James Patterson Would Like You to Read
By Troy Patterson
Patterson became the best-selling novelist of the twenty-first century on the strength of his superlative skills as an adman—his knack for the art of the sale, his gift for managing creative talent. Relying on a retinue of co-authors, he is the chief executive of an unsleeping pulp mill perpetually boosting capacity. He has placed nineteen books on the Times’ best-seller lists since January. He has three hundred and twenty-five million books in print and an annual income of something like ninety million dollars. He has a new pitch.
One recent afternoon, Patterson summoned this interviewer (no relation) to an expense-account joint in midtown. He inhabited his corner banquette with no airs, drank his Diet Coke with mild thirst, and spoke with a lot of Hudson Valley in his voice. Patterson was born sixty-nine years ago in Newburgh, New York—the town across from Beacon on the wrong side of the river—and his accent did something untranscribable when he mentioned his filing drawers. The drawers are in the home office at his winter palace, in Palm Beach. Very deep, they hold a hundred and seventeen fresh manuscripts, slender but all good to go.
Patterson has enticed Hachette Book Group to grant him reign over a new imprint called BookShots. Each volume runs twenty-five to thirty thousand words, or a hundred and twenty-five to a hundred and fifty pages, or somewhere between one full “Double Indemnity” and two-thirds a “Gatsby.” Tolstoy is a full meal; Turgenev is a fabulous dessert; a BookShot is a bag of Funyuns. “We have this convention of the novel that you have to know everything about the frigging characters,” Patterson said. “Like: What? You know, a lot of people don’t know their spouses that well.”
Patterson “grew up being a little literary snob” who matured into knowing his limits. “At a certain point, it occurred to me I couldn’t write ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ but at that point I read ‘The Day of the Jackal.’ “ This he could maybe manage. He settled on a practical poetics: “Action reveals character even more than ‘bullshit, bullshit, bullshit’ in our heads.” BookShots is the natural extension of this philosophy. Why muck around with interiority? Why must a mass-market paperback aspire to the thickness of a foam travel pillow? Why not test the demand for low-commitment narratives priced at five dollars a hit? “I’m certainly not trying to break any new ground in terms of the structure of the novel,” Patterson said. “I just find that less seems to be more.”
One of the first BookShots—published this week, precisely a year after Patterson presented the concept—is “Cross Kill.” An installment of Patterson’s Alex Cross series, it is one of the few productions to flow from his solitary pen. Controlled prose, confirmed audience, a first printing of five hundred thousand copies, great. And Patterson plainly relishes collaborating with reporters on a true-crime horror show, titled “Filthy Rich,” about the highly affluent sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. But most often he farms out the word processing to co-authors, who receive detailed outlines and send back work that ranges in quality from vibrant schlock to hectic dreck. He’s also curating a BookShots Flames series for readers who crave to imagine the love shared by, say, an Appletini-tippling city gal and a rodeo cowboy named Tanner. “I came up with title for that one,” Patterson said. The title for that one is “Learning to Ride.”
When I asked what inspired BookShots, Patterson said, “I was kinda blocked,” using the word in an awesome caricature of the opposite of its usual sense. He published seventeen books in 2015. Only seventeen! With all his ideas and his infrastructure? With so many pots potentially boiling in his institutional kitchen?! Hachette is scheduled to published twenty-three BookShots in 2016, plus fifteen other Patterson titles. These numbers are open to upward revision.
“My hope is that it increases the habit of reading,” Patterson said. He is sincere in this goal, which aligns both with his philanthropic support of literacy and his personal gripes about the electorate’s analytic skills. “We have this country of nincompoops now.” It is discouraging, for instance, to see the populace swayed by political promises of mass deportations: “Like thirty million cops come to their homes and walk them across the Rio Grande? I mean, stop it already.” (I wondered if the author still golfs at the Trump course in West Palm. “Yeah, I do sometimes,” he said. “I go there to golf, not to vote.”) “You go to Sweden”—a country of ten million people—“and they have books that sell a million copies there. Gas stations sell books. It’s good for people.”
When I wondered about Patterson’s commercial hopes for the new project, he evaded the question quite suavely. “You know, I remember a long time ago—uh, who’s the ‘Star Wars’ guy?” George Lucas? “Yeah, I met him a really long time ago, and we were talking about his idea of success, and he said, ‘My thing is, I just keep pushing the rock up the steep hill, and as long as I feel like I keep going up the hill it’s good.’ You know, same thing.”
“You do what you can do,” Patterson said. “I’m not an empire builder.”