Even if you don’t have a James Patterson novel in your carry-on bag, the person next to you probably does. But Patterson didn’t become a 39-time best-selling author by accident. Here’s how one man has come to dominate the industry. By Jenna Schnuer
Yeah, Justin Timberlake is doing all right for himself. He can sing, dance, and act. But when it comes to crowning the king of crossover in the entertainment industries (and with their audiences), author James Patterson gets the nod. And, actually, stack another crown on his head for his productivity.
Don’t believe the hype? Well, prepare to be exhausted. By the end of 2008, Patterson, 61, will have published seven new books, including this month’s The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, a title that targets young adults as well as older action aficionados; and in October, his first nonfiction story, Against Medical Advice. He will also see two of his books start their travels toward the big screen. He will make his first foray into the world of graphic novels and hand out his PageTurner Awards to people who champion literacy. He’ll launch a new website, tentatively titled Read Kiddo Read, to, well, encourage kiddos to read. And he’ll do a whole bunch of other stuff that he’s not ready to fess up to quite yet (including writing his second nonfiction title). Patterson keeps each one of his projects in a stack in his office. At the moment, there are 23 stacks peppering the place.
“I’m not easily distracted. I know what I like to do, and I tend to fill my days with it,” says Patterson. “I love telling stories. I love writing stories. I really like my wife. I really like my little boy. I fill my life with the stuff I like to do. To me, it’s just natural.”
He also doesn’t understand the whole procrastination thing that many other writers do so well. “I’d rather [write] than lie on the couch,” he says.
“I don’t know what people do when they’re not engaged. I don’t like to putter. I don’t like to futz around.”
And Patterson’s not afraid to bring other people in to share the load.
After writing a detailed outline, he often works with cowriters to pen his first drafts. “One of my agents said when she read the outline, ‘I could write this book.’ There’s the story. You can see it,” he says. Then he writes all the remaining drafts. Patterson prefers the polishing. “The first draft is a pain in the butt,” he says.
Besides, Patterson’s books have done so well that, for the most part, the pressure is off. He really can enjoy the whole ride. “So much of it is just confidence. I can remember the total lack of confidence when I was dependent on an editor liking it or not liking it,” he says. “Or they want you to do this and you’re like, ‘Oh, shoot. That’s not the right thing to do.’ I don’t have any of that. I do have confidence that I’m going to turn out a nice story that people are going to like. I think that’s why the sales go up every year. If you’re not pleasing people, the sales go down.”
What level of success delivers such freedom? There’s one rather overexposed stat about Patterson that really does bear repeating; it’s that impressive.
In 2007, one of every 15 — yes, that’s just 15, without any zeroes on the end — hardcover novels sold in the United States was a James Patterson title. With his having sold 16 million books last year (and with sales already up by 15 percent in 2008), there’s a good chance that a Patterson work is sitting pretty in the bag of at least one passenger on almost every airplane and commuter train in America.
Though Patterson could be annoyingly cocky about all of it (and get away with it), he’s not. When he discusses his success, he’s confident but approachable. For his birthday party last year, he invited friends he’s known since the first grade. “The nice thing is, essentially everybody said, ‘You know, you’re the same jerk you always were,’ which was great,” he says. “I enjoy the fame, such as it is. I enjoy the numbers, such as they are. I don’t let them go to my head. How big of a head can you get when you’re doing entertainment? Well, I guess some people get pretty big heads. But it doesn’t make sense to me.”
Don’t let the regular-guy shtick fool you into thinking Patterson’s just a regular guy, though. The man has serious power in the entertainment world — he was number 58 on the 2008 Forbes Celebrity 100 list, sandwiched between Nicole Kidman and Rush Limbaugh.
Best known for his two detective series, one featuring protagonist Alex Cross and the other about the Women’s Murder Club, Patterson plays against publishing type by refusing to be pigeonholed as a writer of any specific genre. Though you won’t see any bodice rippers or military novels from him anytime soon, he has comfortably sauntered into the worlds of love stories and light fantasy, among others.
The threads that hold his oeuvre together are his focus on pacing and his identifiable writing style. Patterson writes the same way he tells stories:
He gets to the point and leaves out details that don’t move the story along. “I used to live across the street from Alexander Haig,” Patterson says. “If I told you a story that I went out to get the newspaper and Haig was lying in the driveway, and then, for the next five minutes, I talked about the palm trees waving, you would say, ‘No, no, no, no. What happened with Haig in the driveway?’ It’s different. It’s not better or worse than other stuff … It’s a different style.
“I wouldn’t want everybody to write that way, but I think it’s a valid approach.”
Over the last few years, Patterson has started putting his writing approach to work for a new audience: kids (or, as they’re called in the publishing world, young adults or YAs). Patterson is very vocal on the subject of getting kids to read. He thinks there’s a pretty simple formula to make that happen. “Get books in their hands that they’re going to love,” he says. So far, he’s doing pretty well putting that rule to the test. He has released four books in his Maximum Ride series — adults are also snapping them up, but the language is kid-friendly — and his 10-year-old son, Jack, recently gave a thumbs-up to his latest YA book, The Dangerous Days of Daniel X.
“He said, ‘Dad, you finally got it right,’ ” Patterson says.
Of course, it’s not all work and no play for Patterson. With waterfront homes in New York (on the Hudson River) and Florida (on Lake Worth), he, wife Susan, and Jack stay plenty busy keeping one another company and entertaining themselves close to home. “I love the water,” he says. “It’s very idyllic.”
When he’s not gazing out at the water, writing a new soon-to-be best seller, or listening to Jack’s latest songs — he’s the musician in the family — Patterson can often be found at the movies. He’s a voracious consumer of cinema. And once again, it’s (mostly) about pacing for him.
Though his tastes “run a broad gamut,” one fairly recent favorite was Once, an indie hit out of Ireland that picked up the 2008 Oscar for best original song. “That was one of the movies where you kept saying, ‘They’re not going to make this interesting enough,’ but they kept making it very interesting,” he says. “You are totally involved. It didn’t go to places that could have messed it up. It just kept moving along.”
The same could be said for Patterson’s career.
UK - Michael O’Mara, + serial: The Telegraph tbc + audio: BBC, + large print: Thorpe
USA - Harper Collins
Australia – Harper Collins
France – Editions Archipal
Germany – Iron Pages + serial – Die Bunte tbc
Holland - Forum
Sweden – Norstedts Forlag
Latvia - Mansards
Finland - Like
Hungary – Europa Klado
Poland – Albatros Wydawnictwo
Estonia – As Sinusukk
Norway -H. Aschehoug