Home » Bestsellers, The Business of Writing » James Patterson: how the bestseller factory works

James Patterson: how the bestseller factory works

21 March 2014

From The Telegraph:

The book sales have been counted and verified and the results are in: James Patterson, author of tomes such as Mistress and Private Berlin, is the world’s best-selling author since 2001.

To call Patterson prolific would be an understatement. The ad man-turned-author has put his name to 130 novels, 15 of which have publish dates in 2014 alone. But even when you divide his estimated 300 million booksales by that number, it still results with a healthy 2.3 million copies sold per title. His website claims that in 2011, a quarter of all hardback thriller novels sold were written by Patterson, and since 2006 one in every 17 novels bought in America boasted his name.

. . . .

The 130 Patterson-branded novels have approximately 45,651 pages between them. It has been 38 years since his first publication, which is 14,185 days. Bearing in mind that Patterson takes the weekends off to relax in his palatial $17.4 million Palm Beach home, and presumably celebrates Thanksgiving and other bank holidays by not putting pen to paper (he writes only in longhand), then that’s still 4.7 published pages he has consistently written every working day since 1976.

The truth of the matter is that he has help. Although Patterson only became a full-time writer in 1996, since 2002 just 20 per cent of his novels have been entirely written by him.

Link to the rest at The Telegraph and thanks to J.J. for the tip.

Bestsellers, The Business of Writing

56 Comments to “James Patterson: how the bestseller factory works”

  1. If it sounds like cheating, Patterson’s model of working suggests otherwise. The novice authors become instant bestsellers and often attract book deals of their own, if not royalties. Patterson even said in 2009, with an entirely straight face: “They actually pay me. Because they’re learning so much”.

    Ugh.

  2. Well, at least she got the “Factory” part right.

    I wonder how long it took her to find the “put his name to” part.

    Shenanigans.

  3. This sickens me. I don’t think books should be allowed to say they are written by someone if they weren’t. It’s false advertising. A pen name is one thing (like a performance name), but using ghost writers and then advertising it as being written by a famous author is flat-out wrong. Even if he edited them, it should only say “as edited by”, or some such.

    • V.C. Andrews is still writing nearly thirty years after her death.

    • Patterson is more of a producer/director, in movie terms.

      The word is he writes outlines for the whole book and each individual chapter so he controls the narrative tone, themes, and plot. He provides the creativity and farms out the wordsmithing.

      Factory is actually a very accurate description of his style of co-writing but since he does contribute to the building of the story and gives clear billing to his associates it isn’t really ghost writing. The closest equivalent is a TV show writing staff.

      It is a clever way to leverage his brand and book marketing savvy. Can’t say I would go out of my way to buy his books but he’s open enough about his methods.

      • I think the TV show writing staff is an apt way of looking at it. I just hope his staff writers get paid similarly well as TV staff writers.

      • If true, fair enough. I still don’t like it, and am loathe to call him a novelist at this point. I will give him credit for being a savvy businessman, though. Pretty brilliant in that respect.

    • Though the amount he edits is more full-on rewriting. Having done that level between me and my collaborator on another project (though we’re drafting together too), I disagree. It’s collaboration.

      I have an article where he describes in great detail exactly how he edits and he’s revising/redrafting while incorporating their material. It’s completely collaborative with him getting the final say.

      • It’s not much different from the old Stratemeyer Syndicate (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins), except that at least “Carolyn Keene” was a fictional being (though a closely kept secret).

      • It makes no sense that he would hire someone else to write his books if he’s doing full re-writes, and would still require immense time if he writes long-hand, as the article suggests. He probably does minor edits, and gives guidance. Either way, he’s savvy as a businessman. I can’t argue with his monetary success, even if I dislike his method.

        • It is not the same as drafting in the first place. As someone that finds revision easier than drafting, I get it. I’ve USED this method, just on myself or a balanced collaboration instead. He saves a minimum of a third of the normal writing time. Why wouldn’t he like that?

    • On Patterson’s books, both his and the other author’s names appear on the cover.

      • That is better than a full-on ghost-writer, so good on the other authors for getting some credit. That restores some of my respect. Still not a fan, though.

        • This wasn’t always true. It’s my understanding that some of the early Alex Cross books were ghost written, with no credit given to the ghost. I only know this because I once stumbled across a writer’s website that listed a Cross book as one he had written. Maybe it was a lie, but he was a known midlister and it seemed legit.

          Wish I could remember his name.

    • Oh, please, don’t be so naive. Should every designer sew his own clothes?

