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Sunday August 25, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday August 25, 2013 MYT 8:47:37 AM
by nicholas wroe
He cares: James Patterson has been criticised for churning out works almost like a production line but he maintains that his books sell because he cares about his main characters and their situations — ‘thrillers don’t work if you don’t care’. — Wikimedia Commons
And with that offhand remark in response to winning the Edgar award for his debut crime novel, the planet’s most successful author began his domination of bestselling lists.
EYEBROWS were raised recently when a series of full page ads appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly and elsewhere in the US literary press, asking “Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?” Thirty-eight great American books, fiction and non-fiction, were cited as examples of work that might have been lost without vibrant publishing and bookselling industries and cultures: from William Faulkner to Junot Diaz; Norman Mailer to Joan Didion; Thomas Pynchon to Art Spiegelman.
The ad concluded by comparing the US federal bailouts of the banking and car sectors to the neglect of books. Striking stuff, but it was not so much the sentiments expressed that caused surprise as the signature of the man who had paid for and written the ads: James Patterson.
In fact, Patterson is familiar with deploying the power of advertising – he is a former chairman of ad agency J. Walter Thompson (now JWT) – and in recent years he has been an outspoken advocate for books and child literacy. But most of all, his intervention fits with a career that has not only seen him become one of the world’s biggest-selling authors, but also one who has revolutionised the popular book market in the process.
Speaking to Publishers Weekly, Patterson straightforwardly explained his motivations: “I like to do things.” His complaint was: “Publishers are sitting around saying: ‘Woe is me.’” His advice: “Get in attack mode.”
This approach has helped him publish more than 100 books and sell approaching 300 million copies. As long ago as 2006 his work passed US$1bil (RM3.3bil at today’s rates) in gross income and in recent years, in which he has topped the Forbes list of highest paid authors, his earnings have been estimated at US$80mil to US$100mil (RM264.6mil to RM330.8mil) a year. It has made him famous enough to appear as a character on popular animated TV series The Simpsons, and more intriguingly, his marketing strategies have been the subject of a Harvard Business School study.
It was Patterson who first showed that television advertising could work for books. More radically, he has demonstrated that working with co-writers can dramatically multiply sales. While he continues to write solo his Alex Cross books – the black, single-parent, Washington DC detective and psychologist, who first brought Patterson to a mass audience – he generally works with named collaborators on other bestselling series such as the Women’s Murder Club (San Francisco cop, lawyer, doctor and journalist who combine to solve crimes) and the Michael Bennett series featuring a New York widower detective with 10 adopted children.
Alongside these and the other thrillers, Patterson’s oeuvre is expanding at the rate of 10 books a year and also takes in romance stories and, increasingly, books for young adults.
“My short answer to the question as to why work with other people is Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Woodward and Bernstein, Lennon and McCartney ... and it goes on,” he says. “There is a lot to be said for collaboration and it should be seen as just another way to do things as it is in other forms of writing, such as for television, where it is standard practice.”
But back in 2000, having by then written five Alex Cross books (his 21st, Cross My Heart, is out in November), when he suggested publishing multiple books in a single year his publisher were initially aghast. “They wanted one hardback and one paperback a year. I had ideas for an Alex Ross, a standalone thriller and a romantic novel. My publishers weren’t comfortable with the romance because it wasn’t my brand.
“So I gave them my idea of what a brand is: a connection to someone or some product, from which people can expect something. With my books, people expect the pages will turn. They’ll know the difference between what looks like a love story and an Alex Cross book. So the choice becomes: ‘Do I want to read a page-turning love story?’”
The success of those three books led Patterson, 66, to increase his annual production by working with collaborators. He conducts the enterprise from the Florida home where he lives with his wife and 15-year-old son.
Patterson isn’t the first writer to openly collaborate, but he has been by far the most commercially successful. “There was a certain amount of fear from publishers. And some journalists couldn’t conceive of how this guy could be involved in so many projects and therefore thought it was bullshit. But everyone who comes to my office eventually says: ‘Oh. I get it’. Because around the place they will see 30-35 manuscripts in different stages of development and they have to come to realise that I am a maniac.”
Patterson was born in 1947 in Newburgh, a town that was then “the all-American city, and is now the murder capital of New York state”. He was a high school valedictorian but, although a star pupil, he only read enough “to get out of Newburgh”. It was not until his family moved to near Boston, just before he started college, and he took a part-time job at a mental hospital, that he started to “read my brains out. And not commercial fiction. Stuff that really stretched me: The Tin Drum; One Hundred Years Of Solitude.”
