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.
There 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Records,” published last fall, as the author with the most New York Times best sellers, 45, but that number is already out of date: he now has 51 — 35 of which went to No. 1.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.
ACCORDING TO FORBES magazine, Patterson earned Hachette about $500 million over the last two years. Hachette disputes the accuracy of these numbers but wouldn’t provide me with different ones. Regardless, it seems safe to assume that Patterson, who puts out more best sellers in any given year than many publishing houses, is responsible for a meaningful portion of the company’s annual revenues. “I like to say that Jim is the rock on which we build this company,” David Young told me in his office one recent morning.
Like movie studios, publishing houses have long built their businesses on top of blockbusters. But never in the history of publishing has the blockbuster been so big. Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.
The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.
Patterson has been a beneficiary of the industry’s shifting economics, but he was also a catalyst for change at Little, Brown and in the world of publishing in general. When Patterson published his breakout book, “Along Came a Spider,” in 1993, Little, Brown was still a largely literary house, whose more commercial authors included the historian William Manchester, biographer of Winston Churchill. Patterson’s success in the subsequent years encouraged Little, Brown to fully embrace mass-market fiction. But more than that, Patterson almost single-handedly created a template for the modern blockbuster author.
There were, of course, blockbuster authors before Patterson, among them Mario Puzo, James Michener and Danielle Steel. But never had authors been marketed essentially as consumer goods, paving the way for a small group of writers, from Charlaine Harris to Malcolm Gladwell, to dominate best-seller lists — often with several titles at a time — in the same way that brands like Skippy and Grey Poupon dominate supermarket shelves. “Until the last 15 years or so, the thought that you could mass-merchandise authors had always been resisted,” says Larry Kirshbaum, former C.E.O. of the Time Warner Book Group, which owned Little, Brown until 2006. “Jim was at the forefront of changing that.”
The lesson was not easily learned. Publishing is an inherently conservative business. Patterson repeatedly challenged industry convention, sometimes over the objections of his own publisher. When Little, Brown was preparing to release “Along Came a Spider,” Patterson tried to persuade his publisher that the best way to get the book onto best-seller lists was to advertise aggressively on television. Little, Brown initially balked. Bookstores typically base their stocking decisions on the sales of an author’s previous books, and Patterson’s had not done particularly well. This was going to be the first of several novels about an African-American homicide detective in Washington, D.C., named Alex Cross; the prevailing wisdom was that the audience for a series built around a recurring character needed to be nurtured gradually. What’s more, large-scale TV advertising was rare in publishing, not only because of the prohibitive cost but also for cultural reasons. The thinking was that selling a book as if it were a lawn-care product could very well backfire by turning off potential readers.
Patterson wrote, produced and paid for a commercial himself. It opened with a spider dropping down the screen and closed with a voice-over: “You can stop waiting for the next ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ ” Once Little, Brown saw the ad, it agreed to share the cost of rolling it out over the course of several weeks in three particularly strong thriller markets — New York, Chicago and Washington. “Along Came a Spider” made its debut at No. 9 on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list, ensuring it favorable placement near the entrance of bookstores, probably the single biggest driver of book sales. It rose to No. 2 in paperback and remains Patterson’s most successful book, with more than five million copies in print.
It’s not hard to understand the popularity of “Along Came a Spider.” It’s a police procedural with an uncomplicated yet ever-twisting plot, some sex, betrayal and plenty of violence. The book’s hero, Cross, is smart and tough, yet sensitive and vulnerable. He has a Ph.D. in forensic psychology from Johns Hopkins, lost his wife in a drive-by shooting — leaving him to raise his two children alone — plays Gershwin on a beat-up baby-grand piano and volunteers at the soup kitchen of his local parish. Still, hundreds of suspenseful, fast-paced novels are published each year; few become successful, let alone blockbusters. It’s entirely possible, even quite likely, that without those ads, “Along Came a Spider ” never would have made the best-seller list, and that James Patterson would now be just another thriller writer.
