James Patterson: 'Publishers are lost in the Middle Ages'

He outsells JK Rowling, John Grisham and Dan Brown...combined. But James Patterson, the world's most prolific author, doesn't even consider himself a writer. So how has he built an empire that rakes in $1.5bn a year?

The figures, as James Patterson might describe them, are awesome. He's had over 35 New York Times bestsellers, including five at the top spot, in a single year. He currently outsells JK Rowling, John Grisham and Dan Brown put together. This year he's on target to sell more than 20m books in the US alone, adding to his $1.5bn in global sales, making him the world's bestselling author by a mile. Oh, and he's also the most borrowed author from UK libraries.

Amazingly, James Patterson doesn't think of himself as a writer. Indeed, in person he's not remotely awesome, nor flashy. Sporting standard-issue polo shirt, chinos and deck shoes, he's softly spoken and surprisingly modest. "I recently had [my 61st] birthday party," he says, "and asked 16 friends; some went back all the way to kindergarten, and the consensus, which I really like, was that I'm still the same asshole that I always was. There didn't seem to be a lot of airs. I don't think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as [my wife] Sue's pal and [my son] Jack's friend, and I like to scribble. That seems to be the truth about who I am."

Well, sort of. Patterson's "scribbling" isn't just a super-efficient brand, reaching for global dominance; it's also a collaborative effort, honed and refined by a number of highly talented individuals. The biggest charge that Patterson has to endlessly tackle is that he doesn't actually write his own books. In his airy but simple office, overlooking the Hudson River some 40 miles upstate of New York City, Patterson shows me the piles of manuscripts he's currently working on. "This is a rewrite," he says, flicking through a thick wedge of paper. He explains that the numerous pencil marks on the type are his additions and changes. "This is my third rewrite on a co-written book. I get all this baloney about well, what does he do? Does he even look at them? Well yes, he does look at them."

You only have to dip into the very first novel Patterson wrote, single-handedly, back in 1976 to get some idea of his own talent as a writer. The Thomas Berryman Number is a cool, stylish suspense thriller, featuring a cold-blooded assassin. It also brilliantly pits a small-minded, Southern mentality against a laid-back North East seaboard, metropolitan sophistication. But Patterson says now that the book was "a struggle to get into some coherent form. I felt Berryman had a lot of good sentences. A lot of times you get people writing wonderful sentences and paragraphs and they fall in love with their prose style, but the stories really aren't that terrific. Berryman was better written than the story."

Over the years Patterson has focused on telling compelling stories rather than writing good sentences. He never set out to write Ulysses (which he has read three times), but mass-market, commercial fiction. And for a long while he didn't take this that seriously. Patterson's day job was in advertising. By the age of 39 he was appointed chief executive of J Walter Thompson, North America – the youngest in the firm's history. He attributes his success largely to the sudden death of his then-partner Jane from a brain tumour. "I didn't want to spend any time dealing with life – just work, nothing else." However, advertising was never a great love. "I got to the point of hiring people I liked to be around, but there were too many layers and too many people who really didn't know what they were doing. And it was too silly to get nutty about – Jesus, it's a frigging cereal."

He left, just over a decade ago, not, he maintains, to concentrate on his writing – even though he was by now achieving considerable commercial success with a crime series featuring the black cop and criminal psychologist Alex Cross – but to downsize the stress and upgrade the lifestyle. "I had to drive back to the agency from the shore one Sunday, and I was stuck in wall-to-wall traffic heading into Manhattan, and I realised I needed to get on the other side of the road." Out of office, he promptly married Sue, a striking blonde Norwegian (who had once worked at J Walter Thompson).

Nevertheless, marriage and fatherhood (Jack was born 10 years ago) – and Patterson could not be more committed to both – seem to have hardly put the brakes on his scribbling. Indeed, a solid, happy home life, coupled with his corporate unshackling, has inspired Patterson to effectively break all the rules and revolutionise the publishing ' industry. Obviously, the guy is no slouch – he begins work at 5.30am, seven days a week – nor is he just a name on a jacket.

What he has done so successfully is not just to launch one or two bestselling crime series, but three – along with the Alex Cross stable, there's the Women's Murder Club, featuring four Californian crime-solvers, and most recently the Detective Michael Bennett series. He's also created two series for young adults – the hyper-popular Maximum Ride books starring a group of kids who are part-human, part- bird, and a new line starring the orphaned teenage alien-hunter Daniel X. A book from each of these series is published once a year, as well as a number of other stand-alones. He has a horror line, a romance line, a historical-fiction line, always produces a big summer stand-alone thriller, and is now turning to non-fiction.

In Britain this year, Patterson's name will appear on 10 original works. All will be bestsellers and most will be number ones. No wonder he doesn't have time to pen every word – but to accuse him of not writing his own books is entirely to miss the point. "There is a kind of Mickey Mouse way of looking at brands. In particular in the States, a lot of the publishing houses are lost in the Middle Ages, they really don't have a clue. I remember initially it was like, 'Oh my God, he's going to hurt the brand by doing other kinds of stories.' And I said, here's what I think a brand is, from my own experience with dealing with a lot of brands – a brand is just a connection between something and a lot of people who use or try that product.

