Is It About the Writing, Or the Brand?

by Kayla Perrin

In the upcoming Sunday Times, there's going to be an article about author James Patterson and his incredible success. The article made the rounds on some writing loops this week . . . then led to some interesting discussion about the way Patterson does things.

The article states that Patterson has the Guinness record for the most NYT bestsellers, at 45 a few years ago. I was surprised, because I thought Nora Roberts--who is one of the most prolific authors today--had more NYT bestsellers. I emailed Nora about that fact, didn't get a reply, but I just checked her website and it says that Nora has had 164 NYT bestsellers, including 23 as J.D. Robb, her pseudonym! As of February 2010, she will have 190 full length novels published. So, it would seem Guinness got their facts wrong, unless the number on Nora's site includes reprints that hit the NYT list. Or perhaps Guinness forgot about the uber-successful romance writer (wouldn't be the first time a romance writer doesn't get the respect due!).

Both Nora Roberts and James Patterson are prolific writers. But unlike Roberts, Patterson utilizes "co-writers" to help him be prolific, while Roberts writes every one of her books.

One of my Avon Author friends posted the article link on our loop (a friend had already sent the lengthy article to me), and another friend responded and said that while Patterson's success is undeniable, she finds his use of "co-writers" distasteful. And hence the discussion began, with people weighing in on what we thought of the James Patterson model of publishing.

There is no doubt the man is uber-successful, and kudos to him for that. His section at bookstores rivals Nora Roberts's sections. In fact, I was at one store where the signage read: FICTION A-G, H-O, JAMES PATTERSON, P-R, etc. He had his name on the signage, not simply books in a huge section. But from everything I've read and heard, Patterson isn't really hands-on in the writing of his books anymore. Oh, his name is on every book--but the much smaller name on the cover is the one who really created the work.

I've read more than one article about Patterson where he talked about his desire to create a brand with his work. According to him, he uses co-writers so he can be very prolific and therefore extend his brand. As someone with marketing experience, he has done extremely well at branding his name. But my personal pet-peeve is that he is no longer authoring his books.

One of his co-writers spoke about how Patterson gave him an idea, and then he, the co-writer, wrote the book. This writer jokes about having gotten his break through the "Patterson camp of writing" (btw, Patterson learned of him after he'd had a book rejected and reached out to the author to see if they could work together). For the co-writer, it's huge exposure--and this one in particular has gone on to write books under his own name. For the readers, however, using so many different authors means varied voices from book to book--and I'm the kind of reader who loves an author for his or her voice, so different voices turn me off.

Other writers chimed in to say they've heard from friends who once loved Patterson that they no longer like the books he has written with all these other writers. I've heard the same. After all, they fell in love with him for his voice, for his fantastic stories about Alex Cross. I read one of Patterson's co-written novels last year and while the concept was fabulous, it featured a heroine who truly became a villain by the end of the book. She was not a heroine at all--yet she was supposed to be. There was no character growth. There was character degradation. I was left scratching my head. There was no one for me to root for, and I couldn't help thinking that a newbie writer could never get way with that. But in this case, with Patterson's name on the cover, the book sold.

I'm not judging Patterson on one book. That's not the point. He has obviously written countless fabulous books. But I just don't like the practice of having other people write the books you take credit for. Not only can quality lack because a big name is what's really selling it, but like I mentioned above there is a lack of consistency with the story's voice.

I'm also the kind of writer who likes to take the credit for my words, and give it where it's due. A couple of years ago, I learned that a big name author isn't writing a single one of her books these days. She has a ghost-writer. It's supposed to be top-secret, but the news came out when some of us were sitting around having a few drinks. Hey, these things happen. At least Patterson is giving his co-writers credit on the cover.

Here's my thing. I just don't think I could happily sit at a book signing and have a reader gush over how great my book was if I wasn't really the one who had written it. It would feel like . . . well, it would feel like a lie.

Another author argued that sometimes writers get ideas and plots from editors, and asked how different is that than what Patterson is doing. The difference is that our editors are not claiming authorship of the books just because they collaborated on an idea with us.

Another author said that yes, when she's in deadline hell, the idea of having someone else write her work is tempting. I've had that thought too--also when I'm in deadline hell--but like this other writer would never act on it. If my name is on the book, I want to be the one who's put the blood, sweat and tears into the work. And I'm pretty prolific myself, and I do understand the power of branding. And yes, being very prolific is one way to truly create a brand, much the way Brenda Jackson has--another author I admire because of her dedication to her craft, which includes writing her own books.

Like I said, there is no arguing with Patterson's success. His work allegedly brings in about $500 million a year for his publisher. But for me--and this is simply my opinion--I have much more respect for an author like Nora Roberts who writes all of her own books and brings in mega dollars a year for her publishers. I also love that she talks about her craft and the story and caring about her readers before she talks about branding herself. Yes, Nora is a brand as well . . . but she became that because she worked hard on all of her stories, not because she decided to parcel out her work in order to be prolific.

Again, kudos to Patterson for his enormous success in a crazy business. I just wish he'd do all (or most) of his own writing these days like he did in the beginning.

Just my opinion! I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Before I end, I'll take this moment to promote my upcoming release, ISLAND FANTASY. It comes out in February 1st and is published by Kimani Press. Check out the trailer--which I made myself!


  1. Thank you for your blog and promo video, Kayla.

    My feelings are similar to yours about ghostwritten books with famous authors' names on the covers. But as long as this practice is making money for publishers, what can we do about it? This is just a rhetorical question; the answer, of course, is absolutely nothing.

