James Patterson: Prototypical Indie Author?

 

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.    

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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.

 

34 replies
  1. avatar
    Bee says:

    I can describe the big house I work at using a term by DFW: “a petrified bureaucracy.” Most of the people I work with are intelligent, creative, and above all passionate about this industry. We knew our salaries would be low, the expectations high, and the hours long. The problem here is that the people I work with are not the people in charge. The people in charge are frazzled, keep grasping at straws when it comes to going digital, are scared to lose their authors to self pub, are pouring money into things that are not books, and relying on big data and big box stores to tell us what will sell. Whatever happened to gut instinct? The worst part is I’ve seen some of the most creative people leave the industry altogether because they can’t stand it anymore. Authors are next. Good thing is that there will be lots of experienced publishing professionals looking for freelance work in the coming months and years. Take note, self pubbers.

    Reply
  2. avatar
    Russell Blake says:

    First of all, when did it become the government’s mandate to provide bailouts for failing, for-profit businesses? That’s merely redistributing the dollars from taxpayers, among whom are profitable businesses, to those which are unprofitable due to either circumstance (obsolescence) or mismanagement (making bad bets, failing to correctly predict technology shifts, etc.).

    I understand that the banking industry was able to convince the government that it had to subsidize its bad bets using taxpayer money (or the sky would fall and nobody would get their huge bonuses), and GM was able to convince it that the loss of jobs and face required the government to be daddy doling out cash, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to take businesses that deservedly are on life support and keep them alive. It just means that governments make stupid decisions because it’s not their money.

    So there’s my first problem with his concept. The second is that he feels that this execrable idea should be extended to his buddies at the Big 5. Which are failing precisely because they failed at their business – calling trends correctly and modifying their approach to remain profitable in the new environment. At heart, that’s the job of all businesses after their widget manufacturing or sales operations are removed from the equation. And there is a penalty to calling it wrong. You go out of business, and if your function is still a necessary one, you will be replaced by something better/faster/cheaper.

    That’s good. It’s called business evolution, progress, and innovation.

    The moral hazard to removing the danger of failure is obvious. Fat cats can run their businesses into the ground and still win. It removes the requirement to be very good at what you do. That’s what’s happened. Bad business decisions are coming home to roost. The incentive to make better ones is clearly not sufficient to get the Big 5 to do things like offering better contracts to authors in order to ensure they stay with them. No, instead, they create ever more draconian contracts, screwing their roster in an effort to subsidize their operations out of the author’s take.

    This is a recipe for failure. And it’s failing. It should fail. And be replaced by something smarter and better. Which it will be. If there’s a market for what the Big 5 provide, slimmer, more nimble, more aggressive and better operated businesses will take their place. If it’s a horse and buggy industry, it will die, and something else will fill the void. That’s healthy and necessary. To prevent a business from failing when it should is just digging the hole deeper, trying to drink oneself to sobriety.

    It doesn’t work.

    Patterson should think this crap through before he uses his considerable standing to advance silly protectionist/mercantile notions. Books will do just fine, with or without handholding from someone in New York. And oh, by the way, readership is up now that pricing has returned to competitive, sane levels, entirely due to indies like myself. One can buy my little screeds for $6 or a new trad pub release for $15. Guess what? Evolution is working, as it always does.

    The book is dead. Long live the book.

    Russell Blake
    Suspense author and anti-clown agitator

    Reply
  3. avatar
    hb says:

    Maybe there is that little voice inside his head that says : Nothing of me will remain. I have to do something different. Ergo the contradictory action and message at this late stage in his life.
    Reading the article reminds me of Kafka on his death bed, believing so strongly that he will be forever unknown.

    Reply
  4. avatar
    Suzie Quint says:

    I was going to ask you to rethink your stand on the bailouts of the auto and banking industry, but Russell beat me to it and did so far more eloquently.

    Reply
  5. avatar
    Steve Williams says:

    And yet, like most big-six authors these days, Patterson can’t even seem to keep typos out of his co-written books. The last one I read used the word “tact” where “tack” was called for. The newest David Baldacci is typo-free for just 21 pages. Craft is going out the window in favor of cash.

    Reply
  6. avatar
    Daniel Berenson says:

    Great post, Lynn. Puts it all in perspective. Also, James Patterson has made a pretty big splash in kidlit. His I, FUNNY and other middle grade books seems to be doing quite well. Interesting that they all seem to be co-authored with other middle grade authors like Chris Grabenstein and Chris Tebbetts. Does that mean he’s the billboard in front with these other authors doing all the real work?

