Nearly 6 percent of hardcover fiction sold in the U.S. each year bears his name, a figure that beats King, Brown and Grisham combined. But what the mega-selling author of 100-plus books is really concerned about is keeping you up all night with a good yarn.
Author David Carr Illustration AnotherExample
CONSIDER THIS FOR A MOMENT: One in every 17 hardcover novels sold in the U.S. has James Patterson’s name on it. One in 17. A spinner of dark, propulsive thrillers, Patterson is more than hot—he’s a force of nature, having sold more than 275 million books since he began publishing in 1976.
Of course, it’s not only Patterson wielding the pen. A former advertising exec who retired in 1996, Patterson now runs an authorial-industrial complex of sorts. Working by himself or with a small circle of co-authors, he writes or produces dozens of serial novels about his main characters (most notably Alex Cross and Michael Bennett), plus one-off thrillers, romance novels and young adult fiction. He is also deeply involved in every aspect of bringing his books—109 of them thus far—to the public.
In Patterson’s new novel, Private Berlin, written with Mark Sullivan and out this month, a top agent at a high-tech German private investigation firm suddenly disappears. As his colleagues follow his trail, the mystery deepens and the team is beset by lurking dangers and shocking discoveries. (Somewhat less suspenseful is the question of where Private Berlin will debut on the bestseller lists.)
When we called, Patterson was in New York with his son, Jack, for the premiere of Alex Cross, the latest movie to feature his unstoppable D.C. detective. “Is James Patterson there?” we asked. The person at the other end held the phone away from his ear and shouted, “James!” Then the same voice came back on the line. “Oh wait, I guess that’s me.”
HEMISPHERES: You represent a good chunk of the entire book industry. Shouldn’t you have “people” to answer the phone for you?
PATTERSON: I should. I was making an appearance at a New York college, and the kid who arranged it asked me, “Where is your entourage?” I don’t have one. I like to travel light. I parked in the lot and just went in.
HEMISPHERES: With Alex Cross coming out, an entourage would seem to be required.
PATTERSON: Nah, I’m just here and doing whatever I can to help the movie.
HEMISPHERES: It’s been more than 10 years since the last Cross movie, Along Came a Spider. Given how cinematic your books are—driven by action, making detours for backstory only when necessary—you’d expect there to be more filmed versions of them.
PATTERSON: The Hollywood thing drives me insane. There are so many people involved in the process who shouldn’t be. It’s not that they aren’t smart; it’s just that they aren’t street-smart. When I was in advertising, I simply assumed there were more people out there who were both creative and analytical, and that those people would be able to stand back and go, “Well, that one really isn’t that good; that one is.” You’d think that would be necessary for decision-makers in the movies.
HEMISPHERES: But since your stories dominate popular culture in print, it seems a given that the big screen would gobble them up, too.
PATTERSON: I think I’ve been “caricature assassinated.” Movies are a funny business in that they do these things that are much more commercial than most books, and yet somehow they think of the results as high art. They think of me as an “airplane author.”
HEMISPHERES: That hurts a bit, seeing as I’m interviewing you for an in-flight magazine.
PATTERSON: I guess I’m going to have to live with that. My son, Jack, who’s 14 now, is an absolute maniac about United Airlines—he insists that I fly them. He was very excited that I was going to be in their magazine.
HEMISPHERES: Tell him thanks for that. So how exactly did you end up being the kind of guy who sells more books than Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined?
PATTERSON: I grew up in Newburgh, N.Y., a small town. Then my family moved to Lexington, Mass., and I got a job at McLean Hospital, just outside Cambridge. At that point I had done well in school, but I wasn’t a big reader. I worked a lot of night shifts, so I started reading my brains out. It was all serious stuff. After reading Ulysses and One Hundred Years of Solitude, I said, “I can’t do that—I’m not good enough, I’m just not smart enough.” And then I started reading commercial novels like The Exorcist and The Day of the Jackal. I liked them. I thought I might be able to do something like that.
HEMISPHERES: You do a good amount of young adult fiction, and you’ve been very successful in getting kids interested in books at a time when conventional wisdom suggests they’re only interested in what’s onscreen.