    Nothing, that is, except to maintain our own integrity. We can refuse to play this sneaky little game. If we're not big-name authors, we can refrain from ghostwriting. If we are, we can refrain from using ghostwriters.

    As Nora Roberts demonstrates, you can become and remain a top-of-the-line writer honestly!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. I absolutely love Nora. I had the opportunity to meet her in July at RWA and sat down and talked to her. She is a spectacular person! Never met Patterson, but I can't imagine having someone write the book and then sit at the book signing taking all the credit. I agree that would seem very fake.

    thanks for sharing!
    Kathy :)

  3. I'm with you, Kayla. To me, branding is meaningless when done Patterson's way. It's like buying a knockoff bag!
    Wow, 190 books! Nora's my heroine.
    Congrats on your upcoming release. Very exciting!

  4. As a writer who writes for a living, more so than for recognition, I would *love* to have a gig ghostwriting for an established author.

    I mostly write non-fiction articles, and have trouble coming up with ideas for a compelling plot, not to mention believable, real characters. I've written Harry Potter fan fiction, however (just for fun) and I think it's fun to try to mimic the writer's voice, and I believe it can be done well enough to please most fans. If I were given a basic plot and assigned to write using a world and character set already established, I could do an adequate job of writing a story people would want to read.

    I think those sorts of stories are the type you read once and move on. They aren't memorable, maybe, but they make money for the publisher or they wouldn't be written. Nancy Drew was written this way, sort of. I read all of the Nancy Drew stories as a kid, but I seldom felt the urge to re-read them as I have other novels.

    I've always thought of ghostwriting as done more for autobiographies (written by those who are really not writers) or non-fiction books on a topic someone might know a lot about, but, again, the main author really doesn't have the writing skill to write a readable book. It sounds like the ideal gig to me. I have no interest in appearing at book signings or whatever else is involved in marketing a book once it's written. I'd rather sit home writing something else and benefiting from the income from the previous book.

  5. My mom is a big Patterson fan, but has discovered she doesn't care for the co-authored ones and has stopped reading them.

    This makes me think of the sculptors and composers who begin a work and then hand over the execution to what amounts to an apprentice. Patterson has precendents in the other art forms, but it does water down his ownership of the material.

  6. Hey Kayla:

    It seems that James Patterson - the author - has def. become James Patterson - the brand - or rather an imprint - the James Patterson imprint. And authors write under it. I suppose if you look at it that way - he's become a "celeb" editor who shepherds emerging writers. Perhaps he's not interested in being an author - perhaps this is what he's aspired to - to create a brand/imprint under which emerging authors can find a home until they can build their own name. I suppose they all see it as a win-win. Great post!

  7. Almost all my favorite authors' books show a huge downturn in quality when they start writing in quantity. I know our editors push us to write more, faster. I know copy editors get in there and meddle with our voices. I know real life, and having to work 2nd jobs to make ends meet undercuts our creativity.

    But I also know I can always depend on Nora. Her books have never let me down (either as NR or JD Robb). It's too bad publishing houses haven't learned anything about authors and/or readers from her success!

  8. Mary Anne, that's exactly the word I was looking for: integrity. Having someone else write your books and then claim them as your own lacks artistic integrity. Kind of like people lip-syncing.

    Yes, Kathy--Nora is a wonderful person, and one of the hardest working women in the biz. I was trying to find a pic I took with her at a conference to post, but it's lost in one of the gazillion photo folders on my computer. I'm sure Patterson is nice too...never met him though.

  9. Cate, thanks for the comments on my trailer! :-)

  10. Melissa, if you're a writer who doesn't care to be at the signings, then ghost writing is perfect. When I learned of that big name author who shall remain nameless, I really wondered if I could, for the reported $250K a book, be a ghost writer. My friends and I discussed it. No doubt it would be profitable! But I would ultimately want credit for the stories, or at least to keep publishing my own...

  11. Joanna, you and I think so alike sometimes it's scary! I was going to add in the piece that it seems to me what Patterson should do is start an imprint the way Zane did. He hand-selects the authors and the kinds of stories. This was exactly my thought. But I think that for him, it wouldn't be as profitable. I think readers are more likely to keep reading the books HE supposedly wrote.

  12. Trenchant observations,K. Like you I am troubled by the ethics of co-authorship,but in the industry that is James Patterson Inc., ethical considerations hold little weight when you have a vast readership and 17 novels on the go at the same time.It's a juggernaut with no obstacle in sight, not even a hostile Stephen king.Give the man his due-he works hard and markets well.In the world according to JP,commerce will always trump Art.One interesting note is that while I would never read what he writes,I read what he reads and Joyce is one of my favorites too.

  13. Great post, Kayla!

    I read that NY Times article and found interesting and disheartening at the same time. I enjoyed Patterson's work after reading then seeing the Kiss the Girls book and movie and was hooked on Alex Cross since then. Kudos to the authors who get a bump by Patterson, it's certainly a hard thing to sell really well in this economy much less this industry. But I do notice a dip in quality from some of the co-authored books. It's as if the publisher is only focusing on the actual sale but not the follow through of telling a great story and entertaining.

    It reminds of the up and coming directors who are really passionate but soon they aren't funded as much as they are hired to work on adaptations and the passion and talent seem to suffer in the process. I'm not sure if the authors are like that when they start out but it sure seems like things take a dip when they get massive distribution.

    I give more props to the authors working their butts off to write, get better at writing and get the word out about their books all on their own.


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