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The best seller who doesn’t write his own books

28 February 2013

From The Express:

As the ex-boss of the world’s best-known advertising agency and now the best-paid novelist on the planet James Patterson is used to being at the pinnacle of whichever profession he joins.

. . . .

At the last count the 65-year-old American has sold 275 million copies of his books. He has published 98 adult and children’s novels and has been the most borrowed author from British libraries for the past six years. This year alone – remember it’s still only February – he has had three number one best-sellers. According to the Forbes Magazine richest authors list he earned £62million last year, more than double his nearest rival Stephen King and five times as much as JK Rowling.

. . . .

In one of his most recent novels, Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, his god-fearing, family-loving African-American detective is called out to deal with two successive but unrelated cases on Christmas Day: one a domestic hostage stand-off, the other a terrorist launching an attack at Washington DC’s main rail station.

These two tales are told in linear order in chapters of two or three pages that don’t correspond to self-contained chunks of story and seem designed to make you feel you’re progressing through the story faster (Patterson’s own slogan, on the back of every book, is “the pages turn themselves”).

There are no subplots and the main story is so uncluttered you could probably turn it into a screenplay without omitting anything. The Arab terrorists are crude racial stereotypes and there is little suspense over the outcome because you know there’s no way the catastrophe they are planning will actually happen. But it does impel you to carry on reading, partly by making everything so easy.

The reason his literary output is so massive, at a rate of about one book a month, is that in most of his novels he doesn’t do the line-byline writing himself. He produces a treatment of 60 to 80 pages, establishing the plot and characters in detail, then hires a writer to turn it into a full-length book. He sees their work every couple of weeks, sending it back with notes to speed it up, make it more real etc, and the co-writer ends up with a decent billing (although not an equal share of the cash). When I ask if he’s a kind editor he says no writer has ever quit.

Link to the rest at The Express and thanks to Mira for the tip.

The Business of Writing

29 Comments to “The best seller who doesn’t write his own books”

  1. Bartholomew Thockmorton

    I have never read a Patterson book…simply not interested.

    And I have no plans to ever start; comittee books are a sin against nature and a dastardly slur to all talented writers.

    What…greed…what a shame…

    • I picked up one, and it was okay. Hit enough of my buttons that I got the next few. I’ve quit now, though — I’ll pick up the manga versions of that series instead, since they don’t have the hypershort chapter thing going.

      But committee books can be decent! I was a Nancy Drew addict as a kid! (Till I spotted the formula that they all adhered to, after reading 2-3 in a row: There is mystery, Nancy goes digging for clues, Nancy gets captured in the process, Nancy’s friends/family have to bail her out Barely In Time. I think I was probably… 8? 9? Maybe 10? When I got tired of the Damsel In Distress part.)

  2. “I am a freak. I love to do it. I do it seven days a week. I did it on the plane over here, I did it this morning and I’ll write when I get back to the hotel.”

    Even if he’s not writing every book himself, that’s a hell of a work ethic. Clearly has paid off for him.

  3. Writing is a business. Patterson understands this. That’s one of the big reason’s he’s become so successful.

  4. I became an irate YouTube commenter the other day. Well, not that irate, but… anyway, Patterson was talking about struggling through writers’ block and putting in long hours alone… I couldn’t help it. I… I snarked.

    Does Patterson deserve the money he makes? Yes. Does he deserve to be considered an incredible author? No. An author has to write their own books, not simply write an outline and then edit the work of another writer.

    Just sayin’.

    • My question is: does he deserve to complain about having writer’s block?

      If he’s passing off most of the writing to someone else, I don’t think so.

    • Yeah, I also kind of choked on the “My life revolves around my kid…who is in boarding school!” bit. I guess he really does outsource everything.

  5. I saw the title in the Upcoming Posts and immediately knew who it was about.

    Whats next?

  6. Patterson’s made five times what J.K. Rowling has?

    So he’s worth 5 billion?

    • Patterson’s made five times what J.K. Rowling has?

      Note, that referred to last year, not lifetime. I’m guessing Rowling is making a lot less now the Harry Potter fad has died down.

  7. I have read one Patterson book – Along Came a Spider.
    I have no desire to read another. And that was one of his highest rated books.

  8. He’s not an author. He’s a company.

  9. Traditional publishing’s finest achievement and the seeds of its destruction in the same package.

  10. When I read this, it occurred to me that, although Patterson has a publisher (although his publishing contract is much different than yours), he is really more like a publisher than anything else.

    Additionally, by acting as an author Patterson has a much better brand for his books than virtually any publisher has for its books.

    • Yeah, and Patterson’s certainly not the only big-name author who is basically a brand name with a bevy of sous writers doing the grunt work. He’s just a lot more open about it than most.

    • I think I refered to him awhile back as “The manager of a book factory”.

      But you’re right, his name/brand is what carries everything through.

    • Clive Cussler does this too.
      I was in need of a book this last summer, at a big box store with a splash of tables and saw a book with a steam engine on the cover titled “The Wrecker”. So I followed the usual selection pattern cover>copy>first page and found it interesting and purchased it (a hardcover 2/3rds the price of the rock guitar magazine I also bought..). Overall it turned into a compelling story, characters and villains that worked and cared about, and smoothly edited. The book also was well designed from end-papers, a few illustrations, fonts, layout, and showed general care in assembly. So the “puppy farm” can be done well.
      Patterson does great marketing, that’s his background. Most of the readers he’s hitting are airport newstands and other environments with high levels of reader interruption. Like the the six-year old at my elbow at the moment nudging me to look at some cartoon hand held game he’s excited about. Where was I?
      Patterson and the others are the brand. They can move across any of the publishers they want and the readers will follow them, not the publishers. An enviable position. Will we see a return to entirely phantom authors like Frank Dixon of the Hardy Boys series? Or are we there already?

    • James Patterson – the Thomas Kinkade of writers.

  11. Tom Clancy has done a very similar thing, with basically guiding writers through a story, not doing most of the writing, and still getting top billing himself. I don’t particularly care–they’re not books I read. Patterson books became so predictable that my wife and I started jokingly calling them James Pattern-son books. Every single one followed the same plot and character beats. Boring. Clearly some people don’t care, and enjoy them.

    I know some get bent out of shape over this, and I get it. As to the writer’s block thing, he still mostly comes up with the treatments, so I can see getting blocked. But it’s not quite the same as what most writers suffer.

  12. Patterson doesn’t have writer’s block, he has outliner’s block.

  13. I hate to say this but the reason his books are ’empty’ of character development is because there is none. The apprentice turns out a replica of what he/she thinks the master wants. Only the author himself can develop a character. I have read a number of Patterson books (factory products) and find there is just one mad rush through a plot with no internal working or deeper stirrings. To say he is a writer is really an insult to other writers. He is the owner of a book factory. Yes, well done to him, however, it is also sad that readers seem to like this word porridge that is so easily digested because one doesn’t have to do any mental ‘chewing’ in the reading process. “Long hours alone?” I think not. When he moves into soft furnishings and other retail stuff then we’d better watch out. I used to love Clive Cussler’s early novels as well. Then he began writing them with other people and the difference between ‘his bit’ and ‘their bit’ was so palpable that I gave up on his novels. They have become banal and like Patterson, lacking that vital spark that truly makes a best-seller. I believe Wilbur Smith’s (much younger and money mad) wife has persuaded him to also commit this heinous sin. His original publisher declined to be part of the fiasco but no worries, mate, along came another one who is only tooooooo happy to be part owner of a book factory.

  14. Bartholomew Thockmorton

    Years ago, when Christmas just days away, Wife asked me what kind of book I wanted.

    “Oh…anything by Clive Barker,” I replied.

    X-mas morning, I opened a package that obviously contained a hardback…by Clive Cussler!


  15. I discern a touch of envy in some of the comments – the green almost shows through PG’s color scheme. Disguised as disdain on one or two places… 🙂

    I have read one or two of his Dr Cross books, admittedly as travel absorbing/time killing material. They were light enjoyable reads. OK, if I was seeking literary structures, I would be disappointed – but they filled a purpose. And I have difficulty coping with competition winning literary works, anyway.

    Writing is writing. Writing is a business. Some writing is technical, some is non-fiction, some is fiction. Some is outlining for series scripts, some is blood sweat and tears novel output. But – writing is writing.

    If that effort results in a book – whether 50 shades or something ‘by’ Cussler or something ‘by’ Patterson – and readers are lining up to buy it – there is a message there if we are struggling to exceed our 1,000 or 2,000 or even 10,000 sales.

    We can stand back and throw stones. Or we can evaluate, review, assess, and decide whether we want to change our business mission. A question for the writers who are reading PG’s blog – we are in business, aren’t we?

    Just sayin…

    • John, I was going to add my own thoughts but you summarized everything I wanted to say. To answer your question, I am in business. I couldn’t care less about the literary quality of Patterson’s works, nor what it says about our culture that he enjoys such popularity. I look at him and I see a hell of a business model. Not necessarily one for everybody to try to emulate, but a hell of a model nonetheless.

      • “the literary quality of Patterson’s works”

        I would add that this is a very snobby turn of phrase that gets thrown around a lot (but only by writers and English majors/professors) but is never defined.

        It seems to me that when someone starts talking about literary quality, that person really is talking about what he/she likes, not anything substantial. Thus when someone says Patterson or James or whomever might be selling a lot but their writing sucks or is of poor quality or whatever, all they’re saying is that they personally do not like it, but they’re trying to say it in a way that sounds intellectual or or deep or some such drivel. But really they just end up coming off as arrogant douchebags.

        News flash: by definition, a piece of commercial fiction that sells millions and millions of copies is good, make that masterful, writing. And a writer who sells millions and millions of books is a far better than good writer. More like excellent. Especially when you get into the hundreds of millions like Patterson does – that is master territory, folks.

        The rest is just meaningless fluff. Instead of all the sour grapes, people really ought to be taking notes and learning how to do it as well as guys like Patterson. But it’s far easier for people to just belittle their betters to make themselves feel less insecure.

        • Uh, like I said, I was agreeing with John: many of the comments on this post seem to be envy cloaked in disdain. When I mentioned literary quality, I was alluding to the commenters who referred to Patterson’s writing as subpar and bemoaned the sad state of American culture. And as I then said, Patterson presents us with a hell of a model to follow. In other words, I agree with you. Well, except about the arrogant douchebag part. I’ve got somebody else in mind.

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