Author James Patterson doesn’t write his own books. He outlines them and outsources the work to other authors to do the line-by-line writing
Like most authors, James Patterson started out with one book, released in 1976, that he struggled to get published. It sold about 10,000 copies, a modest, if respectable, showing for a first novel. Last year, an estimated 14 million copies of his books in 38 different languages found their way onto beach blankets, airplanes and nightstands around the world. Patterson may lack the name recognition of a Stephen King, a John Grisham or a Dan Brown, but he outsells them all. Really, it’s not even close. (According to Nielsen BookScan, Grisham’s, King’s and Brown’s combined U.S. sales in recent years still don’t match Patterson’s.) This is partly because Patterson is so prolific: with the help of his stable of co-authors, he published nine original hardcover books in 2009 and will publish at least nine more in 2010.Enlarge This ImageMarcus Gaab for The New York Times; Set design by Stefan BeckmanRelatedTimes Topics: James PattersonEnlarge This ImageMarcus Gaab for The New York Times; Set design by Stefan BeckmanEnlarge This ImageMarcus Gaab for The New York Times; Set design by Stefan BeckmanThere are many different ways to catalog Patterson’s staggering success. Here are just a few: Since 2006, one out of every 17 novels bought in the United States was written by James Patterson. He is listed in the latest edition of “Guinness World Records,” published last fall, as the author with the most New York Times best sellers, 45, but that number is already out of date: he now has 51 — 35 of which went to No. 1.Patterson and his publisher, Little, Brown & Co., a division of the Hachette Book Group, have an unconventional relationship. In addition to his two editors, Patterson has three full-time Hachette employees (plus assistants) devoted exclusively to him: a so-called brand manager who shepherds Patterson’s adult books through the production process, a marketing director for his young-adult titles and a sales manager for all his books. Despite this support staff and his prodigious output, Patterson is intimately involved in the publication of his books. A former ad executive — Patterson ran J. Walter Thompson’s North American branch before becoming a full-time writer in 1996 — he handles all of his own advertising and closely monitors just about every other step of the publication process, from the design of his jackets to the timing of his books’ release to their placement in stores. “Jim is at the very least co-publisher of his own books,” Michael Pietsch, Patterson’s editor and the publisher of Little, Brown, told me.A couple of months ago, I sat in on one of Patterson’s regular meetings with Little, Brown to discuss the marketing and publicity for his coming titles. The meeting was held not, as you might expect, at the publisher’s offices in Midtown Manhattan but in the living room of Patterson’s Palm Beach home, a canary yellow Spanish-style house on a small island in Lake Worth. Patterson’s wife, Sue, a tall, athletic-looking blonde whom he met at J. Walter Thompson, served coffee and gooey chocolate-chip cookies to the guests: Pietsch; Megan Tingley, the publisher of Little, Brown’s young-readers books; and David Young, the C.E.O. of Hachette.Pietsch and Tingley showed mock-ups of covers and presented ideas they had been working on. From the plush, caramel-colored couch facing them, Patterson, who is a trim 62 with a habitual slouch and laconic manner well suited to his dry sense of humor, acted as creative director, a familiar role from his years in advertising. At one point, the conversation turned to the next installment in Patterson’s Michael Bennett series, which revolves around a Manhattan homicide detective and widower with 10 multiracial adopted children (“Cheaper by the Dozen” meets “Die Hard,” as Patterson describes it). Pietsch mentioned a possible promotional line, “New York Has a New Hero.” Patterson instantly amended it: “Finally, New York Has a Hero.”A number of former Little, Brown employees who attended these sorts of meetings with Patterson in the 1990s and early 2000s described him to me as low-key but intimidating, more cutthroat adman than retiring writer — a kind of real-life Don Draper. Unsatisfied with publishing’s informal approach to marketing meetings, Patterson had expected corporate-style presentations, complete with comprehensive market-share data and sales trends. “A lot of authors are just grateful to be published,” Holly Parmelee, Patterson’s publicist from 1992 to 2002, told me several weeks earlier. “Not Jim. His attitude was that we were in business together, and he wanted us both to succeed, but it was not going to be fun and games.”But that was when Patterson was still making a name for himself and fighting for his publisher’s full attention. Now that he is the world’s bestselling author and Little, Brown’s most prized possession, Patterson seemed agreeable, easygoing. Even when he shot down an idea, like Pietsch’s suggestion that Patterson promote the new Michael Bennett book with a day of events in all five boroughs, he did so gently: “I just don’t want for it to be like one of those things when an athlete goes through and shakes four hands.” Halfway through the meeting, Patterson suggested that they take a short break to listen to some songs from a musical he’s developing based on his romance novel “Sundays at Tiffany’s.”When the meeting was over, Patterson and his wife drove everyone to lunch in their matching Mercedes sedans. On our way to the restaurant, they took us past their future home, an oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach that they bought last year for $17.4 million and are now in the midst of renovating. “There’s my little cottage,” Patterson said as the 20,000-square-foot house came into view.