They call him "the word processor" and James Patterson certainly lives up to the name, says The Sunday Telegraph. The world's best-selling author (he outsells JK Rowling, John Grisham and Dan Brown put together) is committed to delivering 17 new books by the end of 2012: roughly one every six weeks. "For any other novelist, this might seem an insurmountable workload." It's no problem for Patterson, who has a team of co-writers to help churn out the words. His best-seller factory is the literary equivalent of Damien Hirst's painting production line, and just as lucrative.
Patterson spends most of the year at his colonial-style mansion in Palm Beach, writing in a panelled attic room overlooking an expanse of glinting water. He gets up at 5.30am to start work. Money-spinning thrillers, murder and detective series aimed at everyone from elderly women to teenagers are a speciality. To date, he has sold 170 million books and personally rakes in about $40m a year. His co-writers get somewhat less (see below).
Critics might dismiss his blockbusters as "the literary equivalent of cornflakes", says The Sunday Times, but Patterson's real genius lies in branding. Given he is a former US chairman of advertising agency J Walter Thompson (JWT), that's no surprise. Patterson's "industrial approach" has made him a business icon and even the subject of an MBA course at Harvard. Regardless of his subject matter, Patterson fans know exactly what they'll get: a fast-paced, roller-coaster ride. His British publisher, Random House, has even devised a slogan for his brand: "James Patterson the pages turn themselves". Dry and self-deprecating, with an acerbic sense of humour, Patterson, 63, "punctuates his frequent sardonic asides with sighs and theatrical eye-rolling", says The Sunday Telegraph. The son of a Prudential insurance executive, he grew up in a small town in upstate New York in a house full of women. He was always a scribbler, but his early efforts were modelled on his literary heroes: Beckett, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and James Joyce. "I was a typical snob."
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In 1971 he moved to New York to join JWT as a copywriter. Writing before work and during his lunch hour, he published his first thriller in 1976 after a long struggle it was rejected by 26 publishers. A long period of drought followed. In 1979, Patterson's girlfriend, Jane, was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour. He was so devastated that he stopped writing and "worked my brains out", zooming up the career ladder at JWT. More books eventually followed, but he didn't abandon his six-year run as company chairman until 1992, when he'd established his first great character the black detective, Alex Cross.
Patterson is "an affront to every Romantic myth of the artist we have", says Time. "He's not tortured, he's not poor. He doesn't work alone and he's way too unsentimental about his work... but perhaps there's something to be said for living in mansions instead of garrets." Patterson mostly agrees, but sometimes succumbs to wistfulness. "I was supposed to write really nice serious books. I got derailed and here I am."
A one-man publishing house
If Patterson were treated "as a publishing house unto himself", he'd come in fourth for bestsellers, ahead of major publishers such as HarperCollins, notes USA Today.
His relationship with his own publisher, Little, Brown & Co (owned by Hachette), is "unconventional", says The New York Times. He has an army of staff "devoted exclusively to him", and is involved with the publication process almost to the point of control freakery. "He handles all of his own advertising and closely monitors just about every other step... from the design of his jackets, to the timing of his books' release [and] their placement in stores". He's also formed a special company, James Patterson Entertainment, to mastermind the pushing of his characters into Hollywood and video games.
Patterson claims he needs co-writers because "he has too many ideas to write them all up himself". He sketches a plot, leaves them to fill in the gaps, and then makes the final polish himself. He currently has about eight writers on the go, paid a flat fee rather than royalties, for their work. Many go on to get solo publishing deals Patterson considers them apprentices of sorts.
Blockbusters existed well before Patterson, but his industrial approach has accelerated "the industry's shifting economics" towards the mass market, says The New York Times. The shorter the sentences get, the bigger the bucks. Yet Patterson's millions of fans can't all be wrong, says Time. "Depending on how you look at it, he's either a damn good writer, or the Beast of the coming literary apocalypse."
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