Patterson quickly turned Alex Cross into a booming franchise, encouraging Little, Brown to unify the series with a single jacket style — shiny, with big type and bold, colorful lettering — and titles drawn from nursery rhymes (“Kiss the Girls,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “The Big Bad Wolf”), with their foreboding sense of innocence interrupted. “Jim was sensitive to the fact that books carry a kind of elitist persona, and he wanted his books to be enticing to people who might not have done so well in school and were inclined to look at books as a headache,” Kirshbaum says. “He wanted his jackets to say, ‘Buy me, read me, have fun — this isn’t “Moby Dick.” ’ ”
Patterson built his fan following methodically. Instead of simply going to the biggest book-buying markets, he focused his early tours and advertising efforts on cities where his books were selling best: like a politician aspiring to higher office, he was shoring up his base. From there, he began reaching out to a wider audience, often through unconventional means. When sales figures showed that he and John Grisham were running nearly neck and neck on the East Coast but that Grisham had a big lead out West, Patterson set his second thriller series, “The Women’s Murder Club,” about a group of women who solve murder mysteries, in San Francisco.
No sooner had Patterson established himself in the thriller market than he started moving into new genres. Kirshbaum didn’t initially like the idea; he was worried that Patterson would confuse his thriller fans. Patterson’s first nonthriller, “Miracle on the 17th Green,” published in 1996, did very well. That same year, Patterson wanted to try publishing more than one book despite Little, Brown’s view that he would cannibalize his own audience. In addition to “Miracle on the 17th Green,” Patterson published “Hide and Seek” and “Jack and Jill,” each of which was a best seller. From there, Patterson gradually added more titles each year. Not only did more books mean more sales, they also meant greater visibility, ensuring that Patterson’s name would almost always be at the front of bookstores, with the rest of the new releases. Patterson encountered similar resistance when he introduced the idea of using co-authors, which Little, Brown warned would dilute his brand. Once again, the books were best sellers. “Eventually, I stopped fighting him and went along for the ride,” Kirshbaum says.
Patterson’s vision of a limitless empire forced Little, Brown to reorder its priorities. Publishers have finite resources, and the demands of publishing Patterson were extraordinary even for a blockbuster author. Some Little, Brown editors worried that other books were suffering as a result. “To have one writer really start needing, and even demanding, the lion’s share of energy and attention was difficult,” Sarah Crichton, Little, Brown’s publisher from 1996 to 2001, told me. “There were times when some of us resented that. When Jim felt that resentment, he roared back. And he was too powerful to ignore.”
Crichton says she was continually surprised by the success of Patterson’s books. To her, they lacked the nuance and originality of other blockbuster genre writers like Stephen King or Dean Koontz. “Jim felt his ambitions weren’t being taken seriously enough,” Crichton says. “And in retrospect, he was probably right.”
WHEN I VISITED Patterson one day in Florida this fall, his wife met me at the door in tennis whites. Patterson soon followed in a white polo shirt, pleated blue trousers and boat shoes. He stopped in the kitchen to pour himself a glass of orange Fanta and led me upstairs to his home office, an airy, uncluttered wood-paneled room overlooking a lap pool — Sue, who is 10 years his junior, was an all-American swimmer at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970s — and the Intracoastal Waterway.
Patterson’s bookshelves are evenly divided between thrillers — books by Michael Connelly and Jeffrey Deaver — and more highbrow, literary fare like Philip Roth, John Cheever and Denis Johnson. When I asked him what he was reading now, Patterson mentioned “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel, the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, and “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s doorstop biography of Robert Moses. “My favorite books are very dense ones,” Patterson told me. “I love ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ and I’m a big James Joyce fan — well, at least until ‘Finnegans Wake.’ He kind of lost me there.”
There is no computer in Patterson’s office; he writes in longhand on a legal pad and gives the pages to his assistant to type up. Hanging above the round wooden table where he works is a photograph of President Clinton taken during the Monica Lewinsky scandal walking down the steps of Marine One with a copy of Patterson’s “When the Wind Blows” tucked under his arm. (Patterson’s popularity in Washington is apparently bipartisan: the wall of one of his downstairs bathrooms is plastered with fan mail from both George Bushes.) Neatly arranged on an adjacent L-shaped desk were 23 stacks of paper of varying heights, Patterson’s works in progress.Patterson grew up in Newburgh, N.Y., the son of a tough man who overcame a difficult childhood. Raised in the local poorhouse by a single mother, Patterson’s father earned a scholarship to Hamilton College and dreamed of becoming a writer or a diplomat but wound up selling insurance. “He didn’t have a father, and I don’t think he knew how to do it,” Patterson told me. (When his father retired, he wrote a novel and showed it to Patterson, already an established author. Patterson gave him the same advice he gives all first-time novelists: Write another one.)
