James Patterson: The rise and rise of the world’s biggest author

James Patterson

James Patterson has sold more books than Stephen King, Dan Brown and John Grisham combined. Picture by Rankin

Lauren Ziegler

“Hi, I’m Stephen King,” says James Patterson, opening his Sydney Writer’s Festival talk with a sly grin and a cheeky tone.

The audience giggled as the 68-year-old playfully readied Sydney’s Town Hall for a dazzling hour of anecdotes, one-liners and insight into the mind of “The World’s Biggest Author”.

For some, the nickname ‘the Henry Ford of books’ might seem like a slap in the face for James Patterson. But for the writer, it signals an accurate, highly profitable career. As we learned on the night, James Patterson has sold more books than Stephen King, Dan Brown and John Grisham combined. Totaling more than 305 million books sold to date, his unbelievably prolific bibliography spans thriller, comedy, young adult fiction, children’s books and science fiction.

When his on-stage companion for the night, Ray Martin, asks, “It’s been said that printing a James Patterson book is like printing money. Is it that easy?” The writer happily replies with a simple “Yes.”

“Hands up if you’ve read 20 James Patterson books,” Ray Martin says. An overwhelming majority of attendees oblige. “30? 40? 50?” Half the hands are still raised. “Who here has read every single book?” At least one person has. “There’ll be a test later!” James Patterson jokes.

Throughout the hour-long event, it becomes clear that he writer is an entertainer in every sense of the word. A superb orator, his rehearsed one-liners earn enormous laughs. “I worked in a mental hospital (he raises his hands in surrender), I promise I wasn’t a patient! Then I went into advertising but I’ve been clean for 20 years!”

His odd, yet endearing self-acceptance is met with smiles. “I couldn’t write a Tom Clancy book. I don’t get it. I don’t like non-fiction. Critics are too obsessed with words, I’m more interested in the story.” He knows he’s no Dostoevsky and he’s not afraid of showing it. He doesn’t challenge his audience, and that’s exactly what there people there want.

When Ray Martin asks him if he prefers the term “entertainer” to “writer”, he agrees wholeheartedly. He aims to make people happy, and he does so with immense success. He says he’s not interested in writing a literary novel, largely because he doesn’t like the people who might read those books – it’s not easy to tell whether he’s joking or not. He loves his audience and they love him, and there is zero shame in that exchange.

One of the most interesting topics covered on the night was the issue of advertising and a personal brand. James Patterson is unique in that his “brand” is extremely broad, yet completely identifiable. His novels, whether thriller, comedy or teen romance, have a swift, fluid tone, inviting storylines and simple yet engrossing characters that the reader can immediately engage with.

He recalled the first moment he approached his publisher about leaving the thriller genre, having had an idea for a romance novel. “But that’s your brand,” the publisher pleaded. He published it anyway, of course.

He repeatedly discussed his past life in advertising, even defending himself when one audience member asked if his experiences influenced the way he built and marketed his “brand”. “What is a brand?” he says. “Nothing more than a connection that something or someone has with a person.”

Carefully treading around the sensitive topic of ghostwriting accusations, he spends some time talking about his writing collaborators. James Patterson commissions co-writers who significantly contribute to the numerous novels he releases each year. He likens these collaborations to “Simon and Garfunkel, Lennon and McCartney, the Coen Brothers”, but one fact can’t be ignored; his novels are all emblazoned with one name only – James Patterson.

Learning about his writing process is just as intriguing. He says he’s never experienced writer’s block, and can write a thriller as easily as a children’s story. He explains how his writing style has seriously changed in recent years; while his “best sentences” were written decades ago, he now focuses more on the story as a whole, rather than spending too much time on individual words and phrases. He displays glorious insight when telling the audience that they all have stories – stories they relay to their friends and family, stories that make people laugh, gasp and cry. They are, he says, the most terrific stories but if they were written down, he believes the sentences would undoubtedly be simple.

A god to his fans and a fool to his critics, there’s no denying that James Patterson is an extreme success. Shamelessly proud, he owns the stage from start to end. A man of contradictions, comedy and endless storytelling, it’s almost hard to tell where fiction ends and the man begins.