      Ghost writing is an old tradition. With few exceptions, every “celebrity” book ever written was written by a writer for hire and some make quite a bit of money at it. I’ve even done it myself for a very popular celebrity and was paid handsomely.

      I once met a woman who is the real author behind a VERY famous romance writer, and was being paid enough money that she can tool around the country in a private plane.

      Most readers don’t care who really wrote the book. They’re buying a brand. And with books as mediocre as Patterson’s it really doesn’t matter which factory worker churned it out, as long as the readers are happy.

      • Naive? I’m not the one comparing writing to factory work. THAT is naive. Your comparison is like saying that writers should print and glue their own books together, which is most certainly not my argument.

        I know that most celebrity books are ghost-written. That’s part of why I don’t buy them. I simply don’t appreciate being lied to about who produced something. Would you want to buy an “original” signed painting by Picasso, only to find out it was actually painted by his student-in-training Pepe? (And yes, some of the master painters did that.) I consider that disingenuous at best, and fraudulent at worst.

        What made me more ill than anything was him saying that these writers pay him to write his books for him. That’s just sick and pathetic. But, if they do so willingly, it’s their own problem.

        • I think you’re in the minority.

          • Could be, but I really don’t think I’m as much the minority as you would believe. I stopped reading a once-favorite author of mine because of the same issue where ghost writers had been used. The writing quality of his epic fantasy series had degenerated so woefully that I never finished it, and will never buy another of his books again. But it wasn’t just me: there is an entire website forum of disgruntled readers who started out as immense fans of his, but ended up being punitive haters. (And I’m not merely speaking about issues with plot, but literally the quality of the writing. Large portions of his previous books were essentially copy/pasted into later novels, with copious amounts of flashbacks and expositions which sounded as though they were written by emo high-school kids.)

  4. I think it shows in the product.

    I haven’t bought/read one of his books in ten years.

  5. I’m expecting a call from Stephen King any day now. He has to recognize the skillz eventually.

  6. So he writes 20% of his own novels. I wonder if he has ever just tossed a random 15,000 words on paper (since he writes long-hand) and told his workers to fill in the rest. Something like,
    John…blue…killed…scared…Silvia…found…passive voice…bikini…Ferrari…apple…oatmeal

    Now go finish my novel so that I can put my name on it.

  7. He’s just taken the “writing as business rather than art” thing and run with it to the extreme and profitably crank-it-out level. The Henry Ford of fiction. As long as folks want to read that, he will continue to drown in dollars. It would be nice if he paid those who are making the assembly-line possible a lot better. IT’s not like he’s gonna be poor.

  8. Hmmm. On the one hand, he’s helping other authors earn money (though it would be interesting to look at the contract terms). And those authors would have gone into this with their eyes wide open, hopefully after getting an IP lawyer to look at the paperwork before they signed.

    On the other hand, it feels…icky. If I was a fan, I would feel cheated. I would expect to be buying his work, not some other writer’s blood, sweat, and tears. Although, their names do go on the cover with his and make them appear to be co-authors. Overall, his reviews still average four star.

  9. Ashe Elton Parker

    I consider it theft of other writers’ valuable time (however useless Patterson may feel it to be to his “coauthors” otherwise) and talent/skills (however lacking Patterson may believe them to be initially). After wasting my time writing someone else’s books when I have ideas of my own knocking around in my head all the time, I wouldn’t be gratefully willing to pay that person for the “privelege” of writing THEIR stories. Especially if they’re already so rich they own a multi-million dollar home.

    I’d consider myself a fool for for drinking the Kool Aid of that author’s fame.

    And no, I wouldn’t consider going into even a more balanced collaboration. I want my writing to be MINE. Even if I’m “paying” by not somehow attaching myself to some more famous author’s coattails. To me, it’s not worth the trip.

    And if he’s trying to claim, “I’m helping them LEARN the skills necessary for a successful writing career!” I don’t buy it. Where I come from, it’s called Paying It Forward, and you do it out of love for the craft, not for your own gain. Even if you yourself never needed the assistance you’re handing out.

    Never has any other author I’ve met online or in person – any other WRITER, published or unpublished – charged me for any of the advice and assistance they’ve given me, from critiques of my work to plotting assistance, to advice on what’s necessary for becoming an Indie Pubber or going about, if I wished, following the Trad route.

