James Patterson shares his formula for success. It’s pretty simple.

From The Washington Post:

Halfway into his memoir, “James Patterson by James Patterson,” James Patterson takes a moment to discuss his writing process. It’s nothing fancy, he explains, and it starts with a folder stuffed with unused story ideas. “When the time comes for me to consider a new novel,” he writes, “I’ll take down the trusty-dusty Idea folder.”

Given Patterson’s fecundity, you have to ask: Is it ever not the time? Does the Idea folder ever go back to whence it came?

Patterson is among the world’s best-selling and most wildly prolific living authors. His books have sold more than 300 million copies. His new memoir is the 10th book he’s published so far this year, and one of four books he has slated for release this month. A checklist of books on his website includes nearly 400 titles, comprising thrillers, true-crime books, contributions to various children’s and YA series and collaborations with a variety of celebrities including a former president and a former Fox News host. Patterson, 75, insists he’s responsible for at least outlining every last one of these literary creations.

Patterson’s approach to writing is unapologetically pragmatic: Give ’em something irresistibly compelling, then give ’em more of it, quickly. It’s also the MO of his memoir, filled with snappy, short chapters and a lot of name-dropping, from Dolly Parton (the unlikely co-author of “Run, Rose, Run”) to Tom Cruise (potential movie collaborator) to James Taylor (patient at a mental hospital he once worked at). His writing process is pragmatic, too. His a-ha moment in terms of efficiency, he explains, came while writing 1993’s “Along Came a Spider”: Rather than fill out the story he’d outlined, he decided the outline was the novel. He likens this approach to Bruce Springsteen’s bare-bones “Nebraska” album, as if a minimalist aesthetic were the same thing as being satisfied with your first draft. Or perhaps Patterson is just pitching himself to a potential new celeb collaborator. (Don’t do it, Bruce!)

Patterson is a man of the people, as his sales figures decisively prove. But in his memoir, he also positions himself as a man of taste. A lengthy list of his favorite books is an exercise in careful balance of brows low and high: For every Lee Child, a Gabriel García Márquez; for every John Grisham, a Bernard Malamud.

That balancing act extends to his description of his own life. He’s college-educated and spent time as an advertising executive before becoming a novelist, but refers often to his humble roots in blue-collar Newburgh, N.Y. (“I’m kind of a working-class storyteller. I just keep chopping wood.”) He’s proud that his first novel, 1976’s “The Thomas Berryman Number,” won a prestigious Edgar Award, but self-effacingly says he wrote it while “still a literary twit.” He thrills at meeting John Updike but is more deeply heartened by a reader who tells him that the first book she ever read was a Patterson novel.

After a time, Patterson’s play-it-down-the-middle approach feels less like the remembrances of a Renaissance man and more like evasive, unassertive hedging. He mushily criticizes Jeff Bezos when asked to attend one of his private A-list get-togethers: “I didn’t feel Amazon always wielded its tremendous power for the good of readers, writers, or publishers. Just my opinion.” He goes anyway. (Bezos owns The Washington Post). He recalls golfing with former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. When he spots them playing together, his prose goes squishy: “It’s the way things used to be in politics. Better, saner times.” You can feel a terrible novel about golf-based brinkmanship arrive in the Idea file.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG notes that Patterson spent a number years at a large New York advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, prior to becoming an author.

While PG hasn’t seen this work experience highlighted very much in the stories about Patterson, he believes that what Patterson learned at JWT played a significant role in his success as a writer.

Side Note: PG also worked at J. Walter Thompson, although for a much shorter time and in a different location. Patterson was in the New York office and PG was in the Chicago office.

Their paths never crossed during PG’s employment, but, many years later, PG was on a panel with Patterson in New York City – he doesn’t remember who sponsored it.

The topic was Amazon. PG only spoke with Patterson briefly on that occasion. PG was on the panel because he was an outspoken proponent of self-publishing as a way for authors to control their own business and artistic futures while making more money and was not particularly oriented towards traditional publishers.

Needless to say, Patterson and PG did not find much to agree about.

One of PG’s observations about Patterson over the years is that he does a very good job of promoting himself in part because knows more about effective advertising and publicity than all of the marketing executives in all the publishers in New York City combined.

13 thoughts on “James Patterson shares his formula for success. It’s pretty simple.”

  1. At entirely the other end of the (literary) spectrum from Patterson, William Gaddis was also an advertising executive.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, PG. His success results from marketing and promotion, not from writing a good story. I’ve tried repeatedly to read Patterson’s novels (meaning the ones he actually wrote himself). I’ve never had a problem putting one down and walking away from it.

    • Me, too.

      It seems to me that he produces/sponsors a certain sort of low(-er) brow comfort food, much the way a lot of television does — predictable, stock characters in predictable situations with uncomplicated protagonists/antagonists. Sort of the way that the Hallmark channel does for its genre.

      That’s not to say that this isn’t a great business model, mind you. It’s a huge part of the market.

