Tuesday, August 31, 2010

James Patterson: Henry Ford would be proud!

I have been travelling a lot recently for work. Since I am not a big fan of $300 cuff links, perfumes or expensive chocolate boxes, normally I wait for my flights in the airport bookstores.

That's how I suddenly realized how popular James Patterson is. At any given bookstore, I would find at least five or six of his books. I did some research and what I found was amazing: he holds the New York Times record for most Hardcover Fiction bestselling titles by a single author (56 total), which is also a Guinness World Record. Recently his books have sold more than those of Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown taken together [thanks, Wikipedia!]

How does he manage to do that?

First of all - and this might be the most relevant factor, because it influences all the rest - he is not a proper author. He doesn't have sad stories about his manuscripts being rejected, he didn't publish short stories in the local newspaper and he doesn't get all poetical when he speaks about writing. In reality, he was a very successful professional in the advertising industry before he ventured into writing.

By being an outsider, he wasn't bound by the tradition or the ethics of the writing "clique" and thus could shape his books however he wanted. It turns out that his day job gave him a very interesting style. There are few characters and they are all very simple and easy to read. Chapters are two or three pages long, always ending on a cliff hanger. His prose is simple and sentences short.

In other words, his books bring to books the 30-second ad spot mentality - no waste of time, just the essentials. (Whether or not this is good literature is another question).

The second factor is that he understands the value of brands. Of course, he is not alone here: Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is also a brand, as well as many other characters. However, he does not have one or two "brands" - he has about seven of them. And he develops them to cater to specific niches. He has a series of books appealing to teenagers, another one to house wifes, a third one to fantasy fans and so on. Not surprisingly, the marketing term "versioning" comes to mind.

So, with that we have understood why his novels are popular - he is really good at writing stuff that sells well to different niches. But how does he manage to be so prolific?

That's factor three - and here it gets interesting.

It turns out he doesn't write the books himself.

Yep - he has "writing associates" who do most of the heavy lifting for him.

Currently he has no less than eight of this "associates" - I believe one for each "brand". Because of strict contractual terms, they don't disclose exactly how they working relationship functions, so we have to relay on what Patterson himself says. According to a 2006 Times magazine profile:
"He'll whip up a detailed outline, then ship it off to his collaborator for a first draft. "I may talk to them on a couple-week basis," he says. "And then at a certain point I'll just take it over and write as many as seven drafts. There were a couple of them that really were a mess," he adds ruefully. "At least twice it's been, 'I wish that I just started this thing myself.'"
While this type of collaboration is not exactly new - authors such as Robert Ludlum (of Jason Bourne fame) and Tom Clancy have been doing a lot of it lately - Patterson has taken it to the next level and created a well oiled machine that cranks out about eight books a year.

So, back in the airport, I ended up buying one of his Alex Cross books and reading it on the plane.

Did I like it? No. Is it good literature? No. Will I buy another one? No.

But is it a beautiful display of business model innovation? Certainly. He focuses on what he does best - creating stories and managing brands - and outsources all the rest.

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