    Reply
  7. avatar
    Virginia Llorca says:

    Very soon Gov will be telling us which cars to drive and on which days we can plug them into the charger. Gov messes with publishing, they WILL be telling us which books to read. Sounds like a good nightmare outline for a horror novel. Too bad Ray Bradbury died. He could do it.

    Reply
  8. avatar
    T.K. Marnell says:

    I love this post because you’re a great writer, Lynn, but I don’t think James Patterson is totally inconsistent. Wanting to save the traditional publishing industry doesn’t mean he wants to bury the indies or vice versa. It’s not like a rigid see-saw, where if you want one side to rise up the other has to fall down.

    We don’t have to stick to only two camps with a thick chalk line down the middle: pro-indie or pro-traditional. You can hope the Big 6 (or 5 now? or 4?) sort themselves out while supporting the little guys just as much. I’m a self-pubber, but I also like my brick-and-mortar stores and my mass market paperbacks. The government doesn’t have any business using public funds to support private businesses, so the idea of a publisher bailout is just silly–but I’m not sure I’d like a 100% indie world, either. Sometimes you want a cupcake from a small-town bakery, and sometimes you want Sarah Lee. There are people who launch big fast food franchises, and there are people who run little hamburger & milkshake stands.

    Your last substantial paragraph seems to say that Patterson is incomprehensible because he hasn’t picked one side or the other. Either he sides with “the industry” or he doesn’t. Either he wants change or he doesn’t. But who says there are sides at all?

    Reply
    • avatar
      Lynn Messina says:

      I totally agree. It doesn’t have to be either/or at all, and, no, it’s not a zero-sum game. There’s definitely room for lots of different voices and styles. Still, it seems to me that when you take out an ad in a major newspaper equating the death of traditional publishing with the end of important books, you are making a hierarchical value judgment, which feels an awful lot like choosing sides to me.

      Thanks for your comment. I really made me think.

      Reply
  9. avatar
    Tradiscantia pallida says:

    The publishing industry shifted when the government decided to tax inventory (rather than sales receipts). It forced publishing to change radically. That was the end of the old way of printing a book run that you would keep in stock for 10-15 years, especially if a book with limited audience but consistent appeal. The tax system needs to be changed.

    Reply
  10. avatar
    A.C. James says:

    This goes along with the current book I’m reading, “Be the Monkey” and with the current shift favoring digital and debuting authors not necessarily being offered enough in terms of marketing it makes me leery to sign on the dotted line. In fact, the increased time it takes for a book to be published via traditional publishing houses and start earning means authors are losing money. While I would rather spend the majority of my time writing it doesn’t mean I can’t delegate by hiring my own freelance editor, cover designer, and publicist. I always wanted a to go with traditional publishing but with them taking such a huge percentage for ebooks doesn’t make sense to me when ebooks are the future while paper is going to be a niche market.

    Reply
  11. avatar
    Rich Bullock says:

    Well said, Lynn. I always wondered what James Patterson did with his spare time. Now I know. 🙂

    We live at a fabulous time. Writers will always write because we can’t stop. But for the first time in history we have a low (virtually zero) “barrier to entry” into publishing. The gatekeepers are still guarding the gates (more than ever shying away from risk), but the fence on each side of the gate is gone: many of us are just walking around the gatekeepers.

    I think it’s so cool that I can produce a product that is every bit as good in quality to James Patterson and sell it along side him on Amazon. Sure, he’ll sell a few more than I will (okay, a lot more), but we’re still side-by-side. And with that equality comes the possibility of something big!

    Reply
  12. avatar
    Kilburn Hall says:

    You may respect Patterson for his marketing genius. He makes 94 million dollars a year, so he’s obviously doing quite a bit right in marketing. But it disgusts me when someone calls himself an author who doesn’t write his own books, but relies on ghostwriters to crank out a novel every few weeks which Patterson slaps his name on. Legitimate authors have a name for this type of charlatan: Snake-oil salesmen. So it particularly irks me when Patterson, who doesn’t write the majority of his stuff, makes a plea to save bookstores and libraries and asks: “Who will save literature?”
    You know who will save literature Patterson? Writer’s who write their own books and don’t rely on cheap marketing tricks to build a literary career. There are thousands of authors self-publishing. I’m sure some of them are writing great, important literature. I can’t find one thing to agree with Patterson in his NYT ad except this. What will happen if there are no more books like these?” he asks. The literary world might be better off with no more pulp fiction trash like Patterson’s and less snake-oil salesmen who rely on cheap tricks to line their pockets and give “legitimate authors” a bad name.
    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/04/konrath-on-patterson.html

    Reply

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