"Let's make sure the recorder is picking you up. Maybe you can say your name."
"My name is John Grisham."
James Patterson keeps a straight face but PW laughs. We're sitting in the writer's expansive summer home in the wooded northern reach of Westchester County. It's a cool day in early September. There are no lights on in the house because the electricity was blown out by high winds the previous night, but the living room is brightened by windows that overlook an in-ground pool and, beyond a large backyard, the dark flow of the Hudson River. Forested hills rise on the opposite shore. That's Rockefeller land, Patterson tells us.
A lot has changed for Patterson, 55, since PW interviewed him in 1996. Six years ago, he wrote part-time in the mornings before heading off to his job as chairman of the powerhouse advertising firm J. Walter Thompson/North America. Today books are his business. Then, he'd written four national bestsellers, three thrillers featuring black homicide detective Alex Cross, plus a popular golf fable. Now Patterson regularly publishes three new hardcovers a year, in several series and genres, and each hits #1 first week out. And in 1996, Patterson wore a beard. He's cut it off, he says, because "I got tired of being mistaken for Jack's grandfather." Jack's mom, photographer Susan Patterson, 45, is bustling around in the kitchen with four-year-old Jack as we talk. A housekeeper is visible down a hallway. Patterson, lightly tanned and looking fit, dressed in slacks and shirt, a tumbler of Diet Coke in his hands, seems relaxed. It's a peaceful scene, but really the eye of a publishing hurricane.
It's not just the public whom Patterson has taken by storm, with fans swarming bookstore appearances and sales heading straight up. Many in the publishing industry and the media hold strong opinions about Patterson, sometimes harsh opinions. His innovations in the creation and marketing of his books have brought controversy, reflected in investigative articles this year in the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. Rumors float that he doesn't write his books anymore.
Some critics love his work. More pick it apart; his forthcoming eighth Alex Cross thriller, Four Blind Mice, due out from Little, Brown on November 18, suffers, according to Kirkus, from "short chapters, paragraphs, and sentences; stilted dialogue; facile plotting; a few feeble passes at description." Yet the book probably will sell more than a million copies in hardcover and join 13 other Patterson titles as #1 bestsellers.
It's a mystery, this James Patterson business.
Publishing is a collaborative enterprise, and many of Patterson's colleagues work in the AOL Time Warner building, across the street from Radio City Music Hall in midtown Manhattan, where we've come to learn more about the author. Their leader is Laurence J. "Larry" Kirshbaum, the affable CEO and chairman of the AOL Time Warner Book Group, which has published Patterson in hardcover through Little, Brown and in paperback through Warner Books steadily since 1993, when Alex Cross made his debut in Along Came a Spider.
Kirshbaum greets us with a hearty "hello" and a handshake. His office holds a big desk, a small conference area where we sit, and lots of windows. We admire a wall devoted to photographs of past presidents of Little, Brown, going back to Charles Little and James Brown, who founded the house in 1837. These days Patterson helps keep LB afloat. "Your franchise authors are what allow you to turn the lights on every day," Kirshbaum says. "You can't make it in publishing today with a bunch of small authors. You can't count on first novels like The Lovely Bones coming along. If you're running a large commercial house you have to know that you've got bankable stars."
There may be no publishing star more bankable than James Patterson. His six books (including mass market reprints) a year make him, claims Kirshbaum, "the number one bestselling author in America and, I think, globally too." According to the Wall Street Journal, Patterson earns an estimated $25 million a year; according to Forbes, it's $50 million. Certainly his sales rival those of John Grisham, Stephen King, Nora Roberts and other heavyweights. But with so many books, is there a danger of overexposure?
Kirshbaum frowns. "We're always on the alert for any signs. But thus far, knock wood"—the chairman raps the table twice—"the numbers continue to grow. The printing on Four Blind Mice will be the largest to date. We're already at about 1.1 million. And Beach House [June 2002] has probably had the most sustained run of any of his books."
Kirshbaum remembers his first encounter with Alex Cross. "I was on a flight to England with Charlie Hayward, who was then head of Little, Brown. We had only one manuscript of Along Came a Spider and we sat there, literally handing pages to each other. We didn't get any sleep on the plane but it was worth it, because we both knew instantly that this guy has a touch that you see, if you're lucky, once every 10 years. Or once in a lifetime for that matter."