He earned an English degree and enrolled in an MA programme at Vanderbilt University. But after receiving a “lucky” high number in the Vietnam draft lottery, in 1971 he took a job in advertising at J. Walter Thompson. Patterson was instrumental in award-winning campaigns for companies such as Kodak, Burger King and Toys R Us.
But throughout this time he also wrote. It was while working at the mental hospital that he had first started “scribbling and found that I loved it. It seemed I was never going to produce a Ulysses or One Hundred Years Of Solitude – although maybe I sell myself a little short in terms of magic realism, which I think I maybe could’ve done in an interesting way.
“But somewhere along the way I read Day Of The Jackal and The Exorcist. I hadn’t read much commercial fiction, but I liked these and thought I maybe could do books that people turn the pages of.”
So he wrote The Thomas Berryman Number, a thriller about a political murder in the US deep south, which was turned down by 31 publishers. “But the rejections were genuinely kind and encouraging, and it wasn’t long before one said yes.” His debut was published in 1976 and the following year Patterson took a call in his office from the organisers of the Edgar Awards for crime fiction. “They wanted to know if I could come to their prize ceremony. I told them the date was difficult and eventually they had to break protocol and say: ‘You have to come, you’ve won!’ So I went. Although I was still half thinking they had lied just to get me there and sweated it until they said my name. And when I had my little moment to say something I said ‘I guess I’m a writer now’.”
In fact, he continued to work in advertising, at increasingly senior levels, until 1996. His early productivity as a novelist was unremarkable and over the next 15 years he published five novels. Everything changed with the publication of his first Alex Cross story, Along Came A Spider, in 1992. Cross was a compelling character, but the book became Patterson’s breakthrough because of his insistence, against all received opinion in publishing, that it should be advertised on TV.
“It didn’t take a lot of study for me to look at the ads and say that some things could be done better. I thought television advertising could work and as we didn’t have enough money to do it across the United States, it was obvious to pick three or four significant cities. We could afford Washington DC, New York and Chicago. The ads went on, the book jumped onto the bestseller list, and then the bestseller list becomes your advertising.”
What of his critics, though? And there are plenty, most of whom accuse Patterson of “production line writing”.
“People may say that I am mechanical, and maybe I am sometimes. But I came to it myself. I didn’t study it. And a lot of it is emotional with me. You have to care. So many thrillers don’t work because you don’t care about the characters or the situation. I saw the latest Die Hard movie and I just didn’t care. In the first two, the Bruce Willis character was engaging, unusual and funny. The villains were also interesting. But when someone condescends to the genre you can smell it straight away.”
He is working to a two-year schedule of 10 books a year. “It’s funny that publishers were once against me writing more than one book a year. The situation has changed a lot since then. If I now said I was writing only one book this year, not 10, they would have a heart attack. They are plugged into the money.”
At one stage, Patterson’s books generated 30% of his publisher’s revenues. “That brings responsibility for me as well as them. I want them to be as good as they can possibly be in terms of helping me editorially and of communicating the excitement, that hope, they have for the books.
“And I want them to make money. I want them motivated to do what they do well, and if they’re not
making money they won’t be motivated.”
So what part does the money play in motivating him? He had little as a child and the vast sums that now roll in have not slowed his work rate or productivity and can’t all be spent on buying ad space to defend books.
“My life revolves around my writing, my wife and my son. And I’m not just shovelling shit about that. That’s the stuff that works for me. Yes, I do have a really big house in Florida, which is actually a little bit of an embarrassment.”
It’s a beachfront estate, next to one previously owned by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, that the Pattersons bought for US$17.4mil (RM57.6mil) and spent another US$14mil (RM46.3mil) on renovations.
“It is too big and ridiculous and I don’t even go to the bottom floor, but what we get back in terms of the view is glorious and I much prefer living in my money than having it in the bank.”
He says the most satisfaction he received from money was when he achieved a similar status to two friends who are recently retired school teachers in Georgia: “They live in a nice town. They ride their bikes to the ocean. They have some savings and pensions and they are not worrying about money. The lack of it is such a source of unbelievable stress. Beyond that I’m not very materialistic and to some extent I’ve had to learn how to spend it.
“Now, if there’s something I really want I do tend to get it, so while I sometimes try to think that it doesn’t really matter, I also realise I might have become a difficult person to buy Christmas presents for.” – Guardian News & Media
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