    They’ve all done it for free, out of the kindness of their hearts, because they love words and care about more books getting out there, not because they saw dollar signs and a fool. I do the same things for the same reasons, and not because I need the money (and I’m one of several who I know who could really USE it). I Pay Forward because I love the words, and I know what it’s like to be a struggling writer, a newbie to the Publishing (any publishing) world.

    Patterson may be a writer. He may be an excellent storyteller. But he’s a greedy one, if he thinks using all these writers is an appropriate way of going about writing HIS books, especially when all he’s doing is providing piddly outlines and critiquing, and they’re putting in the bulk of the creative work. Personally, I feel if he wants the books his outlines describe to be written the way he wants them to be, he should write them himself.

    • He’s not just providing piddly outlines and critiquing. There are so many articles out there where he explains this process in extraordinary detail.

      I am in a balanced collaboration where we did all phases together, but I have done and had my collaborator do exactly what he does in “editing.”

      If I write a scene and go, “Your characters and I don’t think I got them right,” my collaborator usually agrees with me and rewrites the entire thing, expanding and working with it while keeping the gist and my characters’ dialogue. Same thing happens on the other side.

      In this case, they are all Patterson’s. He does the outline alone. He gets their material and does that deep-level revision on the entire book because he gets the last word.

      Frankly, there’s no reason it couldn’t be a great deal for the collaborator. He doesn’t hide what he’s doing and if they’re interested, they get certain benefits. If they don’t like collaborating or sharing IP, then they don’t do that kind of deal.

    • Do you object to Kindle Worlds?
      Work for hire TV and Movie derivatives?

      Same here, except Patterson doesn’t just originate the IP and edit the story but also collaborates on the individual volumes. He gives full credit and doesn’t pretend to do anything but what he does.

      It’s a non-traditional way of working, but so what?
      We’re in an age where new ways of working are welcome, right?
      I see no fault there.

  10. When both writers have their names on the cover it can give the second writer a significant bump in the number of readers checking out that writer’s solo work. It doesn’t always work, but then neither do the fans of Star Wars novels always follow those writers to their non-franchise fiction.

  11. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was the master of that sort of thing. “Carolyn Keene” is still cranking out Nancy Drew books 84 years after the first one rolled off the press.

  12. Without regard to what you think of his process, he is proving KKR and DWS’s contention that you have to have a lot of books out there to succeed.

    M

    • I’ve read the free stuff KKR and DWS put out, and feel I’ve got my money’s worth.

      Patterson has found a profitable model, and I think he shares more of the benefits with his authors than the Stratemeyer syndicate did.

      • I adore her Fey series and am very much considering plunking down money for Alien Influences. Some of her work is so-so for me, some outright repugnant, but some I found absolutely amazing.

        Dean’s is off-the-wall oddball and so most of the time, I’ll read but wouldn’t pay for it, but I won’t deny for what it’s meant to be, it works. I’m just not into what it’s meant to be.

        In their case as anyone else’s, some is good, some not so good, and some’s just not to one’s taste.

  13. I met one of his collaborators at Bouchercon last year. Interesting guy, and he had nothing but good things to say about his experience. I was surprised. He got paid well, learned a lot, and had a lot of help setting himself up to go solo.

  14. As Pete mentions, this is a great deal for everyone involved.

    Baen books does this all the time, arranging collaborations of one of their big name authors with one of their newer authors. The big name outlines the story and reviews the work. The small name writes it. Both get exposure and money.

    This is also how most of the Hickman/Weiss Dragon Lance novels were written. Hickman did the outlines. Weiss did the writing.

    • Eric Flint’s 163x/Grantville Gazette volumes come to mind.
      That series is well on the way to becoming an industry in its own right. They’ve already outstripped Baen’s capacity and added a line of digital only titles from the Gazette material.

  15. A lot of the more prominent comic book artists work on a studio system, where they do layouts and pencil work on the foreground characters/objects and assistants/collaborators do the backgrounds. Some studios have multiple artists that can imitate the studio lead’s style and work over quick breakdowns to multiply the amount of credited (and paying) work the frontman can output. Many of those assistants have later moved on to prominence and projects in their own name, much as some renaissance apprentices became masters in their own right.

    Not sure how long Patterson has been working his version of the studio system or whether any of his collaborators have gone on to prominence on their own but there is the potential there for an apprentice system that can help the collaborators hone their craft fairly quickly.

    His titles don’t often venture into my areas of interest (SF&F) but I wouldn’t be adverse to picking up books done this way from some of my favorite authors.