The chairman, dressed in a suit, blue shirt and striped tie, is in constant motion as he talks, shifting in his chair, practically vibrating with enthusiasm. "The other side of Jim Patterson is that he is, without a doubt, the most brilliant marketing person in our business. Probably in the whole consumer marketing area. I have learned, after many hours of being tutored by Jim, to listen to his suggestions. Because he really understands how books are sold. And he's not only brilliant about his own books, but he's given me a dozen good hints about other titles. So he's not only a house author but he's a house mentor."
The publisher of the Adult Trade division of Little, Brown agrees.
"Everybody in this company has learned a lot from publishing books with him," says Michael Pietsch when we meet with him minutes after talking to Kirshbaum. "When the Wind Blows  was published before I was his editor. But I remember from the sidelines thinking, 'Oh, my God, that looks from its packaging and its title like an Alex Cross novel and it's about teenagers who can fly. What are his readers going to think?' But that book sold more than the book before, and the next one sold more than that one did. It's one of the clearest lessons I've ever gotten in this business—that just being recognizable in the bookstore, that this is a James Patterson novel, is the first big challenge. And having met that challenge, having a book that delivers suspense and entertainment—what people want."
Pietsch's office is dense with shelves. Several possible covers for Patterson's summer 2003 novel, The Lake House, lean against a window, not far from a row of antique typewriters. The manuscript of Pete Hamill's next novel is stacked behind the desk where Pietsch, who edits Patterson's novels, sits. Bookcases along the wall are crowded with titles that Pietsch has edited and published, including The Lovely Bones.
"What's James Patterson doing at the same house as Alice Sebold?" we ask.
The editor, lean with sandy hair, smiles like a cat. "We publish great writers, of every possible variety. And Jim Patterson is a great writer. He's a brilliant, brilliant scientist of suspense."
According to Pietsch, that science includes building the novels from a multitude of short chapters, a technique that critics have knocked Patterson for. Four Blind Mice contains 115 chapters. The Jester, due out in March 2003, has 154. Patterson, Pietsch says, has "an ability to boil down a scene to its essence that nobody else has. A chapter may only be two pages, but in two pages he delivers something that identifies a point of character, of plot, of setting that is vivid and that moves you forward. And an ancillary benefit of the short chapters is that for people who find reading challenging, there's a sense of accomplishment." According to Pietsch, hundreds of fans have approached Patterson at signings to say that his books showed them that reading can be pleasurable—a kind of Harry Potter effect for grownups.
Pietsch walks over to a shelf of Patterson titles. He bookends several with his hands and, with some effort, pulls them out and up. "Look at all these books!" he says. "I haven't seen the beginning of a limit to his sales. His books appeal to as broad a readership as a book can appeal. At this point we're putting out around a million copies in hardcover on each book. And it's a huge country. There are 270 million people in the country, at least half of whom are of reading age."
James B. Patterson was born in 1947 in Newburgh, N.Y., not far up the Hudson from where he now lives. He earned a B.A. from Manhattan College and did graduate work at Vanderbilt. There he wrote a literary novel before moving to New York City, where in 1971 he took a job as a junior copywriter at J. Walter Thompson. Working on such accounts as Toys "R" Us and Burger King, his career flourished. In his spare time he wrote a mystery, The Thomas Berryman Affair, which was handled by agent Francis Gruenburger and published by Little, Brown in 1976. The novel won the Edgar for Best First Novel. With a major award plus an abundance of ambition and energy, many young writers might have quit the day job to focus on writing. But Patterson stayed with the agency.
"Well for starters," he explains, "there was the woman I was in a relationship with [the great love of Patterson's younger life, who died of a brain tumor at age 36.] That's usually the biggest thing in my life. And then there's the way I was brought up. My father grew up in the Newburgh poorhouse. His mother was a charwoman. He was a bright guy who went to Hamilton and wanted to be a diplomat. He got accepted at Georgetown, but then my mother got pregnant with me and he didn't go. He wound up driving a bread truck for six years."
Patterson so excelled at J. Walter Thompson that, in 1988, he was named the firm's CEO, the youngest ever. During his climb he managed to publish four additional thrillers, which sold only modestly, through a variety of houses and a new agent, Richard Pine. "Then," he says, "Jane got sick. That lasted about two and a half years. It was a hard time to write and afterwards it was also hard." Between 1986 and 1993, Patterson published only one novel, The Midnight Club. Finally he re-emerged, a changed man and a changed author.
His primary aim, he tells us, was to "get back to what I want to do, and that's less to be the #1 novelist than to have a life. It's funny, the other day I played golf with Trump. He's a congenial guy, but he never stops with the 'this is the best course in Westchester, Jim. I got the best house in the world.' That's who he is and there are people like that, but not me." Still, Patterson saw greater potential for his writing. "I'd felt I learned a lot of things along the way and that it was now time to start practicing some of it." Enter Alex Cross and Along Came A Spider, for which Patterson designed the newspaper advertising and for which, in a pioneering move, he dug into his own pocket to run TV ads. Bestseller followed bestseller until Patterson at last left the agency. "I don't want to say that I disliked it but I never had any great bonds, you know?"
What lessons did he take from the ad world that he applies to writing?
"I think the big lesson is that there's an audience, and for commercial fiction it's important." Patterson tests his books on others before sealing them. According to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal, Patterson changed the final chapter of Pop Goes the Weasel based on a bookseller's feedback. Patterson says he tests his books on his wife, as well as on his agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, and on Michael Pietsch and a few others. "My father before he died, he was good because he was a prick about my writing."
Testing is cousin to marketing, and Patterson took many lessons about marketing from his years in advertising. He explains his thinking behind the campaign for Along Came a Spider. "Initially, what we tried to get out was just a title. Along Came a Spider. So there's a book out there, Along Came a Spider, sounds pretty good. Then at a certain point it was, 'Can we somehow get the idea out that there's also this author, James Patterson?' So I did the TV ads, and now there's a new book and there's a guy. Simple as that."
Patterson enjoys applying his market savvy to other aspects of publishing. "It didn't make it into the article," he says, "but the Wall Street Journal reporter took me to a Barnes & Noble. He wanted to know how I saw it. I said, 'Well I'm not going to tell you about Barnes & Noble, but I will tell you what I would do if I were starting a bookstore. There are two types of people who come into bookstores. First, there are the regulars, who browse and are comfortable with the store. I would have tremendous respect for them. Each time they come into a section, I'd make it as much as possible into a little store for them. At the same time, I'd have tremendous respect for that in-and-out person, who sometimes are in-and-out because they are frightened to death of bookstores. They don't want to go in and feel stupid. It's like when I walk into a Home Depot. I know I need nails but that's all I know. 'What kind of nails?' 'I don't know, nails to drive into wood.' You can't make people feel bad."
So what should bookstores do about frightened customers?
"The front of the store has got to be put out. Don't go hiding your bestsellers back with the milk and stuff."
"He's brilliant," Michael Pietsch tells us later, "at analyzing what goes on when a customer walks into a bookstore. How you can get their attention out of this atmosphere seething with 6"×9" book faces? How do you make your book the one that stands out?"
The Creative Director
One answer to Pietsch's questions lies in a book's look, particularly its cover. Mario J. Pulice, v-p and creative director of Little, Brown, is responsible for the jackets of Patterson's hardcovers. Dressed in dark clothes that match his shock of black hair, the art director meets us in his narrow office. To create a Patterson cover, he tells us, he first reads whatever is available on the book, generally a manuscript or an outline. He comes up with some ideas, runs them by Pietsch, then speaks with Patterson by phone. "He's usually pretty open-minded," Pulice says. "I don't believe he's ever said, 'Don't do that.' He usually throws in an idea or two, and then I have them illustrated."
Currently Pulice is busy with the cover for The Lake House. "More times than not," he says, "when he is first seeing something, he either likes it or he doesn't. If he says, 'That's good, I really like that,' then we need to hone it. He'll say, 'I'm not sure about the colors, I'm not sure about this. I'm not sure about that.' That happens at the second stage, but we're not there yet with The Lake House. I'm probably up to 30 or 35 covers that I've shown him. Usually they are variations on a theme. For The Lake House, I've had canoes, covers with the cabin at the Lake House, with birds. In one the birds wouldn't be flying over the house, in another they would."
The challenge is to define the book as part of a series yet to individuate it. The Lake House is more a marketing sequel to The Beach House than a narrative sequel; its story flows from When the Wind Blows (1998), a tale about children who can fly. "We want to do something to complement it but not rip it off," Pulice says, "because it's a totally different book. Not one character from The Beach House is in The Lake House. So that's what I'm juggling now."
