Monday, January 25, 2010

Ghostwriters, Co-authors and The Great Oz

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

The NYT's magazine yesterday ran an article on James Patterson's amazing empire (James Patterson Inc.) and I confess my jaw dropped when I read that he published nine original hardcovers in 2009 and plans at least that many for 2010. Of course, James Patterson doesn't write all of these on his own - he has a stable of co-authors that work with him. Now, I am probably the only person on earth who has never actually read a James Patterson book (I know, I know...) but the sheer volume of this man's output is astonishing. The NYT's article states that one out of every 17 hardcover books bought in the US was written by James Patterson - and this started me wondering - is the Patterson publishing model the way of the future?

We've all heard of ghost-writers who help propel celebrity memoirs to bestsellerdom but we often accept this as a necessity, given the fact that the celebrity in question is usually not a writer (or even capable of being one...) - but in this case Patterson recruits other thriller writers to help expand his brand and increase his output. I'm not sure how I feel about the co-author issue - are they really 'joint' writers in the traditional co-authorship sense or 'assistant authors' helping to churn out books for another, better known, author? As I said, not having read any of Patterson's books I can't really comment on the difference between the books he authored alone and those he authored with another writer but I do have to wonder - does the quality of the writing suffer at all? Do readers care if the book that has James Patterson emblazoned on it wasn't actually written by him?

From what I read in the NYT's article, the brand and business that is James Patterson requires a team approach. Don't get me wrong, Patterson is clearly intimately involved with every step in the publishing of his books. He does a detailed outline for each of them and provides editorial oversight and quality control over all the material - but (equally obvious) the business of James Patterson Inc. could be nowhere near as profitable (or prolific) if he had to write each of his books by himself.

Given how centralized publishing is becoming, with marketing resources concentrated almost exclusively on the few top sellers in each publishing house, it will be interesting to see how common the James Patterson model will become. Will it be the model adopted by future bestselling thriller writers? Will those authors become responsible for churning out plots and outlines for others to complete rather than actually writing the books themselves? (Will readers even care?)

So what do you think? For those of you who are Patterson fans, can you tell a difference in quality between the ones he authored alone and those he has co-authored? Has quality diminished over time as a result of his amazing level of output or not? Do you think we will increasingly see this kind of approach where bestselling authors rely on a stable of co-authors to produce a prodigious number of titles each year, thereby centralizing sales even further among the few top sellers? Or will readers eventually tire of this approach - concerned that behind the branding facade lies nothing more than the 'great Oz' ?


  1. Patterson is producing products. He doesn't care about critics or style, but with selling books and making a healthy profit. And there's nothing wrong with that. He's a businessman and this is America. He's created a formula that works, like Liquid Plumber or See's Candy.

  2. He's certainly is and as you say there's nothing wrong with that - I wonder how many other authors will try the same thing on this kind of scale (?).

  3. By coincidence, I just finished HONEYMOON by James Patterson and Howard Roughan. This is the first Patterson novel I’ve read in years. I loved his first Alex Cross novels such as KISS THE GIRLS, ALONG CAME A SPIDER, and JACK & JILL. I could not read them fast enough.

    So what did I think of HONEYMOON? It was one of the first books I’ve read in a long, long time that I could not put down. Although the writing was a bit on the “light” side, I devoured the book over the weekend. Short chapters, a captivating story, rocket-pacing, plenty of twists and turns with an ending I didn’t see coming. My kind of book!

    Here’s how I feel about Mr. Patterson and his co-authoring franchise: Who cares? It doesn’t matter to me if he co-writes with Elmer Fudd. The only thing important is the story. If the story makes me stay up late and not stop reading, I don’t care whose name(s) is on the cover. And believe me, it’s been a long time since I experienced a page-turner like HONEYMOON. Judging from the fact that he sells massive quantities of books around the world, there are a few million other readers who agree.

  4. Joe - the books sounds great - as you say the story is paramount. Call me nosey but I do like to know who actually wrote something - otherwise I feel a little bit cheated (no matter how good the story is).

  5. I've read most, if not all, of Patterson's Women's Murder Club series. I think they're great. But I do like to know who wrote the book that I'm reading, because I will want to read more of theirs, or decide to avoid them altogether because of content (that's rare, but it has happened).

  6. I've enjoyed what I've read of his books. It would be interesting to know how many other famous authors develop "stables" of writers - rather like the famous artists of olden days.

  7. If the books work, who cares. An author has a following to be successful and he does. Patterson is a stamp of approval people appreciate. Also he employs authors who are helped in that they get a paycheck and hopefully build a readership if people actually learn the second name on the cover.

  8. I am a big fan of the Alex Cross series but have come to crave his Women's Murder Club books. The first one he wrote alone, then teamed with Andrew Gross for the next two and Maxine Paetro since. I've red them all except the last one (it's on my to read pile). From a style and story standpoint I can see no difference at all, except maybe they get better and better.

    Andrew Gross teamed with Patterson on a few stand alones as well and has since broken out big on his own. I would kill for a mentoring program like that.

    As for the Patterson Inc. model -- Clive Cussler has done something similar with such co-authors as Jack Du Brul and Craig Dirgo for his Oregon Files series, Paul Kamprecos on the Kurt Astin adventures and even his own son Dirk Cussler now on his signature series featuring Dirk Pitt.

    The model seems to work well for both of them. It gives the author the ability to tell the overwhelming number of stories they want to tell but could not get to as a single author, (Patterson's stated reason for starting to use co-authors in th first place), it hasn't diluted the franchises and gives the "younger" writer a platform for success and career growth. I like that he gives due credit to his co-authors while clearly keeping tight creative control over the product (key to the success IMO).

    A win-win for everyone it seems.

  9. My understanding is that the co-authors are basically writers for hire- they receive a flat fee for writing the book.

    I do worry that if this becomes the norm, it narrows the pool of what gets published. Not that there's anything wrong with Patterson's books, but their continued success means that more outside the box ideas don't always make it to market, since publishers like to stick with what they know will sell.