Patterson discovered books late for a man who now makes a fortune writing them. Right after his senior year in high school, his family moved to a suburb of Boston, and Patterson got a job working nights and weekends as an aide at McLean Hospital in Belmont. With nothing else to do on his overnight shifts, he guzzled coffee and read.
At first, Patterson’s literary taste ran toward the highbrow — Jerzy Kosinski, Jean Genet, Evan S. Connell. “I was a snob,” he says. After graduating from Manhattan College in 1969, Patterson was given a free ride to Vanderbilt University’s graduate program in English literature but dropped out after just one year. “I had found two things that I loved, reading and writing,” he told me. “If I became a college professor, I knew I was going to wind up killing them both off.”
Instead, Patterson moved to New York and got a job as a junior copywriter at J. Walter Thompson. He also started reading commercial books like “The Exorcist” and “The Day of the Jackal.” “I always felt I could write a reasonable literary novel, but not a great one,” he says. “Then I thought, I can do this. I understand it, and I like it.” Patterson set up a typewriter on the kitchen table of his small apartment on 100th Street and Manhattan Avenue and wrote after work every night and on weekends. The result was his first novel, “The Thomas Berryman Number.”
More than a dozen publishers rejected Patterson’s manuscript before his agent, whom Patterson found in a newspaper article, finally sold it to Little, Brown for $8,500. “I remember going up to Boston — Little, Brown was still in Boston then — and walking into this library with a huge fireplace,” Patterson recalls of his first visit to his publisher. “On the bookshelves were all of these other Little, Brown books, ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman,’ ‘The Executioner’s Song.’ I’m thinking, They’re going to publish me? This is so cool.”
“The Thomas Berryman Number” is the story of a newspaperman in Nashville who is assigned to cover the assassination of a local politician and ends up on the trail of his murderer, a professional killer from the Texas panhandle named Thomas Berryman. The action bounces around a lot, ricocheting between Berryman’s various murders, the newspaperman’s reporting and his subsequent effort to turn his articles on the case into a book. “Berryman” bears none of the hallmarks of Patterson’s later thrillers. It’s more brooding and stylized, more classically noir. The bad guy — Berryman — is not a sadist or a psychopathic serial killer; he’s a hired gun. There is no real good guy, other than the reporter and narrator. At its best, the prose can call to mind Raymond Chandler. Here’s Berryman in the book’s opening pages, about to hitch a ride out of Texas with a man he would soon kill: “Thomas Berryman shaded his sunglasses so he could see the approaching car better. A finely made coil of brown dust followed it like a streamer. Buzzards crossed its path, heading east toward Wichita Falls.”
The book won a prestigious Edgar Award for a first novel from the Mystery Writers of America. No doubt, some of those who praised it at the time would now say Patterson has failed to live up to its literary promise. That’s not how Patterson sees it. “It’s more convoluted, more bleak — more of the sort of thing that some people will find praiseworthy,” he says of “The Thomas Berryman Number.” “The sentences are superior to a lot of the stuff I writenow, but the story isn’t as good. I’m less interested in sentences now and more interested in stories.”
After “The Thomas Berryman Number,” Patterson wrote several more books for a number of different publishers that were neither successful nor critically acclaimed. In 1980, he tried his hand at the “demonic child” genre — memorably popularized by the film “Rosemary’s Baby”— with the horror novel “Virgin” (which was later retitled and published as “Cradle and All”). In 1987, the year the movie “Wall Street” was released, he published a Wall Street thriller called “Black Market.”
Patterson is unsentimental about his early, somewhat clumsy attempts at popular fiction. “That’s an absolutely horrifying book,” he says of his 1977 novel, “Season of the Machete,” the story of a sadistic husband-and-wife team who carry out a series of gory machete murders on a Caribbean island. “I actually tell people not to read it.”
