Thanks to successful entrepreneur Robin Callan of Room Fu, I read this article on James Patterson, the author of dozens of thrillers, and how he changed the publishing business. It’s a fascinating read and shows how someone with a solid product or service can change the way an entire industry does business.
Here are my fave parts of the article (My comments in bold caps):
IT’S ABOUT THE SALES STUPID: 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.)
UNCONVENTIONAL, BUT DOABLE IF YOU MAKE IT WORK AND BRING IN THE SALES: 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.
CAREER CHANGERS DON’T HAVE TO START AT THE BOTTOM: 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.
PEOPLE TREAT YOU THE WAY YOU LET THEM TREAT YOU: 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.
FOLLOW YOUR GUT, TRY SOMETHING NEW:
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.
KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER: 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.” ’ ”
“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.”
SHOW THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE ALWAYS DONE THIS, WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE: 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.
GROW YOUR PRODUCT LINE: No sooner had Patterson established himself in the thriller market than he started moving into new genres…..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.
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.
OK, YOU SHOULD PROBABLY BE NICER TO YOUR DADDY: 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.
BE BRUTALLY HONEST WITH YOURSELF AND DO WHAT YOU’LL BE THE BEST AT: At first, Patterson’s literary taste ran toward the highbrow — Jerzy Kosinski, Jean Genet, Evan S. Connell. “I was a snob,” he says. …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.”
NOT EVERY IDEA IS A GOOD ONE: “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.”
BE YOURSELF: 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.
I WANT THIS JOB! 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. …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.
HERE’S HOW IT WORKS: 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.
GIVE BACK: 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.
WHAT NEXT? 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….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.
BETTER THAN A BUSINESS BOOK, HUH?