By Julie Kramer
Besides being the world’s best-selling author, James Patterson delights in cultural cameos – whether playing poker with television crime author Richard Castle, appearing as Marge’s secret crush on the Simpsons, or simply being the answer to a JEOPARDY! question.
Patterson still gets a kick when he sees people reading his books in public and doesn’t mind when they stop to gush over him: “Yeah, I get recognized a lot, especially in airports.”
That’s no surprise because his author photo is on more book covers than any other writer. PRIVATE GAMES just came out last month and went straight to the top of the best seller lists. GUILTY WIVES will be released in a matter of weeks. Patterson is even listed in the GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS for the most NEW YORK TIMES bestsellers.
His triumph can be partly attributed to being so prolific. While many authors take a year or even a lifetime, to write a book, Patterson can publish nine a year, by using co-authors for some of his stories. While ghost writers have always played a role in publishing, Patterson had no qualms about giving his colleagues equal billing on the cover. Some, Andrew Gross and Peter de Jonge, have used the visibility their collaboration brought to successfully go it alone.
How do you decide who to coauthor with?
Mostly it’s people I know who I think are pretty good writers and I can work with. Some I worked with in the advertising business. I know that they’re hard workers and they can listen. And they’re not going to mind if I come in and rewrite the thing. Well, they may mind it, but they will go along with it.
How do you decide whether to write a standalone thriller or make a plot part of a series?
I have a stack of ideas that’s three or four hundred pages. Sometimes I’ll mark things as maybe an Alex Cross story or maybe a Michael Bennett story. And then I come up with things that obviously can’t be. Guilty Wives wouldn’t have fit any of the characters but I just really liked the story. If I come up with an idea I really like that clearly doesn’t fit one of the series, I think about doing it as a standalone.
Actually, my British publisher started making noise about that and I said, let me think about it. Let me see if I have a story that will make sense. I’m not a big fan of real events to be honest with you. I don’t particularly like to write about things that are quite that obvious. Or fads, like I wouldn’t have done a vampire book once it got hot. I need to feel very emotional about the stuff I do, believe it or not. That’s pretty much what guides me. It’s a combination of head and heart.
These days authors have to think of themselves as small business owners as well as artists. But having sold more than 220 million books worldwide, are you more like a big corporation?
I’m really not. Big corporations have lots of people working for them. And this (my business) basically operates out of this room. I mean there’s not a lot to it. People think there is. But believe it or not, I’m flesh and blood, I’m not a factory. I’m not a big corporation. It’s a mom and pop. Some people will read that and go that’s bullshit. It isn’t. I was in a corporation, I didn’t like it. I wanted to get out of it and the last thing I want to do is set up another corporation. So it’s tiny, tiny, tiny. It works very quickly and efficiently. And it’s the opposite of a big corporation.
Any book with the Patterson name has proven to be publishing gold. Now, with a team of coauthors, you dominate the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller lists. Some emerging or mid-list authors feel there’s less room to make the list or breakout because you – and other authors writing multiple books a year – are taking up all the space.
I think that’s another misperception about publishing. The reality of it is, all I’m doing is maybe the number of weeks that Sandra Brown is on top goes down. Or the number of weeks that Tom Clancy or somebody else goes down. It’s not doing anything to emerging writers because unless the publisher of the emerging writer really makes a huge commitment, it’s not getting on the best sellers list. It’s just not going to happen. I mean the times it happens might be once or twice a year. I’m not blocking emerging writers, the publishers are blocking emerging writers. Because they have to make a commitment in terms of the number of books they’re putting out there. They’ve got to go out and convince the chains and convince everybody they’re going to make enough noise about a book. So I’m not blocking those, there’s not enough books out there to get them on the list.
And clearly, for whatever reason, publishers are putting less money and time into promoting new authors.
But not because of me. Because what I’m doing is filling their coffers. So guess what, they have more money. That’s what I’m doing. I’m filling the coffers, not taking away and my publisher, I mean they don’t provide any of the marketing funds. I do. I’m a huge percentage of Hachette’s profits. I’d love people to just think it out in terms of the reality. And the reality is, at least with my publisher, they have more money than they would have had and it isn’t blocking anyone. The only way for emerging authors to get on best seller lists is the publishers must really really commit to the books.
What advice do you have for emerging or mid-list authors to try to stand out?
There is no advice I can give. It certainly is not marketing. It has to do with writing books that are unique and yet somehow relevant to the marketplace. It’s not a question of: ‘Oh my god, I have this fresh new idea – an albino dwarf with a crease of a hatchet in his forehead and he’s a detective.’ It’s how can you be fresh and relevant and just write a story that people can’t put down. In terms of break outs, I think if somebody writes a book that people can’t put down I think a lot of publishers will make the commitment. I just don’t think that many books come along like that. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s difficult to write books that really are hard to put down. It’s not that the writing isn’t good. It’s that the story telling isn’t particularly good. There are a lot of good writers out there. There aren’t a lot of good story tellers. That’s the way I would look at the marketplace.
