ‘As one of my agents said: ‘If you gave me this outline, I could write the book.’”
Growing up ‘in the sticks” in Newburgh, New York, the son of an insurance executive and a teacher, Patterson wasn’t much of a reader, though he recalls being ‘pathologically driven to be number one in my class”. He started reading during long nights working at a mental hospital, while a student: ‘I didn’t read bestsellers at all; it was all plays, poetry, Jean Genet. All these voices I’d never heard before—because there were no Jean Genets in Newburgh.”
He started ‘scribbling”, but took a rigorously pragmatic attitude to his own talents. ‘I was reading Ulysses for the second or third time when I thought: ‘I can never do anything great,’” he has said. ‘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.’”
In the early 1970s he arrived in New York City and got an entry-level copywriting job at advertising agency J Walter Thompson, moved into a small flat and began writing detective books on his kitchen table. His first effort was rejected by 30 publishers, he claims—a standard component of the blockbuster novelist’s tale of rags to riches—but was eventually published in 1976 as The Thomas Berryman Number.
The catastrophe he describes as the defining event of his life struck a few years later when his long-term girlfriend was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She and Patterson had been strolling along Broadway after breakfast one weekend when she collapsed, heralding a decline that lasted several years. Her eventual death made him still more relentless at work. ‘I didn’t want to be by myself for 10 minutes,” he says. ‘I didn’t want to go on vacation, nothing.” To escape his thoughts he spent long days at the ad agency. By 41 he was the youngest chief executive in the firm’s history—all the while producing a book a year. (This seems to have been a rocky period in his personal life; a woman he was seeing at the time, Christina Sharp, later sued him, claiming he had plundered material from her letters to him and from her own unpublished writing for his novels. The charges were eventually dropped.)
Patterson finally gave up the day job a decade ago, but the ad man’s sensibility remains fundamental to the thriller-production system over which he presides. His focus is on building the ‘James Patterson” brand and so it makes perfect commercial sense to find a reliable subcontractor for the manufacturing part of the operation—the writing—while he concentrates on product design—the plot outlines—and on promotion. When his first Alex Cross novel, Along Came A Spider, was published in 1992, Patterson’s publisher declined to fund TV advertisements, so the author produced one himself. (It was one of two Alex Cross books later made into films starring Morgan Freeman.)
Unlike many authors, he relishes the business of marketing. In the United Kingdom Random House recently wooed him away from rival publisher Headline. What seems to have impressed Patterson most was that Gail Rebuck, the head of Random House UK, conducted research showing that only 50% of British thriller readers had heard of him so far: she spoke the language of audience share, in which he is fluent.
On one occasion Patterson even changed the ending of a book— Cat and Mouse, published in 1997 — after readers of the advance copies complained that the ending was frustrating. That kind of audience-testing is common in Hollywood, but not in publishing.
‘One of the things that writers get into—and this is okay if you’re Tolstoy or Proust or whoever—is to say [of a novel]: ‘This is it. This is the best it can be,’” Patterson says. ‘But we’ll let an editor fiddlefuck all over with it. Why is that person God, any more than, say, 20 readers?”
The Patterson brand has diversified in recent years: he seems to stretch, octopus-like, across the terrain of commercial fiction, reaching a tentacle into every newly lucrative sector. There is, for example, something Harry Potterish about both his ‘young-adult” series, Maximum Ride and Daniel X; before that, in the wake of The Bridges of Madison County, there was romance—Suzanne’s Diary For Nicholas, which he brazenly described as ‘Patterson meets Bridges of Madison County meets Nicholas Sparks meets the Horse Whisperer”.
Only the romance category caused him any difficulty. ‘For some reason the couple of love stories I’ve done have been very, very hard,” he says.
‘I don’t know why.” He considers this for a moment. ‘Well, I do know why. I insist on pace and that’s much harder with romance. It’s hard to do romances where you can’t stop turning the pages.”
Once or twice Patterson has expressed the hope that he might one day become a ‘badge” author—a novelist whose books one might boast of having read.
(He mentions Alice Sebold, the author of The Lovely Bones, as a case in point.) So is he bothered by sniffiness from the ranks of ‘serious” authors and reviewers? It is the only question during our interview that draws a flash of hostility. ‘These people who have monumentally unsuccessful lives and who are talented and bright and then somehow think that they’re smarter than everyone else.” He seems to mean the writers of bad reviews.
‘I question that a little, honestly. If you’re so bright, why is your life so horrifying?”
But the negativity quickly evaporates. It’s hard to stay hostile in Palm Beach: the sun is shining, the yachts are meandering past the window and Patterson’s hallway is full of silver balloons, in preparation for his son’s birthday party the next day. All is well; commercial fiction, ultimately, is a numbers game and the numbers are unequivocally on Patterson’s side. ‘There are thousands of people who don’t like what I do,” he says. ‘Fortunately, there are millions who do.”—