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Right on Schedule: James Patterson

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A Christmas read and a summer beach read. At least an annual sequel in different series. A new 17 book deal to finish between September 2009 and September 2012. James Patterson is a man of many due dates, and manuscript dues dates are only part of the brand machine he has created. Working with a group of co-writers Patterson produces several books a year, in addition to working with a full time editing and marketing team to publish them to his specifications. This past weekend he came out with a long interview in The New York Times and the Telegraph, telling much the same story that he did when interviewing with these publications in February 2008. Two years before that it was Time and MSNBC. Whoever it is, the story is of a common man who broke the rules to become a breakout success.

Just how do you come to hold the Guinness world record for having written the most bestselling books (51), or to have sold an estimated 170 million books worldwide, or to have earned over £30.6 million in 2008 alone as Forbes magazine reported? You start out like all writers, by dreaming of becoming a great, serious writer. Then, as many intelligent people have, Patterson realized he was no James Joyce. However upon reading a few commercial thrillers, he thought, as many intelligent people have, "I can do that."

The difference being that he actually did do it. His first novel, in a literary noir style, sold respectably and won an award. But when he looked at an outline for a subsequent project, he made a crucial decision — not to flesh it out. Instead, he would skip any boring description and let the plot do the story telling for him. His style became bare and accessible. With a good plot and great pacing, he made the pages turn themselves for his readers. Now Patterson is the wealthiest, most sold writer to date, even if he gets no kudos from the critics.

Critics say he is a bad writer; Patterson argues his focus is on the story — not the words. Some people feel his characters are cartoons; Patterson would argue they are made known through the plot. He certainly breaks a cultural taboo of many booklovers by using a stable of hired hands to write his ongoing, multiple projects with him. People like to think of novels as they do lyric poetry, an outpouring of the soul in story. Patterson is more pragmatic — he just wants to tell a good story.

Choosing to work with co-writers was one of many innovative strategies that nearly gave his publisher a heart attack. However, none of them seem to have hurt his sales. Patterson has been right on many counts, such as advertising a book on television, rolling out multiple titles a year, and branching into different genres, such as Young Adult novels. Throughout his rise, Patterson seems to have devoted as much attention to marketing strategies as he has to writing. Even today, he does the occasional bookstore signing.

Patterson may be ubiquitous in reader's hands, but the name is hardly bandied about as much as that of Stephen King or other famous authors. Instead his name is one you come across on shelves, perhaps as you contemplate what to bring to the beach. I noticed his works crop up in every bookstore and on every beach of the small Caribbean island to which I recently moved, but never before have I noticed it featured in more than a bestseller list in the papers, much less fronting The New York Times Magazine days before a second interview with the Telegraph.

Patterson seems to hit up the press every few years with his winning story and underdog, populist claim to authorial fame — no doubt he schedules big interviews along with his upcoming titles. He’s no Charles Dickens, but for this day and age Patterson as a prolific and wildly popular author comes pretty darn close. All of which serves to remind me, I'm running low on my beach reading and could use a good page turner.

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