Do you think you’re a better story teller than writer?
Yes, for sure. Tons better.
Alex Cross in ALONG CAME A SPIDER was your breakout character. Why do you think he is still popular twenty years later?
They really are page turns. The pages almost turn themselves. And I think Cross is an unusual hero in that he has a very strong emotional component and his family is very strong in the books. And I think that’s unusual. There’s an awful lot of cliché detectives who go home and drink themselves to sleep and smoke a lot of cigarettes.
Every once in a while somebody will criticize what I’m doing as ‘not very realistic’ and I always think of somebody criticizing Chagall. I don’t write realism. The stuff I do is bigger than life. It’s a little bit of opera. I will get a lot of cops and detectives and FBI who will go, ‘I really like your books, they are true emotionally.’, They identify with the feelings. But everybody knows I’m not trying to write realism.
Do you still need a publisher? A lot of writers are saying publishers aren’t relevant today. It would seem if anyone could say, ‘you know I don’t need a publisher anymore,’ it would be somebody of your stature. What do you think of that debate?
What I get from Little Brown is, I’m really close to my editors. I like what they have to say. Their comments are really good and smart and useful. I think Hachette does a nice job in terms of dealing with independents, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etc. So I think my publishers do a good job. I’m not interested in blowing up the publishing business and my going out and publishing my own books would not be a positive thing in terms of the publishing business. So I guess I’m not interested in throwing that grenade.
Anything in the publishing world that scares you?
I don’t know what to do about it, but I think the fact that bookstores are disappearing off the landscape and we haven’t figured out a real viable alternative to that. I think it’s really important that there are bookstores and that people read more, not less, and at this point at least, I don’t think there’s enough of an alternative online in terms of getting reliable advice. I know people do reviews and whatever but a lot of that is sort of sour grapes and people just wanting to shoot their mouths off rather than the honesty you would get from booksellers.
Not really. I think that if there are books out that people read and say,’ this is great, great, great stuff,’ and it costs 99 cents and there is a steady stream of those, then the business changes . I haven’t seen that yet. I don’t think there are a lot of books out there where people are going to go, this is as good as the books that I’m spending more money for. And if a writer does show up for 99 cents and they’re that good, I can guarantee you the next thing you’re going to hear about is that they’re selling the book to a regular publisher. And not selling them for 99 cents anymore.
Besides your adult thrillers, you’ve created young adult and middle grade franchises – MAXIMUM RIDE and MIDDLE SCHOOL, THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE. You’ve won a Children’s Choice Author of the Year Book Award and been nominated for another. Why did you venture into this genre?
I have a son. Jack is a very bright kid, but when he was eight so he wasn’t a big reader, so I told him we’re going to go out and find you some books you like, and by the end of the summer, Jack had read about six books that he really liked. And it seemed to me that the way I tell stories, I could turn on a lot of kids. I think it’s a huge problem of getting kids reading. I think my kids books are better than my adult books, by a lot. I think that’s the best stuff I do. They are funny. They are true. And they are important in that they are turning kids on to reading. I think even the critics are going to agree that my kids books are better than my adult.
I go to schools all the time. I talk to the kids about if you get out of middle school or high school and you can’t read, you’re in for a tough time. It’s the parents job, not the schools job, to find books for kids and a lot of parents don’t get that. Either that they don’t get that or they think the solution is to buy GREAT EXPECTATIONS because somebody told them to read that when they were a kid. The real solution is to get them a bunch of books that they’re really going to love, and they will just become better readers. And then when they are good readers, then maybe we can try GREAT EXPECTATIONS.
Do you like you son being able to read your books?
Absolutely. He has read all my books. Two years ago I was nominated for Children’s Choice Author of the Year and I told Jack and he said, ‘don’t get me wrong, dad because I really like your books, but Rick Riordon (author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) is going to win. We went up to New York, my wife and I told the story of how Jack had said I wasn’t going to win, then I held up the trophy and said, this is for you, Jack and I knew that would be a memory that he would always have.
Julie Kramer is a journalist turned novelist and writes a thriller series set in the desperate world of television news. Her fifth, SHUNNING SARAH, will be released August 7 by Atria. Julie won the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best First Mystery as well as the Minnesota Book Award. Her work has also been nominated for the Anthony, Barry, Shamus, Mary Higgins Clark, Daphne du Maurier, and RT Best Amateur Sleuth Awards.
To learn more about Julie, please visit her website.
James Patterson photo credit: Deborah Feingold