Several weeks later, I witnessed this firsthand at one of Patterson’s signings. When a woman handed him a copy of the book to autograph, he groaned. “Not my best work,” Patterson said. “It’s scaring me half to death,” the woman answered. “Don’t read it,” Patterson replied.
WHAT IS PERHAPS most remarkable about the Patterson empire is the sheer volume of books it produces. The nine hardcovers a year are really only the beginning. Nearly all of those books are published a second and third time, first as traditional paperbacks, then as pocket-size, mass-market paperbacks. “Scarcely a week goes by when we aren’t publishing something by James Patterson,” Young told me, only half-joking.
This summer, Patterson will begin his fourth thriller series, “Private,” which centers on a detective agency with branches all over the world. In addition, he does frequent thriller one-offs, including an annual summer beach read, usually set at or near a resort.
The thriller genre is generally not for the squeamish, but Patterson’s tend to be especially graphic, and the violence often involves sociopathic sexual perversion and attractive young women. For instance, the villain in his second Alex Cross novel, “Kiss the Girls,” is a psychopath who kidnaps, rapes and tortures college girls in an underground bunker; at one point, he even feeds a live snake into the anus of one of his victims.
As long as there has been mass-market fiction, it has had its detractors. In the late Victorian era, the English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold denounced “the tawdry novels which flare in the bookshelves of our railway stations, and which seem designed . . . for people with a low standard of life.” Yet even within the maligned genre, Patterson has some especially nasty critics. The Washington Post’s thriller reviewer, Patrick Anderson, called “Kiss the Girls” “sick, sexist, sadistic and subliterate.” Stephen King has described Patterson as “a terrible writer.”
Patterson has written in just about every genre — science fiction, fantasy, romance, “women’s weepies,” graphic novels, Christmas-themed books. He dabbles in nonfiction as well. In 2008, he published “Against Medical Advice,” a book written from the perspective of the son of a friend who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, and last year, he took on the supposed murder of the child pharaoh King Tut.
Patterson’s fastest-growing franchise is his young-adult books. He published his first Y.A. title, “Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment,” in 2005, not long after the languishing genre was jump-started by blockbusters like “Harry Potter” and “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” Last month, he introduced his third Y.A. series, “Witch and Wizard,” a dystopian fantasy about a teenage brother and sister who wake up to discover that they are living in a totalitarian regime and that they have supernatural powers that have made them enemies of the state. Despite some negative prepublication reviews, the book was critic-proof, making its debut at No. 1 on the Times best-seller list for children’s chapter books.
Each of Patterson’s series has its own fan base, but there are also plenty of people who read everything he writes. His books all share stylistic similarities. They are light on atmospherics and heavy on action, conveyed by simple, colloquial sentences. “I don’t believe in showing off,” Patterson says of his writing. “Showing off can get in the way of a good story.”
Patterson’s chapters are very short, which creates a lot of half-blank pages; his books are, in a very literal sense, page-turners. He avoids description, back story and scene setting whenever possible, preferring to hurl readers into the action and establish his characters with a minimum of telegraphic details. The first chapter of “The Swimsuit,” a recent thriller with a villain who abducts women for pornographic snuff films, opens with the kidnapping of a supermodel on a beach in Hawaii:
“Kim McDaniels was barefooted and wearing a blue-and-white-striped Juicy Couture minidress when she was awoken by a thump against her hip, a bruising thump. She opened her eyes in the blackness, as questions broke the surface of her mind.
“Where was she? What the hell was going on?”
TO MAINTAIN HIS frenetic pace of production, Patterson now uses co-authors for nearly all of his books. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course. This kind of collaboration is second nature to Patterson from his advertising days, and it’s certainly common in other creative industries, including television. But writing a novel is not the same thing as coming up with jokes for David Letterman or plotting an episode of “24.” Books, at least in their traditional conception, are the product of one person’s imagination and sensibility, rendered in a singular, unreproducible style and voice. Some novelists have tried using co-authors, usually with limited success. Certainly none have taken collaboration to the level Patterson has, with his five regular co-authors, each one specializing in a different Patterson series or genre. “Duke Ellington said, ‘I need an orchestra, otherwise I wouldn’t know how my music sounds,’ ” Pietsch told me when I asked him about Patterson’s use of collaborators. “Jim created a process and a team that can help him hear how his music sounds.”