  16. I don’t get the upset some people have. This arrangement is nothing like being a Sweet Valley High author.

  17. Patterson’s method does not bother me. I’ve read a few of his books myself. Not anymore, because I don’t care for them, but that’s personal taste, not a critique of his business model.

  18. I would be thrilled to write with Patterson. I would learn a hell of a lot.

    Saying you wouldn’t read a book because it’s a collaborative work of art is like that saying you won’t be an Apple computer because it wasn’t all built by hand by Steve Jobs. Sheesh.

    And if anything, it’s clear that it’s a lot harder to run a creative factory like Patterson than to simply write a novel. In fact, it’s probably as much harder (which is why it is rarer) than writing a novel is than having merely an idea of one. If you think it’s not work to work with someone else, you’ve obviously never tried it. It’s a lot more than Mad Libs. That kind of dismissal makes me think of all those jealous non-writers who say, “I could write a book in a weekend and it would be way better than Harry Potter and Twilight and DeVinci Code combined!”

    When we see someone successful, it’s human nature to want to tear them down. But a better approach is to ask what they are doing right and learn from it.

  19. I don’t have any problem with Patterson collaborating with anybody he wants, in whatever way both parties agree to. What I find extremely icky is his attitude about the other authors’ compensation. He’s apparently not paying them (much) and claims some of them pay HIM?

    These authors need to wise up. They’re being taken advantage of. If it’s actually worth it for any of them in the long run, I’ll take four poops and die.

  20. I like Patterson, pretty much because all others authors hate him. They’re just jealous of his success, his output, and his money.

    They should be jealous of his writing, but instead they just lambast it. Oh yeah, what was your name again? Right.

  21. Interesting opinions about how books should be or should not be written. How about art? Many decades ago I saw an “artist” who was selling large abstract canvases, for tens of thousand of dollars, which he didn’t paint. He hired students and other starving artists to do the work. I’m not sure if he did any of the designs, or simply selected which ones to be painted. He was selling these canvases under his “artist” name, not as a promoter who he really was.
    A book just like a piece of art is made of two parts, the subject/story and the writing skill. If Patterson is prolific at creating stories, and not enough time to write them, why not employ a good skills writer to make books out of them? I checked a few of his books and many of them have the collaborating author’s names along with his. The writers also get paid. And let’s not forget that there are many skilful writers who love to write, but are short on good stories.
    Personally I wouldn’t sell a painting under my name, which I didn’t paint. Or at least I feel that way. But when it comes to a book, which gets extensively edited, would I feel the same if someone co-wrote it with me, or wrote it for me? Considering that I have over 400+ sketches that need painting, and another 50+ stories that need writing, and untold number of melodies that need arrangements and recording what should I do? Give birth to some of these babies and not all will be born, or use incubators and all of them will be born? Something to ponder.

  22. I don’t know what the contracts are like between James Patterson and his ghostly collaborators. Presumably, being ghosts, they don’t have to eat a lot or even sleep, just leave their vague etchings on the page to be edited by him. If I had a lot of ghosts haunting my house, then it sounds like a good way to put them to use instead of having them mope about, creating cold spots. Maybe that’s why he lives in Palm Beach.

    It’s not a writing process I particularly understand or would be a big fan of for myself, but then again, I don’t play well with others, even when I can see through them. So much of my story and character insights emerge in the day-to-day drudgery of the always blinking cursor–my blinking cursor, not anyone else’s. I wouldn’t have completed a novel without my particular process, and presumably, James Patterson wouldn’t have completed many of his novels without his. As long as the ghosts have signed a contract . . . perhaps he pays them more than they would get trying to hawk their own books to Random Penguin? I wouldn’t be surprised. I work for Corporate America, and they’re far too dull to believe in the supernatural, even when the supernatural has an impact on the bottom line. Since so few believe in them, I bet ghost writers get paid even less than most live writers do.

    Perhaps the ghosts are writing James Patterson fan fiction as a learning process. Apprentice artists often imitate a particular style to learn their craft, then discard that style when they no longer need it–for instance, if you look at early Salvador Dali paintings, they have an impressionistic feel. And Jackson Pollock did a lot of realistic work before his distinctive “Jack the Dripper” style emerged. I’ve often thought of fan fiction this way, apprentice writers trying out different styles before they find their own voice. I didn’t know ghosts did it too, but then the supernatural often surprises me.

  23. As long as his collaborators aren’t being cheated, that part’s fine.

    As long as his readers aren’t being lied to, that part’s fine.

    I’m neither one, so I’ll keep my mouth shut.

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