The Business of Being Creative

UPDATED: January 19, 2011
PUBLISHED: January 19, 2011

In the summer of 1996, James Patterson was driving over the Hudson River, returning from the Jersey Shore. He was on his way to work at the J. Walter Thompson (JWT) advertising offices in Manhattan. On a Sunday.

“I never loved advertising,” Patterson says. He served as JWT chairman for six years. “It was a nice way to make a living, but I didn’t have a passion for it, even though I was successful at it.” That Sunday in 1996, traffic on Patterson’s side of the highway was crawling. “I was in wall-to-wall traffic on the Jersey Turnpike, coming back from the ocean. On the other side of the road, cars were flying by every once in a while.” For three hours, he sat behind the wheel and watched drivers on the other side of the highway whiz by, headed toward the beach.

Then it hit him: “I’ve got to get to the other side of the road.” So he quit his job to be a writer.

Of course, there would be no starving artistry for Patterson, who was already an established novelist by that time. His first book, The Thomas Berryman Number, had won the Edgar Award in 1977—which, in the world of mystery writers, is akin to winning the Oscar your first time on film. “I always had a passion for writing fiction,” he says. “I loved it.”

But Patterson was, and is, a pragmatist. Writing after hours and at his desk during lunches, he had built up a substantial alternate income before he made the switch. “I didn’t feel like I was doing some­thing that was dumb or that I would never have any success doing,” he says. Because then, as now, Patterson knows that writing isn’t just a passion; it’s a business.

Branding and Best-Sellers

Patterson’s approach to the business of writing has elicited stellar sales and a loyal following. The author, who holds a master’s degree from Vanderbilt, has sold more than 170 million copies of his books worldwide. To put that into perspective, in 2007, one out of every 15 hardcover fiction books sold was a Patterson novel. He’s the only author to have five novels debut at No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller List in one year—and he’s done that every year since 2005.

Patterson publishes four to five books per year in his signature streamlined style, often with the collaboration of co-authors to help him tackle his constant flood of ideas. (He’s been known to have up to 30 projects in the works at once). This kind of prolic production and his commercial writing style have garnered criticism from the literary set, but Patterson has grown accustomed to the push-back, even from his own publisher.

In 1992, when he wrote the first Alex Cross novel, Along Came a Spider, he believed he had written a best-seller. His publisher felt otherwise and rejected Patterson’s request for extra publicity for the book. So Patterson, using his marketing skills and connections in the advertising world, took over the publicity for the book, including the design of the cover. In the traditional publishing industry, authors are rarely, if ever, given input on the cover designs for their books. But Patterson had total faith in his own marketing vision, and soon, Along Came a Spider with its bold new cover became his first best-seller, as well as the first of his books to be made into a major motion picture.

Today, he still designs his own covers, and his once unique approach to the business of writing has become legendary. A professor at Harvard Business School even teaches a case study on Patterson’s brand management strategies. “So much of it is thinking about other people and what they need,” Patterson explains. “I think very often people are not thinking about the customer, not thinking about the buyer. They are not thinking about the reader, they are not thinking about the moviegoer, they are just taking things from their point of view and what they want to do.”

Patterson suggests the opposite approach, asking, What do the people out there want? “I think that’s a big piece of it,” he says. “I think another piece is what is out there already. I have one friend in particular who was writing sort of dark detective novels, pretty much for guys. And he was writing another one that he hadn’t had much success with. His books are published, but he wasn’t doing very well.” The writer asked Patterson for his input. “And I said, ‘Well, you have to do what you want to do. I mean, if you like to write these things, you should do it. But I think it’s very hard to make a living doing this because it’s a small audience. And there are a lot of people doing it who are pretty good at it. So it’s hard.” So the challenge becomes one of balancing what you want to sell—or in Patterson’s case, to write—with what people want to buy.

Style and Substance

Patterson has found a way to marry the types of books he’s interested in writing with the types of books that people want to read. His record-breaking audience includes readers of a variety of genres, from romance to mystery to nonfiction. Lately, he’s even made a foray into books for kids, and he works on projects for television and film. But his sparse writing style is consistent across genres.