Pulice leads us to a nearby drawing table and lays out a cover. It's for The Jester, and it's terrific, with the title's big red letters imposed on a stormy sky; below looms a medieval stone castle, its edges blurred as we seem to ride full tilt toward the stone entryway. The novel, too, which PW has seen, is full tilt, a galloping romantic adventure set during the Crusades.
"The Jester was easier than The Lake House because he's never written anything like this," Pulice says. "I had a clean slate and could present him with a lot of things. Jim was looking for more of a movie poster approach on this one. 'I want this to look epic,' he said. Luckily, the book has a lot of visual references. Every page, I thought, 'We could do this, we could that.' I did swords. I did moats. They all looked cool. But when I showed him the castle—who doesn't like a castle?"
The Team (Marketing/Promo/ Publicity)
The job of getting the word out about the castle and all other matters James Patterson is shared primarily by three women at Little, Brown.
Martha Otis, Director of Advertising and Promotion for the AOL Time Warner Book Group, explains to PW by phone that "we're heavily into television on these books. In the past we've used Jim in the television spots, because he really is the brand." She says that Little, Brown will do "massive television" for Four Blind Mice and The Jester," and that for Four Blind Mice and beyond "we're going to be almost doubling what we've been doing. He just keeps growing, but we think there's a lot more growth to be had."
Karen Torres, v-p for sales and marketing at the book group, tells PW by phone that one strategy she employs is to "saturate the areas he goes to, to make sure that not only the store that's hosting him but the surrounding stores can benefit as well. He's very big into doing drop-ins. You don't know where he's going to drop by. So all the stores get the same material—bookmarks, postcards and so on." Even given all the drop-ins, though, and "as many books as Mr. Patterson has been writing, he hasn't been to every store," Torres says. "So there's always a new store and a new city to introduce him to, and there's always a city that he's been to in the past that he feels he could have done better at, which means a revisit."
The director of publicity for Little, Brown is Heather Rizzo. She's the liaison between the house and the media, including PW. Sitting in her comfortable office, we point out that, although Patterson now sells comparably to Grisham, King and Clancy, he doesn't attract the national media attention they do, although he is a regular on The Today Show. ("He has a really nice rapport with both Katie and Matt," says Rizzo.) We suggest that this is in part because Patterson's public persona, while congenial, isn't colorful and easily identifiable, as are those of King (America's boogeyman), Grisham (the lawyer) and Clancy (the soldier). If anything, Patterson looks and talks like a successful suburban businessman, not the most charismatic image.
"Jim is in the entertainment business," Rizzo says. "That's what he wants: he wants to entertain people. That's the real Jim. It's very hard in just a newspaper feature or a two minute interview to get the full story across. Piece by piece we're starting to give people the bigger picture. This is the biggest selling novelist there is. So there's a story for everybody."
In addition to dealing with media, Rizzo handles Patterson's tours. "He's a trouper," she says. "He usually flies into a market the night before, so he's there for all the morning media, press interviews, a lunchtime event, an early evening event, an evening event. When we get to an event, there is a buzz and an excitement like no other author that I've worked with. And Jim is very, very good at working with the crowd. He likes to shake people's hands, he'll walk up and down and chat with people in line. Here is one of the most prolific authors today, and people in the crowds will say to him, 'Jim, please write faster.' "
Patterson is writing faster, with the help of coauthors—and he takes heat for it. On a recent CBS Sunday Morning feature about Patterson, Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post Book World said, "I don't think you'd see Larry McMurtry collaborating, or John Updike or Philip Roth. I think they take more pride in their material." In her "Holt Uncensored" e-newsletter, publishing gadfly Pat Holt had this to say about The Beach House: "Wow! When I mentioned the dastardly practice of bestselling authors 'extending the brand' by thinking up new ideas for books and letting other authors write them, I didn't realize what an improvement this would be in the case of Mr. Sleaze Fiction himself, James Patterson."
"It's an experiment," Patterson says, "and I didn't know how it was going to work. I have a lot of ideas and I love to see how they might turn out. And I do like the product. [The cowritten books] are real good commercial fiction that will stand up with whatever is out there."
