by Lynn Messina
I can’t figure James Patterson out. I see his name all over the place—on the bus, on the subway, on the platform of the Long Island Rail Road—and I always wonder what exactly he does, other than habitually stamp his name onto books. It seems inconceivable to me that he writes novels at the seemingly supersonic pace at which they appear. The best I can surmise is that he’s a Reuben-esque master plotter overseeing a workshop of apprentices who fill in the white spaces he leaves behind.
Then last week I read an item about an ad he took out in Publisher’s Weekly advocating for the future of books, and I realize he’s a champion of the writing underclass.
Cool, I think. Me, too.
I click on the ad, which is red and alarming, with letters that seem to tremble in fear, as if literacy itself were on the endangered species list. It’s a cry for help—for the government (local, state, federal, he’s not choosy) to rescue the deeply troubled publishing industry. The banks and the car makers got their bailout; now it’s publishing’s turn.
I’m not opposed to government bailouts on principal—I’m offended, yes, but I see their purpose, especially when they work out and the government makes a tidy sum in interest. But as a writer and a reader, I find the idea of a bailout for the publishing industry appalling. Of course, I see the similarities among the industries: Just like banking and car manufacturing, publishing is in a bind of its own making and the five or six companies that remain are lumbering, large institutions (too big not to fail). But that’s where the comparison ends because the last time I checked, thousand of people weren’t building four-door sedans in their basements or taking deposits on their front porches. Despite recent technological innovations, banking and car manufacturing remain stubbornly un-DIY endeavors.
You can’t say the same thing about publishing. Technology has been hugely disruptive to the industry. Recent innovations have upended it so thoroughly that any bottom-feeder can set up a publishing house in his or her own living room. Throwing the entire U.S. Treasury at Penguin isn’t going to put the self-pubbing genie back in the bottle.
But the fix the publishing industry is in today isn’t wholly attributable to technology. Long before the Kindle, publishers had settled on a blockbuster model, in which the lion’s share of resources go into a small group of authors. These heavily promoted writers sell well. The publishing company puts more support behind their next book, which sells even better. The rest of the authors on the company’s list have to fend for themselves. So they do, putting their own money into marketing and building their own relationships with reviewers.
James Patterson has benefited hugely from the blockbuster model—which is only fair, since, according to The New York Times, he “almost single-handedly created a template for the modern blockbuster author.” In 2011, approximately one in four of all hardcover suspense or thriller novels sold was by James Patterson, and in 2012, he made $94 million, according to Forbes.
To the cynical observer, it might seem that when James Patterson calls for a bailout for the publishing industry, he’s in effect calling for a bailout for himself.
But here’s the crazy thing about Mr. Patterson’s determination to keep power concentrated in the hands of a few: He doesn’t need a publisher. Now, I don’t mean that like in the way, say, I don’t need a publisher (only some grit, some ingenuity, a royalty-free image and $25 for Amazon’s expanded distribution). No, I mean James Patterson really doesn’t need a publisher. For years now, he’s been managing a staff of two editors, untold assistants, a brand manager, a marketing director and a sales manager. He does all his own advertising, oversees cover design and helps decide when his books should be released. In fact, he’s already so much his own publisher that his actual publisher called him that in a 2010 New York Times article: “Jim is at the very least copublisher of his own books.”
In addition to being involved in every aspect of his books’ production, he’s made a ridiculous number of smart, innovative choices that his publisher fought him on. He wanted to advertise Along Came a Spider on television; Little, Brown said it would devalue his product. Patterson wrote, produced and paid for a commercial, and Along Came a Spider debuted at No. 9 on the Times best-sellers list. He wanted to move into other genres; Little, Brown said it would confuse his readers. Patterson wrote Miracle on the 17th Green, and it was adapted into a TV movie. He wanted to publish more than one book a year; Little, Brown said it would cut into his own audience. Patterson put out Hide & Seek and Jack & Jill in 1996, and they both made the Times list. He wanted to use co-authors; Little, Brown said it would dilute his brand. Patterson coauthored books with Peter de Jong, Andrew Gross, Maxine Paetro and Howard Roughan, and these, too, became best sellers.
For almost twenty years, James Patterson has been running the most successful one-man publishing company in the world over the objections of his actual publishing company. I find this staggering, and more than anything it makes me wonder who he is. He’s clearly the smartest man in the room, with a genuinely intuitive understanding of his audience, and yet he thinks the industry that tried to lead him astray time and again needs to be saved. I find this baffling.
Perhaps the explanation for this contradiction lies in Mr. Patterson’s misty-eyed perception of publishing as a place that still nurtures and mentors talent. “If there are no bookstores, libraries, no serious publishers with passionate, dedicated, idealistic editors,” he asks in a New York Times ad on the same theme, “what will happen to our literature?” The creator of the blockbuster template is so far removed from the bottom line that he can’t see other writers being strung up on it. Most authors get a single shot, and if they fall short of best-seller-dom, they’re out. And they, of course, are the lucky ones because the vast majority of writers never get a chance to fail. For millennia, rejected writers have been quietly stashing unwanted manuscripts in drawers, closets and dusty boxes under the bed and walking away. Finally, they have a reasonable method by which to get their story out there.
And they do it for nothing—compared with publishing editors who do it for next to nothing, which is, of course, something. Undeterred, indie writers pour their time, their energy and their cold hard cash into their book because they believe in themselves and they believe in the glorious dream of The Published Author. What’s more passionate, dedicated or idealistic than that?
Without question, publishing has had its big wins, and Mr. Patterson lists 38 of his favorite “important books” of the last 100 years. But the system has always been arbitrary, random, capricious and insular. A Wrinkle in Time, which is on the list, was rejected 26 times for being too different and for featuring a female protagonist. It was published only after Madeline L’Engle met a guest at her mother’s tea party who knew John Farrar of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The system might have come through in the end for L’Engle, but it’s naïve to think that there weren’t other equally talented writers of important books whose mothers didn’t have tea parties for people who knew people. Say what you will about the indie movement but it’s the first truly egalitarian publishing program in the history of the world.
And that, ultimately, is why I can’t figure James Patterson out. He’s among the most popular writers ever, yet he positions himself as an old-school elitist. He subscribes entirely to a system that, if left to itself, would have failed him years ago. He worries about the future of publishing when in fact he himself is the future of publishing. He’s the prototype of the indie writer and the archetype of the establishment. But most confoundingly of all, he changed the publishing industry and now he’s decrying change to the publishing industry. I get that change can be alarming but just because something is the only system you’ve ever known, doesn’t mean it’s the only system. Empires rise, empires fall and somehow we continue to discover important books.
But, yes, by all means, lets save the libraries.
Lynn Messina is the cofounder of Authors Unbound, the first and only reading series devoted to indie writers. She’s the author of eight novels, including the Girls’ Guide to Dating Zombies. Her essays have appeared in Self, EW and Modern Bride, and she’s a regular contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog.