James Patterson’s new mini thrillers designed to be read in a single sitting
By KAREN HELLER | The Washington Post | Published: June 19, 2016
In book publishing, there is James Patterson — and basically everyone else.
His author bio: “James Patterson has written more best-sellers and created more enduring fictional characters than any other novelist today.” Beloved by critics and peers? Not so much. But his popularity among readers remains incontrovertible. He is an industry unto himself.
And now the author of popular thrillers — and children’s books and young adult novels and romance and mysteries — has launched BookShots, a series of short, cheap, plot-propelled novels directed at an audience more prone to reading smartphones than print. (Naturally, there is an app for it.)
“In this day and age, when so many people have decided to spend so much of their lives not reading books, I think to create a new habit for them is a smart thing,” says Patterson, 69, perched in the summer study of his home in Hudson Valley, N.Y., the room dominated by a sleigh bed where he reads and edits.
The trick? “I’ve taken the fat out of commercial novels,” he says. “In an awful lot of novels, there’s more in them than there should be.”
Not in these books. The sentences are simple and declarative.
And frequently double as paragraphs.
“Every single chapter is conceived to move the plot and the characterization forward,” he says, “and to turn on the movie projectors in our heads.”
Movies loom large in Patterson’s world. Television, too. BookShots’ editorial director, Bill Robinson, has a background in both fields and serves as executive producer of “Zoo,” the CBS series based on Patterson’s book of the same name. More than once, Patterson refers to himself as the literary equivalent of a showrunner.
He has a way of making grand statements calmly — in contrast to his fevered characters — but with the absolute conviction of a very successful man. He labels BookShots “a revolution” and “a huge thing.”
The paperbacks will be sold in airports, drugstores, big-box emporiums, sometimes affixed to clip strips like bags of gummy bears. The motto: “Books at the speed of life.”
“People want things faster. They want to binge,” says the former ad man and onetime creative chief at J. Walter Thompson. “These books are like reading movies.”
In the buffet of fiction, BookShots are small plates if we’re being kind, junk food if we’re not: less than 150 pages, roughly the size of an iPad mini, retail price $4.99. Two titles a month to start.
Snaps Patterson of that last decision by publisher Little, Brown: “Honestly, I would have been more aggressive.”
In the past year, he’s written 117 volumes for BookShots.
Although written is not the precise verb. Conceived, outlined, co-written and curated. Patterson delivers exhaustive notes and outlines, sometimes running 80 pages, to co-authors, his printer regularly discharging collaborators’ efforts like lottery tickets. “The success rate when I write the outline is almost 100 percent. When other people do, it’s 50 to 60 percent,” he says.
He is among the first writers credited with promoting books through television spots, releasing more than one title a year, and maintaining a stable of writers that rivals this year’s field at the Kentucky Derby. “It may be a factory,” says Robinson, “but it’s a hand-tooled factory.”
His tidy study overlooking the Hudson River is stacked with book projects past and present, including a 3-inch-thick folder labeled “Ideas,” one sheet listing 21 separate projects boiled down to their titles.
The brevity of BookShots serves another master: Patterson’s mortality. “Jim realized his ideas were never going to all get done at the regular pace of publishing,” says Robinson.
“Publishing doesn’t innovate,” says Patterson. “It’s kind of weird, in this world where everything is changing every 10 minutes.”
Patterson’s 1976 debut novel, “The Thomas Berryman Number,” was initially rejected by 31 publishers. It remains among his most acclaimed, winner of the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. It sold about 10,000 copies. By comparison, “15th Affair,” created with Maxine Paetro and, yes, the 15th volume in the Women’s Murder Club series, sold 20,000 copies in one week.
For a man of words — so many, many words — Patterson also boasts a staggering amount of numbers. Over 40 years, he has produced 158 titles and sold 325 million copies. Last year, according to his publisher, one in 21 hardcover adult novels sold in the United States featured Patterson’s name on the cover. Forbes estimates his annual book-related earnings at around $89 million.
Although he scoffs at tradition, Patterson’s preppy attire (linen shirt, clear-framed specs, boat shoes) and the look of his house, an elegant pile of fieldstone, are Ralph Lauren on steroids. He grew up in working-class Newburgh, 35 miles north and a world away from Briarcliff Manor. This, by the way, is the lesser house. The 20,000-square-foot winter estate in Palm Beach was purchased for $17.4 million in 2009 before Patterson and his wife, Sue, sank an additional $14 million into renovating it.
But if he lives like few authors, he also champions philanthropy at a spectacular level.
He and Sue fund 400 annual teacher education scholarships at 22 colleges and universities, many of them historically black. Patterson has provided more than 650,000 books to U.S. soldiers and 250,000 to public school students in multiple cities. He has given millions to school libraries and more than a million to independent bookstores.
All the success stems from one simple root: his love of telling stories. “I remember wandering around the woods as a child and telling story after story,” he says. On long drives, “I would write entire musicals in the car and sing songs I had written for them.” And he’s never at a loss for stories.
“I don’t like doing nonfiction,” he says. “It shuts down my strength, which is my imagination.” Sure, but he’s done nonfiction, too.
He has been savaged by critics, who rarely bother reviewing his works, and he generally stands outside the band of well-known thriller writers. Stephen King branded him “a terrible writer.” For all Patterson’s gruff bravado — he is rarely photographed smiling and will correct people who dare question his abilities — it’s clear that all this can sting.
Gesturing toward a well-reviewed new thriller that he found wanting — he devours literary and popular fiction at nearly the rate that he writes — he says, “Some of the boys got together and decided to have the author break out.” The “boys” being Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben and Lee Child.
Patterson’s fictional characters tend to be nothing like him, except in their frenzy of activity. His Michael Bennett series features a widowed detective with 10 adopted children. He and Sue, a sunny former all-American swimmer and ad designer a decade his junior, who created several BookShots covers, have been together for 19 years. Their home is a museum of images of their only child, Jack, his recent graduation from boarding school the rare writing day off for his father.
Patterson’s best-known hero is Alex Cross, an African-American D.C. detective with a doctorate in psychology. (Patterson dropped out of the graduate English program at Vanderbilt after a year.) Patterson welcomes the challenge of creating heroes unlike himself: “The more difficult the task, the more unlikely that someone else has done it, which allows it to be fresh.”
He isn’t big on following publishing tradition, or accepted rules about writing. “I don’t care about rules per se. They either work or they don’t work. I’m going to attempt to write a bestselling book,” he says. When he first started with fiction, “I would write at the top of every chapter, ‘Be there, be there, be there in the scene.’ Feel what the hero is feeling. If you’re being electrocuted, feel that. You can’t be distant. You can’t be watching from another room.”
He hasn’t given much thought to slowing down or taking more than a day off. “I don’t work for a living. I play. Why would I stop playing?”
He’ll stop when he’s dead? He shrugs. “Maybe.” Given the fat file of ideas, the army of co-authors, maybe not even then.
After a tour of the garden, the pool, the terrace, the spoils of his fiction, the author returns to his second-floor aerie. The printer has spat out another novel from a co-author, built from his blueprint, and the ferocious industry of Patterson, Inc., sparks to life.
Best-selling author James Patterson has launched BookShots, a short pulp fiction series tagged as “stories at the speed of life” and marketed to people who don’t read much.