When is a James Patterson book not a James Patterson book?
PUBLISHING:When he gets someone else to help write it. But Patterson isn’t the only major fiction writer turning his name into a lucrative literary franchise, writes FIONA REDDAN
EARLIER THIS MONTH Forbesmagazine tells us that James Patterson earned a whopping $84 million last year, more than twice his nearest competitor, and more than JK Rowling or Stephen King. So how did a writer earn almost as much as a hedge-fund manager?
It’s a business model that might seem more suited to your local coffee house or pizza restaurant, but franchising an author’s brand to allow other writers to write under their name is now taking hold in the book world. Rather than investing time and money in new authors, publishers are taking the safer option of publishing new books by established authors, even though the authors may have had only a minimal involvement in the book. In some cases, these writers are no longer alive. Such an approach means that publishers can maximise their earnings from particular authors, and the writers themselves boost their income by increasing their output to multiple books a year. And Patterson is one of the biggest exponents.
Patterson, a former chief executive of an ad agency, is no stranger to creating and developing a brand. The only difference now is that he is marketing himself. Indeed, so successful is Patterson at marketing himself that Harvard University has developed a case study on the author, Marketing James Patterson, which it runs as part of several business courses.
Rather than writing his own books alone, Patterson links up with partner writers to deliver the manuscripts. He justifies it on the basis that he is more skilled at coming up with the intricacies of the plots his books demand than he is at crafting sentence after sentence. This method means that he can churn out book after book – he has released about 10 books in the past year – keeping his fans satisfied and increasing his lucrative movie deals. One of his most recent titles, Now You See Her, was written with Michael Ledwidge, while 10th Anniversary was written with Maxine Paetro, for example.
There is little new about someone writing a book for another author, with ghost writers existing since the publishing business began. August Maquet is said to have worked with Alexandre Dumas on many of his works, including The Three Musketeers. Following the death in 1986 of Virginia Andrews, author of the infamous Flowers in the Attic series, her estate hired the services of a ghost writer to continue her legacy – and keep those royalty cheques coming. Similarly, it might surprise fans of the Nancy Drew books that the author Carolyn Keene never actually existed – she was in fact a pseudonym for a group of ghost writers who turned out mystery after mystery solved by the teenage detective. And if you examine closely the acknowledgements of many celebrity autobiographies, you will frequently find the name of the person who actually wrote the book.
The difference now is that not only has the use of ghost or partner writers become much more common, it is often clearly disclosed on the book jacket. And it obviously isn’t putting off readers, as Patterson’s recent earnings indicate. “Patterson and his ilk show the power of brand in modern publishing. Authors, at least the successful ones, become brands and so long as the readers get what they expect, then the brand can be extended in many ways,” says Eoin Purcell, editor of Irish Publishing News.
Thriller writer Robert Ludlum, who penned more than 20 novels including The Bourne Identity, has published more than 10 novels since 2001, despite the fact that he died from a heart attack that year.
While the books’ true author is credited – The Bourne Betrayal, for example, is written by Eric Van Lustbader – their name is very much secondary to Ludlum’s brand. Indeed if you search for Robert Ludlum on Amazon, for example, you will find all his books – even those he didn’t write.
And, while Dick Francis, the bestselling writer of racing thrillers, died in 2010, his son, Felix, is continuing with his legacy. This month, Gamble, “A Dick Francis novel” will be published.
Another top-earning writer last year was Janet Evanovich, who managed to pull in $22 million according to Forbes. Author of the Stephanie Plum series of romantic novels, Evanovich also publishes in conjunction with Charlotte Hughes on the Full series, and with Leanne Banks on other titles, because, like Patterson, she says she doesn’t have time to bring to fruition all her ideas.
Partner writers typically receive fixed payments for their work, rather than a share of the royalties, but according to Purcell, it’s not an exploitative tool. “The kind of deal that Patterson offers is a good one for less-well-known writers. Getting associated with such a star is good for their careers,” he says.
Peter Telep, a university professor, has had more than 40 books published under his own name, and in interviews has described himself as “the hardest-working writer you’ve never heard of”. However, this may be set to change given his partnership with Tom Clancy, author of the Jack Ryan series of novels, many of which have been turned into movies such as The Hunt for Red Octoberand Patriot Games. Clancy now uses co-writers to help him pen his novels, with Telep co-scripting Against All Enemies.
At the moment, it appears that the approach works best in the crime, romance and thriller genres, but according to Purcell “if the author’s brand were strong enough, it might work in other genres too”.
So the next time you’re in a book shop, look closely at the author of the book you’re about to buy. You might just find that it isn’t written by them at all.