The way it usually works, Patterson will write a detailed outline — sometimes as long as 50 pages, triple-spaced — and one of his co-authors will draft the chapters for him to read, revise and, when necessary, rewrite. When he’s first starting to work with a new collaborator, a book will typically require numerous drafts. Over time, the process invariably becomes more efficient. Patterson pays his co-authors out of his own pocket. On the adult side, his collaborators work directly and exclusively with Patterson. On the Y.A. side, they sometimes work with Patterson’s young-adult editor, who decides when pages are ready to be passed along to Patterson.
Some Patterson fans have complained in online forums that his co-written books feel too “cookie cutter” and lack the “roller coaster” feel of his previous work, but his sales certainly haven’t suffered. In at least one instance, Patterson took on a co-author in an effort to boost sales: last year, after noticing he wasn’t selling in Scandinavia, he invited Sweden’s best-selling crime writer, Liza Marklund, to collaborate with him on an international thriller. Their novel, “The Postcard Killers,” is just being published in Sweden and will be out in the U.S. this summer.
For the most part, though, Patterson draws his co-authors from the vast sea of struggling writers. A few weeks after visiting Patterson, I had lunch with one of his collaborators, Michael Ledwidge, in Manhattan. An amiable 39-year-old redhead in a black leather jacket and jeans, Ledwidge told me he grew up in a large, working-class Irish family in the Bronx. He wanted to be a cop, but when he applied in 1993, the Police Academy was oversubscribed. So he worked as a doorman and started writing a heist novel on the side. When Ledwidge learned that he and James Patterson shared an alma mater, Manhattan College, he delivered his half-finished manuscript to Patterson one morning at J. Walter Thompson. That night, his phone rang.
“It must be James Patterson,” Ledwidge joked to his wife.
It was. Patterson helped Ledwidge get his first book published and his writing career started. A few books later, Ledwidge had garnered some critical acclaim but not much commercial success. In 2003, Patterson suggested that they collaborate on “Step on a Crack,” his first Michael Bennett novel. Ledwidge leapt at the opportunity. The book went straight to No. 1 on the Times best-seller list. One book quickly led to another. In 2005, Ledwidge quit his day job as a cable-splicer at Verizon, left the Bronx for Connecticut and became a full-time co-author for James Patterson.
Ledwidge told me that he and Patterson have an easy working relationship, that Patterson playfully teases him when he writes a scene that Patterson doesn’t like and praises him when he’s pleased with something. I asked Ledwidge if he missed writing his own books. “Honestly? ” he asked. “Not at all. This is much more fun.”
ONE NIGHT IN Florida, Patterson and I met his wife and their 11-year-old son, Jack, for dinner at the Palm Beach Grill. When the maître d’ noticed Patterson entering the restaurant, she told him his table was ready. A well-dressed, white-haired woman quickly spun around.
“Are you James Patterson?” she asked excitedly.
“Yes,” Patterson answered.
“I just read your last one. What was it called?”
Patterson hesitated, unsure which book she was talking about.
“It was brutal!” she woman continued.
“ ‘The Swimsuit’?” Patterson ventured.
“Yeah,” the woman said. “Boy, was it brutal! I liked it, but it was brutal!”
After dinner, Sue and Jack went home, and Patterson and I had another glass of wine and continued talking. Patterson told me that Jack, who had been working on his laptop for most of the meal, only recently started to like reading. It required a deliberate effort on Patterson’s part. Beginning a few summers ago, Patterson told Jack he didn’t have to do any chores; he just had to read for an hour or so every day. The first summer Jack resisted. The second summer he didn’t complain. Last summer, he no longer needed any prodding. Patterson ticked off some of the books Jack had recently read and enjoyed — “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Huckleberry Finn” — with obvious pride.
