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The Henry Ford of Books

31 December 2014

From Vanity Fair:

The planet’s best-selling author since 2001, James Patterson has more than 300 million copies of his books in print, an army of co-writers, several TV deals in the works, and an estimated income of $90 million last year alone. But where’s the respect?

. . . .

It seems somehow fitting that James Patterson, the advertising Mad Man turned impresario of the global thriller industry, spends his summers perched high above the Hudson River in Westchester County, halfway between Don Draper’s Ossining and Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, where the Headless Horseman once roamed the roads by night. Perhaps no author in literary history has more seamlessly melded commerce and creepiness to create an international brand, one that has transformed a wide swath of the publishing industry and given Patterson not only a Rockefeller’s river view but a Rockefeller’s bank account to boot.

With 305 million copies of his books in print worldwide, Patterson is the great white shark of novelists, a relentless writing machine who has to keep swimming forward in order to feed, and who, together with his army of about two dozen credited co-writers, has been the planet’s best-selling author since 2001 (ahead of J. K. Rowling, Nora Roberts, Dr. Seuss, and John Grisham). Of all the hardcover fiction sold in the U.S. in 2013, books by Patterson accounted for one out of every 26. Altogether, he has produced more than 130 separate works—the “books by” page in his latest novels actually takes up three full pages. Forbes estimates his income for the year ending last June at $90 million. When I had a chance to ask Patterson about that figure, he at first said, “I don’t know,” and then followed up with “Yeah, probably.”

. . . .

“I’m sure there’s no publishing relationship like it,” Michael Pietsch—Patterson’s former editor who is now C.E.O. of Hachette Book Group (Little, Brown’s parent company)—told me recently. “Jim is the smartest person I’ve ever worked with, across a vast landscape of things you can be brilliant about—suspense, emotions, and readers’ expectations and how to work them.” Pietsch said Patterson had built “a kind of studio system in which he can imagine these stories into being, then work with co-authors so that these stories come into the world.”

Indeed, Patterson is to publishing what Thomas Kinkade was to painting, or the television producer John Wells was to a series like E.R. He is not a tortured artist in a garret but rather presides over an atelier that produces mass popular entertainment on an astonishing scale. He once said of his work, in a profile a decade ago, “I look at it the way Henry Ford would look at it.” The remark has gained currency. Patterson today is busier than ever, in the midst of his current 24-book contract, preparing to launch a TV series based on his thriller Zoo, and campaigning with personal appearances and his deep pockets in support of young-adult literacy and independent bookstores. He has also been outspoken, loudly and prominently, on the subject of the long dispute—settled in November—between Amazon and Hachette Book Group, in the course of which the online retailer had penalized Hachette writers. Because Patterson is a Little, Brown author, many of his own books felt the pinch—they were often not in stock, or were unavailable for pre-order. (Books of Patterson’s on Amazon’s Top 100 list, like anyone else’s on that list, tended not to be affected.) Speaking to BookExpo America last spring, Patterson told the audience of publishers and booksellers, “If Amazon is the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed.”

Link to the rest at Vanity Fair and thanks to Karen for the tip.

Bestsellers, Big Publishing

23 Comments to “The Henry Ford of Books”

  1. “I look at it the way Henry Ford would look at it.”

    So, Jim, are your books special little snowflakes or assembly line commodities?

    Dan

  2. The planet’s best-selling author since 2001, James Patterson has more than 300 million copies of his books in print, an army of co-writers, several TV deals in the works, and an estimated income of $90 million last year alone. But where’s the respect?

    Where is the respect for writers like Nora Roberts who actually write all her books, year after year?

    • I think you’ve nailed my problem with that “respect” question. I’ve never read her, but I’ve long respected Nora Roberts for her work ethic. I will always respect a writer who writes, reliably and well.

      They mention the Stratemeyer Syndicate, but I agree that what he does is not the same thing. What he does seems less honest to me. I don’t know if she ever wrote novels, but at least Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High said “created by,” not “written by.”

  3. “Patterson is the undisputed king of the digital publishing age, but he remains an analog kind of guy. A small Lucite frame on his office table holds this instruction: ‘How to Google: Press Safari icon at bottom of your iPad.'”

    This explains a great deal.

  4. “Patterson is the undisputed king of the digital publishing age, but he remains an analog kind of guy. A small Lucite frame on his office table holds this instruction: ‘How to Google: Press Safari icon at bottom of your iPad.'”

    This explains a great deal.

  5. I’m starting to get to the point where I feel sick every time I see his name. I can’t help but get this weasely feeling from him that makes me feel greasy and gross.

  6. OK, it’s super-snarky but my first thought was that he’s more like the Ronald McDonald of the literary world.

    • “Here’s a book I thought up and had others type up and publish, would you like fries with it?”

      • The other thought I had was that I recall reading that Ford had a lot of support from the government to launch his career. With Patterson calling for government intervention to support publishers and break up Amazon, maybe Ford is the correct comparison.

    • @ Chris Armstrong

      A very apt comparo. R. McD doesn’t cook hamburgers. He’s just a clown fronting for those who do.

      Likewise, Patterson is a clown (albeit a very rich one) fronting for those who actually do the writing.

      And “his” literary output is equivalent to McD’s fast food.

    • I thought the comparison to Ford was apt. Both had turned their name into a brand, and neither actually created the product bearing their name – it’s the work of others.

  7. I liked his earlier books somewhat, but those were the titles he (?) wrote by himself. When I picked up the next one, IIRC it was co-written, I was like “Meh” and never finished it, nor did I buy one again. His angst, income, and opinions are of no interest.

  8. I have great admiration and respect for the guy. He rose to the top of two different professions. He’s providing entertainment for millions of people, and they like what he produces.

    He does everything I am trying to do far better then I am doing it.

    I disagree with his economic and political views, but have lots of respect for his accomplishments. Well done.

  9. “Patterson is to publishing what Thomas Kinkade was to painting” I think that says it all.

    • LOL. 🙂

    • Millions have indeed received great enjoyment from those paintings, and millions have received the same from Patterson’s books.

      Lots of tastes and preferences are found in large populations. We might even call it diversity.

      There is probably a lot more to be said.

  10. Articles like this never seem to mention that Patterson’s success came not because of his traditional publishers, but in spite of them. Not even JP seems to remember that when it all started, he had to pay for his own advertising, that he promoted his books in ways the publishers refused to do because they said radio and t.v. wouldn’t work; that he fought for and won the right to choose his own covers, because Patterson believed his publishers were no good at it.

    Now all I see is a lot of back-scratching and very little honesty, either from JP or from the press. Now that he doesn’t even write, but portions out the work to his employees, he seems to have forgotten what it took to get there.

  11. Wouldn’t he be more like Thomas Edison? Let everyone else do the hard work then take all of the credit for it?

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