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?

Bookmark and Share

Book writers’ advice: book writing sucks

It’s amazing how many book authors are volunteering advice and/or satire about how bad it was for them, or is likely to be for you, to write a book.

Ellis Weiner in the New Yorker lampoons the “marketing department” at publishing houses which are so notorious among writers for not existing per se.

Mark Hurst claims to divulge “secrets of book publishing I wish I had known,” sounding just a tad bitter imho. Publishers hate/don’t get originality, and so forth.

Seth Godin, in a slightly older post, gives “advice to authors” which amounts to “lower your expectations” and somehow ends, in a non sequitur, with: “You should write one.”

Well, I am writing one. Once it’s published, will I post, right here, some advice and/or satire about how bad it was to write a book?

Bookmark and Share

Strategic thinking: Coolidge v Cheshire Cat

DisneyCheshireCat225px-Calvin_Coolidge_photo_portrait_head_and_shouldersOne thread on The Hannibal Blog, as regular readers know, is strategy. That’s because strategy (as distinct from tactics, which is also important) is so important in achieving success. Genius tactics in service of the wrong strategy leads to disaster, as it did for the main character in my forthcoming book, Hannibal of Carthage.

Mark Hurst over at Good Experience has an amusing and insightful post on strategy as opposed to tactics. (Mark, by the way, also runs Gel, an ideas conference and a mini-TED, as it were.)

On one hand, Mark quotes Calvin Coolidge, our 30th (as well as 30th-most-impressive) president:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

If I may reflect on my guy, Hannibal: He had remarkable persistence: Leading an army of elephants over the Alps, defeating the Romans, staying undefeated in Italy for 16 years!!

The trouble with the Coolidge take on success is, as Mark points out, that the effectiveness of persistence

depends on having the right direction. Without that one little element, the entire effort is for naught.

So Mark wheels out the Cheshire Cat, a sort of feline Clausewitz. Alice asks which way she should go, and the Cheshire Cat answers:

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

To Mark that means that

you have to stop and take time to find the direction. You can’t run while you’re reading the map.

To me it means that Hannibal was a bit like Alice. Yes, he knew that he wanted to defeat Rome (which was like saying “I want to achieve success”–ie, vague). But he did not know where he wanted to go (ie, how to go about defeating Rome).

Bookmark and Share

Stuff and clutter on web pages

Mostly, in this thread on stuff and clutter, I’m talking about actual, tangible stuff, stuff you can throw out or hit your toe against. But stuff can be non-material too, cluttering up our brains or … web pages. Mark Hurst is a usability thinker, and has this anecdote from a recent consulting trip to a company–let’s call it Acme–with a snazzy web site:

…Anyway. Acme had a problem: research showed that their website was completely, unforgivably, disastrously hard to use for their customers. And *ugly*, on top of that, as if it was spat from a template circa 1996. So I sat down with the executives, everyone with a stake in the online presence, to help them improve the business metrics by improving their website.

Here’s an excerpt of the meeting transcript, more or less.

Me: One thing customers complained about was the home page navigation. To quote one customer we talked to, “I can’t figure this thing out and I’m leaving right now.” I think it had something to do with the flaming chainsaw animation that follows the mouse pointer around the screen. Is it possible we could remove that?

VP Marketing: Oh right, the flaming chainsaw animation. I’d love to take that off the site, really I would, but I just think it’s so neat, and besides it aligns with our brand message of innovation here at Acme.

Me: But customers would shop more, and buy more, if it wasn’t there. Wouldn’t you like to reconsider that animation?

VP Marketing: Here in Marketing we have to adhere to our brand guidelines, and innovation is central to that, so I’m afraid the animation has to stay.

Me: OK – next up is the customer complaint about the 18-level-deep flying dynamic navigation sub-menus. Several customers said all the menus zipping around the screen made them dizzy.

VP Technology: I know what you’re referring to. That menu system took our technology team six months to code up, and I have to say it’s the most advanced implementation I’ve ever seen, really an awesome job.

Me: The technology is impressive, for sure… I mean, I’ve never seen 18 nested levels all flying in unison like that.

VP Technology: Thanks, man.

Me: Uhh – sure thing. But I’d just like to push back a little on this – the customers did say that the menus were confusing. How about a simpler menu, maybe just a few links to the top-level categories, and that’s it?

VP Technology: Listen, I’m all for simplicity and ease-of-use and all that, I hear you. I really get it. But I have to tell you, Web technology is moving fast, and if we don’t keep up, we’re going to look like Google or something. A bunch of blue links. Borrring.

Me: Allllright. Now we’ve covered the flaming chainsaw and the flying menus, let’s move on to the logo graphic. Some customers complained that they didn’t want to scroll down a full page just to get past the logo, the large stock photos, and the slogan.

VP Branding: What did they say about the color scheme? I’m just wondering, because the green and fuscia palette is really supposed to, you know, bring forth assocations of innovation and holistic thinking, all while blending in with the flames from the chainsaw.

Me: I think I have a plane to catch. (Exit conference door right)

Bookmark and Share