PATTERSON: I’m very tight with my teenager. I love writing for that audience. I think it’s some of the best work that I do, and I think it’s important. We can’t solve healthcare problems, we can’t solve the economic situation, we can’t solve global warming, but we can get our kids reading. People need to understand that it’s not the school’s job to find books for our kids—it’s our job. They don’t need another phone; they need books. That’s what I’m trying to do. We’re running a program in Palm Beach, Fla. [where Patterson lives], where we provide books and teachers for after-school reading.
HEMISPHERES: So kids read you, adults read you, and if you looked at a Venn diagram of, say, the Bushes and the Clintons, a love of your books is about the only place they’d overlap. What is it that gives your work such universal appeal?
PATTERSON: I like to think that I’ve created enduring characters and that I do a good job of tying emotion to plot. Some people say it’s too sentimental or too corny, but I don’t buy into that. I don’t write realism.
HEMISPHERES: Most New York detectives don’t have 10 kids, like Michael Bennett.
PATTERSON: If you want realism, there’s plenty of realism out there. My plots really hurtle along, you can feel for the hero, and the villains are usually interesting. With Alex Cross, for example, I wanted to write a larger-than-life African-American hero who wasn’t some kind of caricature with a boom box.
HEMISPHERES: When it’s Alex Cross’ turn to show up in one of your books, do you ever think, “Oh, you again”?
PATTERSON: Not yet. What keeps me interested is how he changes personally, and then how his family is doing. I’m very family-oriented, and I love telling stories. That’s what drives me.
HEMISPHERES: I’m surprised you work as much as you do, given how well you’ve done. You have made a couple of bucks writing books, after all.
PATTERSON: I don’t like it when people ask me when I’m going to retire. You don’t retire from play, you retire from work. And I don’t work.
HEMISPHERES: Considering how much you write—in longhand, no less—I wonder if your hand ever wears out.
PATTERSON: That only happens when we do the autographing thing. Otherwise, I have a pretty damn strong right wrist, I guess.
HEMISPHERES: Are you snotty about your pens?
PATTERSON: I’m not too snotty about anything.
HEMISPHERES: So there’s no golden instrument?
HEMISPHERES: What a letdown. Do you miss advertising?
PATTERSON: Zero. I didn’t like it when I was doing it.
HEMISPHERES: How does the typical writing day go for you?
PATTERSON: I’ll get up very early, 5:30 or so, and write some, then maybe three or four days a week I’ll go play nine holes of golf, come back, write some more and have lunch with my wife, Sue. Two or three days a week I take a 45-minute nap, work some more, then spend time with Sue and Jack for the rest of the evening. That’s it, seven days a week.
HEMISPHERES: Is there any part of you that fears for the bookselling industry and infrastructure?
PATTERSON: Totally. We’ve lost Borders already, we’re losing a lot of independents, and libraries are obviously in more trouble than they were. I think it’s a disaster if people in this country have no place to go to buy books and talk about books and get recommendations.
HEMISPHERES: Tablets are flourishing, of course. Is there hope in that? Though I guess one of the bummers about people consuming books on tablets is that you can’t see what they’re reading.
PATTERSON: You think it bums you out? I can no longer just walk onto a plane and see my books everywhere.
HEMISPHERES: Do you keep close track of your sales?
PATTERSON: I’m not big on that stuff. I don’t know how many books I’ve done. I don’t know how many I’ve sold. I’m not wired that way. It just doesn’t interest me. I don’t care if I’m No. 1.
PATTERSON: There you go. You think I’m wired like you. I’m not. It may be partly that when it has happened this much, I just don’t care anymore. All I care about, really, is that the book is good. That’s all.
HEMISPHERES: Well then, what’s good? How do you define a success?
PATTERSON: Once you strap in, I’ll give you a nice ride. If you’re reading my book at night in bed and planning to read three chapters, and you end up reading 10 because you’re enjoying it—that’s a success.
DAVID CARR has written just one book, the bestseller The Night of the Gun. He’s currently auditioning co-authors for his next 100.
Number of books written (alone or with a co-author): 109
Number of books sold worldwide: ≈275 MILLION
Annual earnings, as Forbes‘ No. 1 top-selling author in 2012: $94 MILLION
Consecutive New York Times No. 1 bestselling novels: 19
Number of publishers that rejected his first book: 31
Estimated amount of three-year contract with current publisher: $150 MILLION
Number of books required in those three years: 17
Number of novels Charles Dickens wrote in his lifetime: 20