  3. I have two of his books that I pull out to study.

    – Virgin

    – Cradle and All

    From the copyright page: Cradle and All is based on an earlier James Patterson novel, Virgin, and includes scenes and characters from that book.

    They are the same book, the second is the rewritten version of the first. The first book actually works, the second messed up a good story. I use them as an example of:

    – “It is best to write a new book, using the same idea, and leaving the finished book alone.”

    I need to read them again.


  4. Salman Rushdie also worked in advertising (the ‘Naughty — but nice’ line used to sell cream cakes was one of his).
    Fay Weldon also worked in advertising. She invented the ‘Go to work on an egg’ line.

    • And of course, Dorothy Sayers worked in advertising for a while (and worked it into Murder Must Advertise).

      • Topping them all, in my opinion, was the late Frederik Pohl, who worked in advertising for several years, then wrote The Space Merchants, a dystopian SF novel in which advertising agencies ruled the world.

        It’s quite entertaining if you like over-the-top satire, and it sticks in the brain. To this day, when I’m making a hurried lunch, I half think of my ingredients as Bredd®, ReelMeet®, and Coffiest®.

  5. … His a-ha moment in terms of efficiency, he explains, came while writing 1993’s “Along Came a Spider”: Rather than fill out the story he’d outlined, he decided the outline was the novel. …

    I’m heading in this direction myself.

    And I was also in Advertising for a time. 😉

  6. I was moved to look into one of his (many) series (the Michael Bennet) – 14 volumes.

    Not surprisingly, they are priced at the ebook max: $9.99.

    More amusingly, they can’t be bothered to discount the first book of the series even by a penny to suck more readers in. I envision the publishers as one of those brightly-colored comic-book villains, gorging on food and overflowing the sides of their sagging armchairs, unable to resist the smallest morsel, even if it is to their longer term disadvantage.

    To paraphrase… “Oft greedy will doth greed mar.”

    So, rather than pay full price for a possibly long commitment, I looked further. From the LookInside, the first line is:

    “The back of the table captain’s cream-colored evening jacket had just turned away when Stephen Hopkins leaned across the secluded corner booth…”

    That’s one of the clumsiest sentences I’ve ever seen to start a book with, the goal of which is to suck in a reader. It stopped me flat. I mean, the back of a jacket isn’t usually an animate object, so one gets tangled up with the table captain as the agent, but no, it’s the back of a jacket that turned away, not the person wearing it. Did the person turn also, or did the jacket twist around his torso (like some evil textile AI)?

    Even if one did conceive of a jacket itself as animated (maybe it was blowing down the road), that would be the entire jacket, not just the back of it. Makes me wonder what the sleeves were up to. And the pockets.

    I get what the author was trying to say… but he didn’t say it. And it sure is in the most prominent possible place to make a bad impression. Apparently no editor noticed either.

    I can’t imagine not encountering this sort of problem frequently, and being stopped rolling my eyes each time. No sale.

    • I find myself wondering whether the “discount volume 1” trick actually works if the next 13 books are all priced ar $9.99. I know I’m not going to buy anything at $9.99 so my motivation to spend even $0.99 on book one is minimal, but presumably someone has actually tried the experiment?

      As for the animate jacket, this is a pretty bad mistake as it gets in the way of the reader understanding the first line in the story. However, even the best of writers get the verb and subject inappropriately related at times. I give you Isaac Asimov in Prelude to Foundation: “His mouth, for a moment, ran liquid and then it slid, almost of its own accord, down his throat.” Or Poul Anderson’s “He swept the antechamber with the eyes of a trapped animal” – I prefer a broom, but then I’ve never tried Poul’s approach.

      • Skepticism of deep discount first volums of a high price series is warranted but the basic concept has a long history of success.

        BAEN (Here we go again.) has been giving the first volume in many of their series through their Free Library all century long. They also used to bundle CD collections containing *all* previous volumes in the first hardcover edition of the latest pbook with the express permission to redistribute but only for free. (One side effect was that the OCR-and-scan “pirates” made a point *not* to rip off BAEN titles.)


        The latter practice ended when ebooks became a market in their own right, not just a promotional vehicle. (The existing CD images remain legal, though.) The free library continues to this day. All reports are that freebies do promote sales of followup volumes.

        On the Indie ebook side it is an established fact that “free” books in Kindle Unlimited not only promote sales of other author books not in KU, but also of the ones that are. The effect is replicated in the gaming world, where games in Microsoft’s GAME PASS subscriptions for PC and XBOX sell better while being “free” than when rotated out. (They also sell more DLC addons, but tbat isn’t relevant to books).

        Outside KU, doing series-launch volumes as permafree used to deliver similar results before KU and temporary price reductions and free promotions remain a standard part of most Indies’ marketing toolkit.

        The driving force between all these variants is visibility, which is how Amazon sells KU to authors. As the saying goes (more or less), the biggest challenge authors face is obscurity.

        That is not something Patterson has to worry about.

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