How James Patterson Will Save Literature
The campy king of the airport kiosk has quietly become the patron saint of libraries.
YOU KNOW THE NAME. You’ve seen it, embossed and shimmering, in that big, bold text, in airport kiosks and supermarkets, in bookstores and bulk-buy warehouses, practically anyplace where a book might be sold. There’s a simple reason for that: James Patterson is aggressively better than anyone else on the planet when it comes to making books people love to read.
With more than 305 million copies of his 148 books in print, Patterson has the distinction of having been the top-selling fiction writer (living or dead) of the 2000s, according to Nielsen BookScan. He holds a Guinness World Record for being the first author to sell more than one million e-books. This year, Forbes determined that Patterson is not only the world’s highest-paid writer by a long shot, raking in $63 million more than the runner-up, he’s also the seventh-highest-paid celebrity in the world—outranking Taylor Swift and LeBron James.
The breadth of that power is difficult to reconcile with the man himself, a casual fellow with untamed eyebrows and a paternal air. He’s just arrived early (he’s always early) to the Manhattan headquarters of his longtime publisher, Little, Brown and Company, where the James Patterson team has 10 full-time employees. Coming from Briarcliff Manor in Westchester, New York—where he owns a lavish house overlooking the Hudson, in addition to his 20,000-square-foot home in Palm Beach, Florida—he’s in town today for a slate of afternoon meetings. Tonight, he’ll catch a Yankees game with his 17-year-old son, Jack, which means he’ll miss the new episode of Zoo, the prime-time CBS series based on his 2012 novel. He’s just notched another No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list for his latest hardcover, Alert. “Yes, I love that people are reading the books,” he says, waving off a congratulations. “It doesn’t matter to me, strangely.”
Maybe that’s because if Patterson pays attention to the good, he has to pay attention to the bad. And there has been bad. Stephen King once called him “a terrible writer.” Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson trashed his work as “sick, sexist, sadistic, and subliterate.” With the help of an army of paid co-writers, he’s so prolific—17 books for adults and kids in 2015—that his name has become a kind of critical shorthand for mass-market mediocrity.
It matters not. Millions of people are almost pathologically addicted to his tales of veteran cops and kidnappers, lending Patterson access to an expansive demographic. His thrillers are the most requested at Rikers Island, the New York City jail. For the last eight years, he’s been the most borrowed author in British libraries. Against the stereotypes, despite his characters’ many mutilations and gory deaths, women are his most loyal fans.
All this is why the thing he does care about deeply right now may stand a fighting chance: reading. Patterson’s philanthropic preoccupation is the recreational and cultural decline of books. This year, he’s on track to give $1.75 million to school libraries. Last year, he donated $1 million to independent bookstores. And in May, he announced his own children’s imprint, Jimmy Patterson, which will release up to a dozen young readers’ books a year and donate Patterson’s profits to his literacy programs.
So yes, you already know him. You don’t have to love him. But there’s one thing you need to recognize James Patterson as: the guy who might save books.
This is the part of nonfiction that bores Patterson, the part when the narration jerks back half a century to trace the chain of events that led to the present. Patterson’s mega-sellers don’t do this. “I find a lot of nonfiction to be really tedious,” he told an interviewer in 2008. “The first chapter, you go, ‘Oh, that was really interesting,’ and then the second chapter: ‘80 years earlier, Harry’s aunt was born in Tupelo, Mississippi,’ and I’m like, ‘Hold it—I don’t need all that information.’”
But to appreciate the improbability of Patterson’s success, you do need some information. He was born in 1947 and grew up in Newburgh, New York, a place he describes as “a tough little town with a lot of problems.” His father sold insurance, his mother taught at a Catholic school, and although he was valedictorian of his all-boys parochial high school, he wasn’t much of a reader.
