James Patterson: bestseller machine


The NY Times has a lengthy profile of bestselling (co-)writer James Patterson. I have to say, whatever you think of Patterson’s books (and I haven’t read them based on how they’re described) it’s fucking fascinating.

Dude started out reading high-brow work, and won an Edgar Award for his debut novel–a noirish crime thriller with (as described in the article) no real hero. After that he dabbled in different genres, trying to find his footing, and eventually came into his own with his thrillers.

He also stopped worrying about sentences. Referring to that award-winning novel:

“The sentences are superior to a lot of the stuff I write now, but the story isn’t as good. I’m less interested in sentences now and more interested in stories.”

Which reminds me of something Lawrence Watt-Evans has said (and I paraphrase and hope he corrects me if I got it wrong) more than once that there are good reasons to write well, but sales isn’t one of them because most readers don’t care.

On top of that, he insisted on a TV commercial when standard wisdom was that TV doesn’t sell books, and when his publisher balked he produced one himself. He insisted on releasing several books a year, despite his publisher’s concern that he would dilute his brand. He works in several genres, despite concerns that he would turn off fans of his thrillers. He did targeted book tours, hired co-authors on his own dime, cut back on the amount of description in his books so the action would come to the forefront.

At this point, he has four or five employees at his publisher who handle his books and his books only. When he meets with his editorial staff, they do it in his living room. His current crop of books start with a 50-page outline which is sent to his co-writers, then he edits and revises the chapters as they write them.

One telling line is this one, though:

For all of his commercial success, though, Patterson seemed bothered by the fact that he has not been given his due — that unlike King or even Grisham, who have managed to transcend their genres, he continues to be dismissed as an airport author or, worse, a marketing genius who has cynically maneuvered his way to best-sellerdom by writing remedial novels that pander to the public’s basest instincts. “Caricature assassination,” Patterson called it.

Despite what the article said, this bothered Stephen King for a long time, too, didn’t it? No matter how much public acclaim, writers ache for critical acclaim, too.

And I have to admit that I’m skeptical of the claims that publishing’s focus on bestsellers makes it hard for new writers to break in. I certainly broke in. Others have. I’m sure it makes it hard for writers to stay in if they don’t have early success, but that’s a more nuanced point.

I was also startled by the comparison of Patterson’s co-authoring process to writing television. It’s true, isn’t it, that good work can come from collaborative work. But in a novel? I’m not sure how ready I am to accept the legitimacy of that.

Still, it’s interesting to read about all the work he put into promotion, especially since my own efforts have revolved around reposting amusing videos and complaining about my feet.