Stephen King has dismissed James Patterson’s body of work as “dopey thrillers.” Well, those “dopey thrillers” have netted Patterson $70 million making him the highest earning writer for the 12-month period, from June 2009 to June 2010, according to Forbes Magazine. More money earned than John Grisham, Dan Brown, Ken Follett, Janet Evanovich, Dean Koontz, Stephanie Meyer, even J.K. Rowling, who has slowed since her last installment in the Harry Potter series. Yes, even more than Stephen King. Take that, dopey!
And Patterson shows no sign of slowing down. At 63 years of age, he still writes many hours every day because, as he explains it, he loves to write. Even if his books weren’t earning him those substantial advance and royalty checks, he says, he would still be writing. Although possibly in less humble surroundings.
Patterson is humble, however, maybe even a little apologetic about his success. He recently spoke before a group of mystery writers in New York and was warmly received. (Despite the fact that there were many green monsters in the room. Mystery writers, as a group, are an ambitious bunch and not shy about touting their own successes while downplaying competitors. See famous quote by Stephen King).
And, the truth be told, Patterson’s success has been achieved through, shall we say, creative means. Besides turning out his own books, he now writes with co-authors. His byline appears on the cover, with his co-author in smaller type below the title. In an age of branding, Patterson has created his own brand. The question is, does the product suffer? How much input does he actually have on all those books that have his name on top and the name of a lesser-known author on the bottom? Are readers truly buying a Patterson book or something masquerading as one?
To hear Patterson explain the arrangement, he is involved in each book from beginning to end. He contributes to each book’s outline then sends his co-author off to write. He says he sees copy every two weeks. “I’m clear about things, about what’s going to happen in the chapters,” he says. In that way, if something is going wildly off track with the plot or characters, he can redirect the writer. When the final manuscript comes in, Patterson says he will sometimes rewrite the entire thing as many as seven times. “No matter what you think, I’m doing the best I can,” he says, somewhat apologetically.
Patterson’s current collaboration with Swedish writer Liza Marklund, The Postcard Killers, is a bestseller in the U.S. and abroad. How does he select his co-authors? Well, as he told the hungry group of mystery writers, don’t call him, he’ll call you. Mostly he works with authors he already knows or, at least, knows their track record. He points out that writer collaboration is not “weird.” He notes: “Most TV shows are written by teams; most movies are written by teams.” Because of his previous career in advertising, Patterson was accustomed to the team approach. In fact, he has found that working with someone else fits his writing style.
“I have a lot of ideas,” he says. “Give me anything and I can spin a story about it. I’m not that interested in the craft. Collaboration can be good for story telling. Some of the people I write with are good stylists.” In other words, Patterson has the stories and he manages to select other writers whose stylistic approach may be more sophisticated, thus actually improving the final product.
And Patterson treats his books as products. He has something to sell, a story, but his product might just as well be a box of detergent or a new breakfast cereal. From the very beginning, he understood the power of advertising. Patterson was a Mad Man before Man Men became popular. He ran J. Walter Thompson’s North American branch before leaving the ad world to write fulltime. So it’s not surprising that he has brought his marketing savvy to increase his sales. He told the mystery writers that he pays for all his own advertising and did so from the beginning, even launching an ad campaign to publicize Kiss the Girls, the movie based on his book and staring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. After the studio saw what he was doing, it jumped on board.
In person, Patterson seems down to earth, dressed in a black sweater without flashing expensive watches or rings. His short speech to the mystery writers was filled with references to all the celebrities he has met. Yet these stories never came off as name-dropping or bragging. And he gave hope to all those aspiring writers in the room when he confessed that his mystery, Along Came a Spider, was turned down by 31 editors before being published. The book won for Patterson his first Edgar Award.