Patterson told me that Jack’s initial reluctance to read helped inspire him to move into the Y.A. genre. He wanted to write books for preteens and teenagers that would be fun and easy to read. The young-adult realm was, in one sense, a big leap for an author known for violent thrillers. At the same time, it was a natural fit for Patterson, whose unadorned prose and fast-paced plots are well suited to reluctant readers. Promoting literacy among children has since become a pet cause for him; he has his own Web site, ReadKiddoRead.com, aimed at helping parents choose books for their children. “There are millions of kids who have never read a book that they liked, and that is a national disgrace,” Patterson said. “What I’m trying to do is at least wake up several thousand of them.”
Later, our conversation turned to Patterson’s critics. “Thousands of people don’t like what I do,” Patterson told me, shrugging off his detractors. “Fortunately, millions do.” For all of his commercial success, though, Patterson seemed bothered by the fact that he has not been given his due — that unlike King or even Grisham, who have managed to transcend their genres, he continues to be dismissed as an airport author or, worse, a marketing genius who has cynically maneuvered his way to best-sellerdom by writing remedial novels that pander to the public’s basest instincts. “Caricature assassination,” Patterson called it.
Patterson said too much has been made of his marketing savvy. (A few years ago, a professor at Harvard Business School went so far as to do a case study on him.) To Patterson, the explanation for his success is less complicated. Whether he’s writing about a serial killer, a love affair between a doctor and poet in Martha’s Vineyard or a middle-aged ad executive who miraculously becomes an exceptional putter and joins the senior golf tour, his books are accessible and engaging. “A brand is just a connection between something and a bunch of people,” Patterson told me. “Crest toothpaste: I always used it, it tastes O.K., so I don’t have any particular reason to switch. Here the connection is that James Patterson writes books that bubble along with heroes I can get interested in. That’s it.”
Patterson considers himself as an entertainer, not a man of letters. Still, he bristles when he hears one of his books described as a guilty pleasure: “Why should anyone feel guilty about reading a book?” Patterson said that what he does — coming up with stories that will resonate with a lot of people and rendering them in a readable style — is no different from what King, Grisham and other popular authors do. “I have a saying,” Patterson told me. “If you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something.”
Shortly before we left the restaurant, Patterson brought up “The Swimsuit” again. “I like ‘The Swimsuit,’ ” he said. “It’s nasty, but I like it. But I think I went a little farther than I needed to. I’m going to tone it down for the paperback.”
Patterson noticed a look of surprise on my face; it’s not every day that an author decides to rewrite one of his books. “Look,” he said, “if you’re writing ‘Crime and Punishment’ or ‘Remembrance of Things Past,’ then you can sit back and go: ‘This is it, this is the book. This is high art. I’m the man, you’re not. The end.’ But I’m not the man, and this is not high art.”
Whatever ambivalence once existed toward Patterson inside Little, Brown has long since been replaced by unequivocal enthusiasm and gratitude. Pietsch, who succeeded Crichton as publisher, says Patterson belongs in the same class as Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. “Every novel of Jim’s is master class in terms of plotting, pace and striking the right balance between action and emotional content,” Pietsch told me. “I have never read a writer who I think is better at keeping your eye moving forward and your heart moving forward.”
Thanks in part to Patterson, Little, Brown’s identity has changed considerably since he first visited the publisher’s former offices in a town house on Beacon Hill in Boston. In addition to Patterson, it is now home to such thriving commercial novelists as Michael Connelly and Stephenie Meyer, author of the wildly popular “Twilight” vampire series, as well as consistent best sellers like Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris. In 2008, a year in which many of its competitors were laying off employees and shutting down imprints, Little, Brown gave out Christmas bonuses.
In September, Little, Brown hosted an anniversary dinner in Patterson’s honor — “20 Years of Publishing James Patterson” — in a private room at Daniel, one of the most expensive restaurants in Manhattan. (Patterson left Little, Brown after “The Thomas Berryman Number” but returned in 1989, a few years before “Along Came a Spider,” with a book called “The Midnight Club.”) It wasn’t the sort of party you see often in the world of publishing, particularly now, with much of the industry in free fall. In addition to a meal of crabmeat salad, beef tenderloin and warm madeleines, the 45 guests were given party favors: bottles of red wine with labels that read “Vintage Patterson.”
