The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 6, 2012

Lee Duran: James Patterson runs a multi-million dollar fiction factory

By Lee Duran
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — James Patterson fascinates me. Apparently he also fascinates the reading public in general, because he’s the country’s top selling author, according to a detailed article in the Wall Street Journal.

Is he a great writer? Who knows for sure, considering that he doesn’t write most of his books. Is he a genius at promotion? You better believe it!

The headline of the WSJ article is “James Patterson Explains Why His Books Sell Like Crazy.” He has 13 books coming out this year and he had 11 last year so he knows what he’s talking about. At 65, he’s published 95 books and reportedly earns more than $80 million a year with his “publishing empire.”

Recently he added titles for young adults to his standard thriller and detective tales and he has projects underway with Hollywood.

He supposedly works seven days a week writing in pencil on legal pads. Considering his output, I believe the “seven days a week” explanation only if his days are 48 hours long.

He has a system that works, he told WSJ. He writes a detailed outline and then hires someone to expand that into a book which he will critique and/or revise.

I love his explanation:  “Look, this is commercial fiction. It’s a little different from really serious literature ... I just want to entertain people, and I do my best to make sure the books are as good as they can be.” His work, he says, “is just pure storytelling.”

I agree with him. Although popular fiction does not equate to painting the Sistine Chapel, it still requires a great deal of effort. But it’s entertainment, not written to impress. It’s not art with a capital “A.”

Patterson says he takes offense when people say, “Well, I haven’t read his books but I hate him.” His response: “Read them and then hate me.” His work, he says, “is just pure storytelling.”

Translation: popular fiction.

Has the industry become more accepting of commercial writing? Not hardly. One reason so many book reviewers go out of business is because they cover a lot of stuff that nobody cares about. He equates that to movie pages covering none of the big movies in favor of obscure films you can’t even find in theaters.

Does he pay his collaborators a salary or share royalties? “I don’t go into it, but nobody complains,” he said. “It’s a combination of monthly salary with a bonus.”

What I like most about Patterson is his openness about his work habits and co-writers. Lots of big authors “cheat” by using the work of others (called “ghosts”) without giving them credit. Patterson is above board with the arrangement that enabled his success.

That and his years as an executive for the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm, which doesn’t hurt, either.

Can a sentence be short and bad?

I’ve known about the Bulwer Lytton contest for worst opening sentence for a long time but “Lyttle Lytton Worst Sentence in 25 Words” is new to me. What a shame. With sentences like this one entered last year -- “She was naked beneath her clothes” -- I hate to think of what I missed.

Deadline for this year’s contest is April 15, so if you want to enter, you’ll have to hurry. Sign up at, or if you need a good laugh, you can read entries from previous years there as well.

Such as last year’s winner: “The red hot sun rose in the cold blue sky.”

Or one of my favorites from last year: “He, from a physical stature, was short.”

Can’t help it. I love this stuff.

Do you remember this book scandal?

The name Clifford Irving was familiar, but I needed a nudge to bring it all back. According to a press release, the “notorious” book that got Irving a stint in prison is being released as an e-book through Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook book platforms.

The book is “The Autobiography of Howard Hughes.”

That tweaked my memory, all right. The Hughes book is one of a dozen of Irving’s books going online, including “Jailing,” his unpublished prison journal.

The Hughes book hoax in 1972 brought Hughes himself “storming out of seclusion to halt its publication.” The result: 16 months in federal prison for the erring author.

Irving, a highly successful author, claimed he was “sufficiently naive or stupid enough not to see that it was a crime.” When caught, he thought all he’d have to do was return the money to his publisher --Ê$750,000 advance --Êand “have a good laugh.”

After his release from jail, he went back to work as a novelist. Over the years, his books have been praised by the likes of Robert Graves, Pablo Picasso, William Safire and the L.A. Times.

But not by Howard Hughes.