Success vs popularity: genius or slut?

James Patterson

Using the example of James Patterson, an apparently über-successful author of whom I had never heard, Mark Hurst recently made me think once again about my definition of success.

To paraphrase and amplify Mark’s point, would you rather …

  • create something truly yucky — something that you’re secretly ashamed of because you have good taste and know better — which nonetheless becomes a blockbuster?
  • or something that you are proud of, something you consider sublime, even if relatively few people agree or even notice?

As Mark says, this dilemma could appear in any walk of life:

You could be creating websites or software, or writing books, or designing products, or teaching classes, or producing events, or seeing patients. Whatever the case, what would you rather result from that experience: to be popular, or to create something that you yourself would be happy to receive?

If you answer “I’d like to do both” you’re cheating. The conundrum presents itself to all creative types sooner or later precisely because they must, at least sometimes, choose between the two options.

How to sell 14 million books

Which brings us to Patterson, who sold 14 million (!) books last year, as this profile claims. He published 9 books last year, and will publish 9 more this year. In fact, he is a book machine, an assembly line, a conveyor belt.

Literally: He uses “co-authors” to do the actual writing and “manages” the process rather as the boss of, well, an assembly line does.

Patterson is no boor. He himself reads both light and heavy fare, including Joyce. But when it comes to his own books he takes the approach of an advertising man. In fact, he start as an ad man, at J. Walter Thompson. He personally wrote and produced the TV ads for his early books.

He takes a marketing approach to everything from the story and characters to the jacket design, which tends to be

shiny, with big type and bold, colorful lettering — and titles drawn from nursery rhymes (“Kiss the Girls,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “The Big Bad Wolf”), with their foreboding sense of innocence interrupted. “Jim was sensitive to the fact that books carry a kind of elitist persona, and he wanted his books to be enticing to people who might not have done so well in school and were inclined to look at books as a headache …  He wanted his jackets to say, ‘Buy me, read me, have fun — this isn’t “Moby Dick.” ’ ”

Take that, Melville.

Patterson also does scientific market research:

Instead of simply going to the biggest book-buying markets, he focused his early tours and advertising efforts on cities where his books were selling best: like a politician aspiring to higher office, he was shoring up his base. From there, he began reaching out to a wider audience, often through unconventional means. When sales figures showed that he and John Grisham were running nearly neck and neck on the East Coast but that Grisham had a big lead out West, Patterson set his second thriller series, “The Women’s Murder Club,” about a group of women who solve murder mysteries, in San Francisco.

In other words, he does not conceive a story and wait for an audience; he finds an audience and tailors a story for it.

In this way, he practically took over Little, Brown, once a respected literary publishing house, where he now has a dedicated staff that answers only to him. A former boss of Little, Brown

says she was continually surprised by the success of Patterson’s books. To her, they lacked the nuance and originality of other blockbuster genre writers …

Then again, she is the former boss.

Patterson’s style, you ask? The profile describes it as

light on atmospherics and heavy on action, conveyed by simple, colloquial sentences. “I don’t believe in showing off,” Patterson says of his writing. “Showing off can get in the way of a good story.” Patterson’s chapters are very short, which creates a lot of half-blank pages; his books are, in a very literal sense, page-turners. He avoids description, back story and scene setting whenever possible, preferring to hurl readers into the action and establish his characters with a minimum of telegraphic details.

Does Patterson mind that he is not considered, you know, literary?

“Thousands of people don’t like what I do,” Patterson told me, shrugging off his detractors. “Fortunately, millions do.” For all of his commercial success, though, Patterson seemed bothered by the fact that he has not been given his due — that unlike King or even Grisham, who have managed to transcend their genres, he continues to be dismissed as an airport author or, worse, a marketing genius who has cynically maneuvered his way to best-sellerdom by writing remedial novels that pander to the public’s basest instincts. “Caricature assassination,” Patterson called it.

How, then does he, explain his success? He makes his books

accessible and engaging. “A brand is just a connection between something and a bunch of people,” Patterson told me. “Crest toothpaste: I always used it, it tastes O.K., so I don’t have any particular reason to switch. Here the connection is that James Patterson writes books that bubble along with heroes I can get interested in. That’s it.”

Now, as a bonus for those of you who are not only reading a blog but writing your own:

“I have a saying,” Patterson told me. “If you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something.”

And isn’t that interesting? I once wrote that the first rule of good writing is not to care about your readers, but that it needs to be tempered with the second rule of good writing, which is to have empathy.

Patterson, it might seem, proves instead that empathy is all.

Oh, wait. That gets back to the dilemma. Are we talking about good writing or popular writing, and do we care?

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