"If there is a brand that's called James Patterson, and I suppose there is, it's that when you pick up a Patterson book you'll not be able to stop reading. It doesn't matter whether it's a romantic story, a young-adult book, or non-fiction."

Random House, Patterson's British publisher, came up with the strapline "The pages turn themselves". However, Patterson's editor here, Susan Sandon, certainly doesn't like to think of Patterson's work as either formulaic or easily branded. "He's a brilliant story-teller, a phenomenon," she says, before suggesting an analogy with Michelangelo's working practices. "People get very snobbish about it, but Patterson has not franchised out his name. He works with collaborators, which is not unusual."

To a point. There are numerous big-name "authors" who use named and unnamed hands or ghosts, to pen both fiction and memoirs – from Dick Francis to Katie Price. And there is the enduring case of Robert Ludlum, who died in 2001, but still manages to produce at least a novel a year. Even Stephen King has called on the odd collaborator for a particular series.

No one, however, has done it so effectively and on such an industrial scale as Patterson. His first foray into non-fiction, Torn Apart, is published this week, and is being marketed, in Britain anyway, as a misery memoir – that genre which continues to shine despite, or perhaps because of, the dark content. Patterson was approached by an old friend, Hal Friedman, who was attempting to write an account of his son's traumatic and terrifying experience of Tourette syndrome and other neurological disorders. "I read the early pages," says Patterson, "and felt there was power there, but I didn't think it was working at all." Eventually Patterson offered to come on board. "I felt it had the potential to be a very emotional story, but the scenes had to pay off."

All Patterson's work is defined by ultra-short chapters that continually push the story along. Pace is what he's after. "I insisted we do this as nothing but anecdotes that seamlessly tell the story. The subject for a lot of non-fiction is very emotional, but if you read it, it's the most boring, dry stuff. I wanted Torn Apart to be extremely accessible and readable."

Patterson himself says there's no particular formula, but more his own emotions and instincts telling him whether something works. "I always do it scene by scene, section by section. Am I hooked? Are the surprises continuing? I scribble on the rewrites, 'Be there.' If I don't feel I'm in the scene, for this kind of writing, I don't think it works." These comments and directions then go back to his loyal team of co-writers, who are usually clearly acknowledged on page. Currently Patterson employs five writers, variously working on the different series and lines.

The first book Patterson co-wrote was Miracle on the 17th Green, with golfing buddy and fledgling thriller writer Peter de Jonge. "I loved the process," Patterson says. "It was really fun. I'm a big fan of teamwork anyway. I think the individualism thing is overrated." In a way, Patterson operates like a movie director, providing very detailed plot outlines for a bunch of scriptwriters, then cutting and re-shooting their efforts. "The closest thing would be what happens every day in Hollywood. I don't worry about throwing out a lot of stuff and adding a lot of stuff. I don't worry about the re-edit and re-edit and re-edit. It's all part of the process and it's fine."

For their part, the writers are more than happy with the arrangement. Andrew Gross spent seven years working for Patterson, mostly on the Women's Murder Club. "Jim has terrific instincts for plots, really fine-tuned, and getting a story going fast. We got along well and he was always accessible." The association, which Gross describes as being "very well-paid", also enabled him to branch out on his own: he secured a major six-book deal with HarperCollins. Peter de Jonge now also has a deal with the same publisher.

Patterson won't be drawn on the exact financial arrangements he makes with his co-writers, but implies, as do they, that they are very generous – he gives bonuses, but not royalties. "Mostly," he says, "they're easy to work with. When I was at [J Walter] Thompson I would hire only one kind of person – talented and nice to be around. The end. No shitheads. I continued with that." He also makes it clear, at the very beginning, who's in charge: "Ultimately this is a James Patterson novel."

Movie adaptations are growing the brand still further. Morgan Freeman played Alex Cross in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, and producer Avi Arad – the man behind Spider-Man – has the rights to the Maximum Ride series and has already secured $180m in production money from Sony. Patterson is passionate about the young-adult market, in part because of his son Jack and in part because he's keen to get kids reading, across America. "One of the problems," he says, "is that there is not enough stuff that's written with the kind of pace that their world is about."

Patterson's world, in comparison, appears strangely slow and antiquated. Aside from his house on the Hudson, only 40 miles south of where he was born in Newburgh, New York state, he has a mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. But he maintains that he, Sue and Jack lead a pretty quiet life, and rarely socialise. He does few appearances and is on no major boards. He also claims he feels no pressure to continue dominating the bestseller lists. "I don't think I care that much," he says. "We're doing fine. We're doing better: we're doing very well."

Patterson, you sense, is a man who sticks firmly to what he knows best: putting pen, or in his case a 2B pencil, to invariably someone else's paper. For while he might have achieved stratospheric sales, and amassed a fortune, he still hasn't joined the computer age, despite the ribbing he gets from Jack. He communicates with his co-writers by post and phone. The key to those communications? Simply, perhaps, what he regards as "my emotion coming to the thing and going, 'It's not right yet,' or 'It's ready now.'" And, of course, no email, no search engine, and no shitheads.

'Torn Apart' by James Patterson and Hal Friedman is published by Century at £16.99

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