Days earlier, Hachette Book Group and Patterson’s representative, the Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, hammered out the terms of a new 17-book deal. (Forbes reported that the contract is worth at least $150 million, though Little, Brown and Patterson dispute the number.) “Don’t you need to be home writing?” I joked with Patterson. He told me matter-of-factly that he’d already started 11 of the 17 books, and even finished more than a few of them.
Some toasts accompanied the dinner. Pietsch talked about the conflicting mythology surrounding who actually discovered Patterson. (“Not only did I know the editor who discovered James Patterson, I once ate a hamburger cooked on his grill.”) Patterson’s young-adult editor, Andrea Spooner, recounted her campaign to persuade her father, an English professor, that Patterson was a worthy writer. (“ ‘It’s worth noting, Daddy, that Dickens was one of the most popular and successful storytellers of his time, too!’ ”) When Young told the crowd that Patterson “contributes significantly” to five of Hachette’s six publishing groups, Patterson interjected: “What am I missing?”
“FaithWords,” Young replied, referring to the company’s religious imprint.
“I can do that,” Patterson said.
Patterson was the last to speak. The only man in the room without a tie, he wore a black T-shirt beneath his dark suit. “I’m sorry my good friend Stephen King couldn’t be here,” he began. “It must be bingo night in Bangor.”
Patterson then proceeded to tell one of his favorite stories about his mother’s father, who drove a frozen-foods truck in Upstate New York. During the summer, Patterson said, he would occasionally get up at 4 in the morning to ride along with him. As they drove over a mountain toward his first delivery, Patterson’s grandfather, an irrepressibly joyful man, would be singing at the top of his lungs. “One day he said to me: ‘Jim, I don’t care what you do when you grow up. I don’t care if you drive a truck like I do, or if you become the president. Just remember that when you go over the mountain to work in the morning, you’ve got to be singing,’ ” Patterson went on. “Well, I am.”
It’s no surprise that Patterson loves what he does. What’s not to love? He plays golf most mornings on Donald Trump’s Palm Beach course and spends the rest of the day working on guaranteed best sellers for which he is paid millions.
But the image of Patterson as a carefree man lucky enough to make money doing what he loves is a bit misleading. Patterson is nothing if not relentlessly ambitious. At J. Walter Thompson, he rose from the lowly station of junior copywriter to become the youngest creative director in the firm’s history — along the way dreaming up such ad slogans as “I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid” — and then the C.E.O. of the company’s North American operations. And as Patterson is the first to admit, he didn’t even like working in advertising. It goes without saying that writing was never just a hobby for him.
Patterson’s current preoccupation is Hollywood. Despite some attempts, including two Alex Cross films (both starring Morgan Freeman), which Patterson doesn’t think much of, some made-for-TV movies, a failed ABC series and a lot of books that were optioned but never developed, there still hasn’t been a blockbuster film or hit TV show based on one of his novels.
A few years ago, Patterson hired a former colleague from J. Walter Thompson, Steve Bowen, to oversee the development of his various movie and television projects. In 2007, they signed a deal with Avi Arad, the producer of the “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” films, to make a movie based on Patterson’s “Maximum Ride” young-adult series. In addition to trying to make sure that Patterson is more involved in the development process, Patterson and Bowen plan to produce some projects themselves. They have already raised the financing for a new Alex Cross movie that Patterson is helping to write.
When I met Bowen, a good-looking ex-Marine with a trimmed, graying beard, for coffee in Manhattan several weeks after the dinner at Daniel, he told me that part of his challenge is to change Hollywood’s perception of Patterson. He cited Clint Eastwood, whose name was once synonymous with “Dirty Harry” and spaghetti westerns, as a model for the sort of image transformation they are aiming to pull off. “Jim’s been wrongly stereotyped out there as the master of slash and gash,” Bowen said. “What people don’t fully understand is that there’s a unique talent and storytelling ability that has allowed him to do what he’s done in the book world. He just knows what’s going to grab people. The man has a golden gut.”
IN THE MID-1960S, Jacqueline Susann, the author of “Valley of the Dolls” (30 million copies sold), famously demonstrated — via hundreds of bookstore signings — that even blockbuster books are built one reader at a time. When Patterson was still making his name, he, too, barnstormed the country, signing books late into the night and exhausting publicists. These days, though, Patterson doesn’t do many bookstore events. He certainly doesn’t need the publicity, and he would rather be home with Sue and Jack. But on a Monday night in mid-November, he turned up at a car-dealership-size Barnes & Noble in a strip mall on Route 17 in Paramus, N.J., to promote his latest Alex Cross novel, “I, Alex Cross.”
