James Patterson’s books are everywhere. It’s said that one out of every seventeen books sold in America for the past three years has been a Patterson book. As the person who introduced him as the speaker at the last meeting of Mystery Writers of America’s New York chapter said, his sales equal those of Stephen King, John Grisham, and Dan Brown combined.
The only apparent catch in Patterson’s candidacy for the title of most successful writer is the fact that other writers collaborate on many of his books. So is Patterson really a writer? After hearing him speak about his process, I say yes.
First, he writes every day, often all day. He still gets up at 5 AM to do it, as he did when he had a high-level day job at a major advertising agency. Second, he’s an Edgar winner, taking Best First Novel in 1977 at the age of 26. Third, after his coauthor on any book has made his or her contribution by writing to his outline, Patterson himself does draft after draft—as many as seven—reworking it so each scene does exactly what he wants it to, without further reference to the collaborator. I call that writing.
As Patterson pointed out, team writing is not a new concept. Screenwriters do it, and so do advertising copywriters. There’s storytelling, and then there’s craft. (He said it, and I agree: I’m pretty sure I’ve blogged about storytelling, craft, and characterization as the “three-legged stool” that supports a novel.) Patterson is a prolific and gifted storyteller. It’s not that he has no talent for craft (“Edgar!” he reminded us with a smile), but he admits he’s less interested in craft than in storytelling. He chooses collaborators whom he considers better stylists than he is. It doesn’t stop him from rewriting dialogue and all the rest over and over until he feels he’s got it right.
Patterson is a big advocate for getting kids to read. He has a website, Read Kiddo Read, that steers parents, teachers, and librarians to books that he believes are such good reads that kids will love them and want more, eventually becoming readers for life. When asked what he thinks about the future of e-readers, he said, “It’s a done deal.” He went on to say that it doesn’t matter in what form readers read their books, but that the shift to reading on screen leaves him deeply concerned about the future of bookstores.
One might think that Patterson’s publishers pour a fortune into promoting his books. Not so. He does all the promotion himself. He works with an agency, but he’s the client and has the control as well as footing the bill. That way, he can make sure he gets it right. He said he probably loses money on a book by book basis, but overall, it’s worth it.
Patterson made it clear that he’s not taking any shortcuts or cynically writing to the market. Like the rest of us, on every book, he’s doing the best he can.