That changed after graduation. When his family moved to Massachusetts, the Manhattan College undergrad got a job at renowned psych facility McLean Hospital. He worked the night shift summers and holidays. “I just started reading, reading, reading,” Patterson recalls. Cambridge, home of Harvard University, wasn’t far away, so he frequented its secondhand bookstores. “All of a sudden, I’m reading [Mexican American novelist] John Rechy and [French writer] Jean Genet, and I’m like, ‘Holy shit: People don’t all think the way they do in Orange County, New York.’” He delighted in the discovery of magic realism (Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was a favorite) and was dazzled by one of McLean’s patients, poet Robert Lowell, who’d regularly hold court in his room. “That was spectacular,” Patterson says. “It influenced me to be around a famous writer.”
As an English graduate student at Vanderbilt, he scribbled “goofy, marijuana-laced” fiction. (It was the early 1970s.) Then Patterson moved to Manhattan, where he took a job as a junior copywriter at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson after meeting one of the agency’s employees. “She was wearing a T-shirt to work and had a Viet Cong flag in her office, and she said she was making a fortune,” he told Variety in 1994. “I thought, ‘This could be OK.’ ”
But he was still interested in literature. Patterson never supposed he could be a writer by trade; he’d read Ulysses twice and knew he was incapable of that level of craft. But popular fiction, like The Exorcist and The Day of the Jackal? Those kinds of books he might be able to emulate.
So he tried, nights and weekends, writing on a typewriter in his apartment kitchen. Gradually, he sculpted The Thomas Berryman Number, a suspense novel 31 publishers rejected before Little, Brown bought the manuscript. The book signing took place at the World Trade Center in 1976. No one but his girlfriend came.
The following year, Patterson received a call from a woman on the Edgar Awards committee, inviting him to the mystery writers’ annual banquet. The event was only four days away; Patterson already had a commitment. “But you won!” the woman blurted out. He canceled his plans. “When I was in the audience, I was still frightened that she lied to me just to get me to go,” he remembers. She hadn’t: The Thomas Berryman Number won the 1977 award for best first novel. He hadn’t prepared a speech. “I said something to the effect of, ‘I guess I’m a writer now.’”
Rising early every day to write before heading to the office, he completed five more modestly successful novels in the next decade, including the Rosemary’s Baby imitation Virgin (now titled Cradle and All), and Black Market, a 1986 conspiracy thriller Kirkus Reviews trashed as an “abysmally dumb terrorist novel whose plot would embarrass a Superman movie.”
In the early 1980s, Patterson’s girlfriend was diagnosed with a brain tumor; the illness ended her life. It took him years to recover. Ultimately, her death motivated him to work more deliberately, and he set out to write a popular book.
By 1991, Patterson was the North American CEO at J. Walter Thompson. There he co-authored a study that asked more than 5,000 anonymous Americans about sex, God, family, and politics. The findings, which Prentice Hall published as The Day America Told the Truth, suggested some uncomfortable things about the nation’s interior life: A quarter of respondents said they’d abandon their families for $10 million; 7 percent claimed they would kill a stranger for that same amount of money. The survey also suggested that African Americans hewed more closely to traditional values than other demographics—along with Hispanics, they were ingrained with a sense of moral duty. Patterson used the research to cast his next protagonist, Alex Cross: a likable African American detective and psychologist working against the bias of class in Washington, D.C. A gripping psycho-thriller, Along Came a Spider had its hero tracking a fame-obsessed serial killer.
Little, Brown liked it so much they signed Patterson to a two-book contract. He wanted to advertise the novel with a commercial, but the publishers were skeptical. “I said to them, ‘Let’s do television.’ They said, ‘We don’t do television,’ ” he remembers. So he produced and shot the 15-second clip for the serial-killer mystery on his own dime; they later agreed to split the cost. “You can stop waiting for the next Silence of the Lambs,” was the spot’s closing provocation. It aired in three markets. On January 31, 1993, Along Came a Spider debuted at No. 9 on The New York Times hardcover fiction list. Critical response was lukewarm, but the paperback debuted at No. 2 on the bestseller list and sold more than two million copies in a year. After 18 years and seven published novels, Patterson was now a bestselling author.