“I write very colloquially,” he says. “That’s the way we tell stories to one another. I leave out a lot of detail. Like if you were telling me a story or I was telling you a story—and we were any good at it—we wouldn’t go on and on and on with the kind of detail that is in a lot of nonfiction and even a lot of fiction. There’s just more than most people want to know. So my fiction tends not to have all that in it, and the plots really tumble forward. I think people get used to that, and they know that no matter what I write, whether it’s a young adult story or a love story or a detective story, that the pages are going to turn themselves.”

His latest book in the Alex Cross detective series, his most successful adult series, is Crossfire, which came out in November. “I think it’s one of the best Cross books in a while. The nice thing for me about Cross is I still want to write about him,” Patterson says of the character he created almost 20 years ago.

Fans and Family

In a career that has spanned more than three decades and has included such long-lasting successes as the Alex Cross series, Patterson has had his fair share of struggles with the public side of being a successful author.

“The first signing I ever did—I’ll never forget—was actually in the [World] Trade Center. There used to be a bookstore on the ground floor there. This was years before 9/11,” he says. “I came in, and they had a couple hundred of my books piled up—this was the second book, I think—and nobody came. Not one person. So I sat there, and my girlfriend and I kept signing her book over and over again. So yeah, that was a little tough.

“Touring is fun in a sense for me, now. I will go in and there will be, I don’t know, 600, 800, 1,000 people, and they are mostly fans. And that’s neat. They tend to be kind of rabid, so they make a lot of noise; it’s sort of like being a mini rock star, which is fun. I don’t get carried away with it, but it is neat.” Patterson says the demands of travel associated with touring and book signings aren’t his “idea of fun” these days, so he tends to stay home and let the books market themselves.
Freed from the publicity requirements of a lesser-known author, he spends most of his time at his Palm Beach, Fla., home with his wife and son. “Jack and Sue and I are together pretty much every night, and most of the day I am around,” he says. “It’s not like Daddy comes home from work, and it’s 8 o’clock at night. Dad’s here, and Mom is here most of the time. So it’s a tight-knit little family group, and we’re all very family-oriented.”

It was his son Jack, now 12, who inspired Patterson to start writing children’s books. “As I have watched him in school and watched him learn how to read and not be terribly interested in books at first, that was part of it.” Another part was Patterson’s growing awareness that millions of kids have never read a book they liked, “which to me is just crazy,” he says. “And I thought I could write books that kids would really tune into.” He felt that his style—straight­forward and fast-moving—would captivate younger audiences as it had adult audiences and maybe get them reading.

He was right. In May, Patterson won Author of the Year at the Children’s Choice Book Awards for MAX: A Maximum Ride Novel. Learning of his nomination, Patterson recalls his son Jack saying, “ ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Dad, because I really like your books, but I think Rick Riordan [author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series] is going to win Author of the Year because he had the movie.’ So I took Jack and my wife up to the awards ceremony, and I won. And Jack leapt out of his chair; it was so cool. And then when I got up there, I held the thing up and said, ‘This is for Jack.’ ”

For the past few years, Patterson has made it his mission to introduce kids to books they love, including some he’s written himself, such as the Daniel X and Witch & Wizard series. “We just can’t say to our kids, ‘Go read Great Expectations.’ That’s not where it starts for most kids. You have to find books that are going to turn your kids on to reading.

You want a kid to read a book and say, ‘Give me another one.’ ” To help adults find books that kids are more likely to enjoy, he created And in 2005, he created the Page Turner Awards to reward groups and individuals for creatively spreading the joy of reading.

Today, giving back and passing on his love of books to kids is a big part of Patterson’s success. “I think if you wake up in the morning and you are kind of excited about the day and you go to bed excited about the next day, then you are a success. Sometimes things get in the way of that, and that’s unfortunate. I am lucky I don’t have a lot of things in the way.”

Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at and on Facebook.