The idea of the author as a brand that extends beyond one individual didn't start with Patterson, of course. In 1899, publishing entrepreneur Edward Stratemeyer created the Rover Boys series by "Arthur M. Winfield," who existed only as a series of anonymous writers, as did Franklin W. Dixon (the Hardy Boys) and Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew). Walt Disney extended his vision into a variety of media through numerous collaborators but always with a particular touch and under the Disney label. More recently, Tom Clancy has published several books, fiction and nonfiction, with his name on the cover and his collaborator cover-credited or not; and Clive Cussler and other top authors have used cowriters. There are the dead authors who keep writing—Harold Robbins, Elliot Roosevelt Jr., Lawrence Sanders—and the dead trademarked authors, like V.C. Andrews. The first Patterson work to carry coauthor credit was the author's sole nonfiction book (and his only book to remain out of print), The Day America Told the Truth (1991), based on a national survey about private morals, which Patterson wrote with Peter Kim. Five years later came a stand-alone golfing fable, Miracle on the 17th Green (1996), cowritten with Peter de Jonge; de Jonge's main role in the book, according to Patterson, was as a researcher. The regular coauthorships appeared only this year. First there was 2nd Chance, which carried a "with Andrew Gross" in tiny letters on its dust jacket. Then came The Beach House, on which de Jonge was given full coauthor credit, with his name as large as Patterson's, albeit below the title with Patterson's above. Andrew Gross will get the same treatment on The Jester.
"I will work with somebody who I think is talented and who understands what we're doing," says Patterson. "We're going to write fast-moving entertainments that don't stop. And I respect the other person—let's get you in here, too. You will notice in Beach House, for instance, that some of Peter's flourishes are there. I like that, yet it feels totally like James Patterson. I think the controversy should end with 'Let's go to the video tape.' Read it."
"At its simplest," Patterson adds, "brand is just a trust that's established between something and a group of people—just trust. What I would like the trust to be is that, if you pick up a James Patterson novel, you won't be able to put it down."
"Who actually writes these books? The Beach House—who wrote it?"
Patterson doesn't hesitate. "We both did. I'm not going to get into process but I will tell you that I did at least three drafts of that book. I am totally hands on, and I outline every chapter, what the chapter has to deal with and what it doesn't have to do."
Patterson's son, who has been wandering in and out of the living room during our talk, marches in with a plate of chocolate cookies, singing "Happy Birthday" as loud as he can. Patterson takes the plate, thanks the boy, then shoos him away. We each take a cookie. They are warm and delicious, thick with melted chocolate.
Patterson's coauthors don't like to talk about their association with him, at least not to the press. Last spring PW met Andrew Gross at the book party for The Beach House at the swank Manhattan restaurant Le Cirque. When we congratulated him on the novel, and asked him what part he played in the writing, he declined to answer. For this article, PW was able to connect with Peter de Jonge, Patterson's other coauthor, only by e-mail. De Jonge writes that "Jim and I have agreed not to get into specifics about our various contributions to Beach House since we feel it would only distract from the reader's enjoyment of the book. But we both worked very hard to make the novel as entertaining as possible." De Jonge adds that "Jim's a pleasure to work with and play golf with."
PW reads aloud to Patterson some of the criticism he's drawn, including Pat Holt's further comment that, while reading The Beach House, she was "absorbed by—oh, the little things you notice when a writer other than James Patterson is at work... an understanding of character beyond mutilated 16-year-olds; a sense of history and place other than the crawl space of a house where a peeping Tom gets his jollies."
It's true that Patterson enters dark territory in his novels, and that his villains can exult in sexual violence, even necrophilia. "Why do you explore such extremes?" we ask.
"Because they're there. They're there more than people think they are. I am personally not terribly interested in the bad stuff that goes on. I'm very interested in the people in the middle. I'm very interested in the Cross family. I like the notion of good struggling in the middle of this maelstrom we're going to throw around them."
Patterson speaks with the assuredness that comes with great success. We've heard talk around publishing that he's a tough taskmaster, a guy who likes to call the shots; but then most bestselling authors, male and female, are alphas. And we've read of bad behavior, as after a dinner at last year's BEA, where he reportedly drove to tears a critic who had trashed one of his books. Maybe so; but he's cordial to PW as he offers us another cookie, then suggests a tour of his house.