Today, there are 20 published novels in the main Alex Cross series (soon to be 21), three movies, a holiday spin-off, and a book of historical fiction about the detective’s ancestors, “authored” by the character. Five other Patterson-created adult fiction series also publish new installments annually. In addition to these series, Patterson has released more than 32 standalone thrillers, five romance novels, and two nonfiction books. He’s also written a picture book, and then there are all the other books he’s written for young readers.
In order to maintain this pace of production, Patterson employs a small stable of co-authors, including former colleagues who wrote fiction on the side and an ex-doorman who’d sought him out for advice. This is a major contention for Patterson’s detractors. (“The lowest common denominator of cynical, scuzzy, assembly-line writing,” wrote critic Patrick Anderson.) In other creative disciplines, collaboration is common. But in literature, Patterson is seen as a brand manager, even though that’s inaccurate.
His role is more like superstar editor and auteur: He conceives every title’s premise and plot, drafts outlines of 50 to 80 pages, then hands them to a co-writer. In Publishers Weekly, co-author Mark Sullivan described the outlines as “trusted navigational charts” that can take six weeks to sketch. The co-authors connect the plot points, rough out prose, and add ideas. They file sections every few weeks to Patterson, who swats back notes.
Patterson writes every day—longhand, with a pencil and paper. He still rises with the sun, works for a few hours, breaks to play golf, returns to work, then knocks off for dinner to hang out with his wife and son. He still makes those commercials, but now he’s starring in them, dressed like a pirate or wearing sunglasses and a sequined fuchsia jacket. He doesn’t have to do this—it’s not like he needs the exposure—but, he says, “It doesn’t take a lot of time, and it’s easy.”
Patterson has only sent one email in his life (“a test email”), but he’s not a technophobe: He travels with a tablet. He used to read voraciously, finishing around 100 books a year, but his pace has slowed since he’s taken on children’s literature. “It’s unfortunate—I’m not as stimulated,” he says. His literary taste is inclusive and curious, from “junk fiction” (his words) to “serious stuff.” Patterson cites Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as the work that most changed his writing life. He wants kids to find those formative books too.
About a decade ago Patterson noticed that his elementary-school-age son wasn’t reading beyond obligation. Jack’s friends weren’t reading either. Patterson saw this as a symptom of miseducation: Kids weren’t being introduced to books they liked in school. They were forced to read hard, boring ones—so they thought reading was hard and boring. Patterson set out to write books kids would like.
In 2005, he published the first book in the Maximum Ride young-adult fantasy series. Within the last decade, Patterson has racked up more New York Times bestsellers for kids than any other living author, and his children’s books have sold more than 30 million copies.
But still, he felt he could do more. In 2013, he took out a full-page ad in The New York Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly advocating for government intervention to help save America’s books, bookstores, and libraries. He also established a grant program for school libraries. Two months in, the fund had 28,000 requests. “Twenty-eight thousand just saying, ‘Please help us: We haven’t been able to buy books in seven years, we don’t have a librarian, the shelves are literally falling apart, how can we put books in here?” In 2015, Patterson raised his school contribution to $1.75 million.
In addition to $1 million in grants to U.S. booksellers in 2014, Patterson topped off his commitment to boosting independent bookstores with around $170,000 in grants to British and Irish independents this year. It’s worth noting that these types of stores are, generally speaking, the places that would steer customers away from his books. No matter to him. “I have never been a fan of payback,” he says. “It’s a good thing to do.” Currently, he’s considering going to Iowa before the caucus and holding a rally to draw attention to the overlooked issue of literacy.
Maybe it’s crazy to think that an author as critically derided and ravenously consumed as Patterson can mount a substantial effort (no matter how moneyed) to save books in America. But Patterson’s big numbers and bombastic book operation stand in stark contrast to his relatively modest words on being a successful novelist.
“I thought it was arrogant to think that I could be a writer,” he says, sitting across from an entire wall of his books. “Somebody [famously] said, ‘You’re lucky if you find something you like to do in life, and it’s a miracle if somebody will actually pay you to do that.’
“That’s kind of what happened with me.”