This is Patterson’s 16th Cross book. Since “Along Came a Spider,” Cross has been through a lot. He has had several jobs and a number of ill-fated relationships; he has chased down numerous serial killers, a Russian mobster and a cult of goths; and has even written his own novel based on his late uncle’s investigation of a series of lynchings in Mississippi in the early 1900s.
Patterson came straight from the Newark airport, arriving early to sign the store’s “I, Alex Cross” stock in a back room. “We haven’t seen you in years,” said Dennis Wurst, a Barnes & Noble manager of author promotions who stopped by to say hello.
“How’s business?” Patterson asked.
“It helps when you write an Alex Cross book,” Wurst answered.
A month before, Barnes & Noble was caught in the crossfire of a preholiday pricing war between Wal-Mart and Amazon, with Wal-Mart dropping its prices on several hardcover blockbusters, including “I, Alex Cross,” to $8.99, more than 50 percent off the retail price. The battle set off a panic inside an already-anxious publishing industry: such deep discounting may help move merchandise, but along with trends like the proliferation of e-readers that instantly deliver many blockbusters for $9.99 or less, it further devalues books. The days of $25 hardcovers are surely numbered. Without those revenues, publishers will be even more reluctant to devote shrinking resources to new, unproven authors, which will, in turn, limit the range of books being published.
Whatever the future of publishing may hold, Patterson’s place in it seems secure. By the time he was introduced at the Paramus store, in excess of 300 people — more women than men, but fairly evenly divided, with a handful of children as well — had crowded into the bookstore’s large event space to see him. Stragglers were looking vainly for a spot on the wall to lean up against. Patterson, dressed casually in a sweater and slacks, delivered some brief remarks, took a handful of questions and then got down to the main event — signing books. To avoid a crush of people at the signing table, the staff divided the audience into several groups by letter. They were told that Patterson would autograph any of his books purchased in the Paramus store and one additional title from their own Patterson collection, but that he would not personalize any copies.
The system quickly broke down. Patterson was soon adding names and short inscriptions to books. He bantered easily with his fans as he wrote. Many asked about Jack; more than one wanted to know if he had brought any pictures.
“I skipped work to be here,” one woman said as her husband snapped a picture of her with Patterson.
“That’s always a good thing,” Patterson said.
“Well, I’m a police officer, so I guess that’s bad,” the woman replied.
“I won’t tell,” Patterson said.
There is something unique about the relationship between readers and their favorite authors, a sense of emotional intimacy that doesn’t exist, say, between sports fans and athletes. Patterson’s fans can read him virtually all year. They aren’t just addicted to his books; they see him as a constant companion, a part of their lives. One woman asked Patterson to sign a book for her grandmother, who passed away a few days earlier. “We used to read your books together, and I want to put it in her casket with her,” she said. Another told Patterson that he got her reading again after a recent stroke. A truck driver said that he had never read any of Patterson’s books but that he had listened to every single one of them on the road: “I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
Still another woman gestured at her elderly mother, whom she was pushing in a wheelchair: “She just had heart surgery. You make her happy, and that makes me happy.”
“And that makes me happy,” Patterson said.
After an hour of signing books without interruption, Patterson seemed to be doing fine. “We’re really cooking along here,” he told his publicist. A half-hour later, though, Patterson was starting to tire. “This is getting out of hand,” he said.
After almost two hours, a voice finally came over the loudspeaker: “Will all remaining groups please report to the James Patterson signing area.” Patterson signed his last books, posed for a few photographs with some of the store’s employees and got ready to go. “That was a fairly respectable crowd,” he said as we walked to the escalator.
On our way out, Patterson picked up on a theme he raised with me weeks earlier, during our conversation about his detractors. “This goes to the notion we were talking about in Florida, about my critics — people who call themselves open-minded but then make judgments about what I write,” he said. “Well, these people like it. They’re happy. So what’s the big deal?”