We leave the living room to take a look at Patterson's office. On one shelf stands the ceramic bust of Edgar Allan Poe he won for The Thomas Berryman Affair. A wide range of titles fill the bookcases—there are some James Pattersons but also books by Patricia Cornwell, Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen. There is a large round wooden table at which he works; a duplicate awaits him at his winter house in Palm Beach, Florida. Patterson doesn't use a computer. He writes in longhand that's typed up by an assistant, in triple-space to give him room to revise between the lines. He produces a novel draft every month and a half, but doesn't work a set schedule. "I just want to make sure at the end of the day that I've done something," he says. "I mostly will work seven days a week. I like to do a little bit in the morning and a little bit some time before dinner. If I feel like I'm falling behind, I may do a little bit more." When he's not attending to business, he enjoys family and friends, watches movies ("I'm a total movie junkie"), reads ("two or three books a week") and plays golf, lots of it.
Still, fiction is his business, and "the nice thing about writing fiction for me," Patterson says, "is that there really isn't a ceiling. The way I demonstrate that is to take some chances in terms of what we do. They're subtle things, like, in Cat and Mouse, introducing another first-person narrator in the middle of the book. And of course the different genres." So far Patterson has worked in thrillers of several types (cop, religious, science fiction, etc.), in romance (Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas) and, with The Jester, in historicals, offering his readers more variety, at least in subject matter, than any other top author. His narrative approach, too, with its mix of first- and third-person narrations, is unique among today's bestselling writers.
Returning to the living room, we find the lights back on after last night's storm. We quote to Patterson an earlier interview in which he declared his first novel his best written. He corrects the statement: he thinks only "the sentences" in The Thomas Berryman Affair book were the best written.
"Why aren't the sentences as good now?"
"Mostly because they get in the way of the story."
Patterson's novels are sleek entertainment machines, the Porsches of commercial fiction, expertly engineered and lightning fast. The minimal description, the slipstream of sentences, the rat-a-tat-tat chapters, all are geared toward maximum ride; the style exactly suits the vehicle. Traditional tales of good versus evil, often with a strong religious or moral element, the novels display little interest in language, except as a means for story, and they lack the reach and resonance of serious art. Yet they have been innovative, and—crucial to their success—they provide cathartic emotional experiences: Alex Cross's problems with women and his deep bonds with his family; the grief and courage of the title heroine in Suzanne's Diary; the reconciliation between policewoman Lindsay Boxer and her father in 2nd Chance; the hero's enduring love for his wife in The Jester. When you read a Patterson novel, your heart is plucked as it races.
The Literary Agent
"I admire enthusiasm and hunger," Patterson tells us. "When I was hiring people, I found it to be a trademark of people who succeed. Jennifer in particular has those qualities."
"Jennifer" is Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, at 33 the youngest person ever to head a department at the William Morris Agency, where she leads the New York literary department. We're waiting for our 10:30 a.m. appointment with Walsh in the reception area of the agency's Manhattan offices. The room soars two stories high and is sliced by a bold zigzag staircase that sends the same message as do the flecked marble floors, the brown leather couches and the white flowers in a black vase on a dark wood stand: that this is a repository of taste, but more so of power.
At 10:45, Walsh's young assistant walks down the stairs to apologize ("Emergencies... backed up") and to offer us a cup of coffee, which arrives in a blue WMA mug and is very good. Before we can finish it we're brought to Walsh's office, where the agent, visibly pregnant, greets us warmly. Walsh has been with William Morris for less than two years, since she sold the agency she co-owned, The Writers Shop, to the firm. Her clients include several literary authors, Christina Schwarz, Scott Lasser and Bruce Wagner among them, plus Ethan Hawke and bestselling Canadian thriller writer Kathy Reichs. And then there is James Patterson.
"I've been on the road with a lot of authors," Walsh says, "but I've never been on the road with someone like him. His fan base runs the gamut of every kind of person you could imagine, everything from 17-year-old Asian girls to 68-year-old retired police officers. He taps into something, in the psyche. And we've had a fantastic year. We made a huge contract at Warner Books, we made a huge contract in England, we've made about probably 70 or 80 contracts throughout the world. And it's been a year where we've seen his biggest success ever. He's broken record after record after record."
The Warner contract Walsh refers to is for "four books. It's a year and a half," and she won't tell PW the dollars involved. In May of this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that a publisher other than Little, Brown had offered Patterson $100 million to jump ship. "No, no," Walsh tells us. "I've never mentioned money to any reporter in my entire life, and I certainly wasn't going to start with the Wall Street Journal. But I'm not saying there wasn't that figure on the table." What Walsh will mention, with relish, is the global strategy she and William Morris are developing to push the Patterson brand.
"We just moved him in Germany, to Bertelsmann," she says, "with a huge offer and a great promise of tremendous marketing and promotion. We moved him in France. We're basically streamlining the process, figuring out what series is working, what's not working, and where. He's huge in Germany. He's not #1, but he will be, and in the Scandinavian countries and Japan as well."
Walsh speaks of Patterson with unbounded admiration. "Jim Patterson," she says, "has taught me an entirely different way of looking at the publishing process. He treats publishing as a business in a way that other people don't. Whereas other people are happy with a 5% growth rate from book to book, he thinks that's unacceptable. He's constantly looking to see how we can reach more people, and different kinds of people. And where are we reaching people? And how are we reaching people? He takes the mystery out of it, because it's not a big mystery."
"He's somewhat controversial in the publishing community," we say.
"You know what my grandmother used to say? 'Jealousy.' "
"A lot of people just don't like the way he writes."
"They should read his work."
The Film Agent
According to Walsh, she and Patterson hit it off immediately upon meeting. ("We're both instant coffee!" exclaims Walsh.) Soon after, Walsh flew down to Patterson's Florida house to meet with him, and with David Wirtschafter, Worldwide Head of Motion Pictures at William Morris, who flew in from Hollywood. Wirtschafter now represents Patterson's film interests. As Walsh points out, "It's unprecedented to have the head of the motion picture department directly representing an author."
By phone from his Hollywood office, Wirtschafter confirms this. "What we've found historically," he adds, "is that Jim will write a book, the book will be presented to the movie business in a traditional way, and people will make rich although traditional deals for him to have those projects made into films. What we're trying to do here is to introduce him to people who he likes who make movies, and to have a communication system between the movie business as a business and James Patterson as a business, an aspect of which has value on the film and television side. We talk to the movie business about him continuously as if he was somebody who worked the majority of his time in the film business."
Hopefully that will help. For all of Patterson's 20 novels through The Beach House, only two have made it to the screen: the Alex Cross tales Along Came a Spider (film released in 2001) and Kiss the Girls (1997), with both adaptations produced by Paramount and starring Morgan Freeman as Cross. Wirtschafter notes that the studio has a lock on films using the Alex Cross character, but says there are plans to go ahead with further Cross movies, especially a project he calls Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue. "That one is being adapted now by a writer named Marc Moss [screenwriter on Along Came a Spider]. We'll see if that turns out to be the next one, but Alex Cross is a character that Paramount is interested in keeping in play on the film side, and that James will keep alive in print."
The next Patterson adaptation to reach screens, albeit television screens, will be 1st to Die, long delayed but at last in production from NBC. Meanwhile, Wirtschafter's approach is beginning to pay off, with another innovation for Patterson. "He is working on something that will become a book in the future," Wirtschafter lets on, "with a film director who would like to direct that project as a film. So I think for the first time in Mr. Patterson's life he's working at an inception stage with someone whose work he likes, based on a project and a character who could appear in print at the same time the character appears on screen. It's really cool."
"I'll tell you a funny story," Patterson says near the end of our visit. "You know they're making 1st to Die for NBC. They finally started shooting last week or the week before, and I get some wine from NBC. Six bottles of wine from two executives. 'James,' the note read, 'It is such an honor and pleasure to be able to begin production on your incredible novel, Last to Die.' So, whatever."
Readying to leave, we ask the author about the future lineup of Patterson books. "We've got, let's see, Cross, Jester, bird kids [The Lake House]. Then either another Cross or another Women's Murder Club, they're both on the same track. And then there's another kind of Suzanne's Diary—ish book that I think is going to be the biggest book I've done."
Does he have any regrets?
"I think there's one. I think I've got what Hollywood needs more of—and, also, I want a little bit more of understanding that what I'm doing is not so easy. It's not like making chocolate chip cookies."
Patterson walks PW outside. As we pass the kitchen we see Sue Patterson in an apron, pulling a pan out of the oven, Jack beside her. "The electricity is out again," she says. Patterson looks at us. "Who am I?" he says. "I'm Jack's dad, and Sue's husband. And I turn out entertainments that are popular."