Sunday, August 10, 2008

When a Writer Becomes Just a Brand

James Patterson and Tom Clancy have managed to turn their very names into bestsellers. All they have to do these days is to slap their name on the cover of a book, let someone else do the actual grunt work of writing the book, and laugh all the way to the bank. I'm not saying that the books upon which they place their names in huge print are necessarily bad books. In fact, in the case of Patterson in particular, the books might very well be better than the ones he actually wrote himself before figuring out that he really doesn't have to work that hard in order to keep multiple titles on the bestseller list at the same time.

The Morning Call has an interesting interview with Andrew Gross, an author who has written six of the James Patterson bestsellers, a conversation in which Gross is surprisingly candid about how the process works:

Q: What's the process by which you co-wrote? How did that work?

A: I would say that every book I did came from Jim's initial idea, none would have been conceived without him. He would have given a loose idea about characters and plot.

Generally they would have extended that into a very detailed outline and we'd work on that together. If he liked it I would basically write it and he would review it each month. As the books went on each ended up at No. 1. Not everyone comes out with a book with 1 million readers.
Q: Do you worry about your books being the shadow of the ones you've written with Patterson?

A: No, I really don't. I don't write identical to Jim. I generally use pace, and a lot of plot reversals. My books I think have a lot more emotional resonance and more scene-setting and texture. With the fast pace of Patterson's book, it's something that he doesn't always have in his books. It was cool to see my name at the top of the best-seller list. I don't know if that will happen again. But I don't think of it being in the shadow. The truth is he has a lead on me.
I don't know if Gross meant his comment (the part in bold print) to come across the way I am reading it, but it reads as a nice little put-down of the quality of a James Patterson novel, doesn't it?

I can't fault Mr. Gross for jumping at the chance to work with a bestselling writier like James Patterson. As the article says, Gross had taken two years away from his job to write a book, a book that he was unable to sell, and when Patterson called him about a chance to make some money from his writing he jumped at the deal. Who can blame him? No, what I find disgusting is Patterson's ability to slap his name onto a book and have it automatically hit the New York Times bestseller list even if his only contribution is to come up with a plot idea, a few character outlines and to edit and approve the efforts of another writer who follows his outline.

This just reminds me again why I distrust bestseller lists, in the first place, as any kind of guide to good books. Good books and bestsellers lists don't often cross paths.


  1. AMEN, Sam. I never even look at the NYTimes bestseller list any more. And I am no literary snob, believe me (my only reading this week was an old Rosamunde Pilcher book!) But that list is full of books by authors who may be nice folks, but basically many of them churn out a book a year, quality be damned!

  2. I'm not really opposed to the bestseller lists. All they are are indications of who is selling the most books, number-wise. I cheer when an author I think is very talented is selling a lot of books. Good for him/her!! That's how they make their livlihoods. And it's always a good thing to be recognized for doing your job well. BUT, I do not use the lists to decide what I read. I rely more on my thoughts on synopses, recommendations from folks I trust, and those books written by my tried and true favs.

  3. Some pretty fascinating insight into the churning out of bestsellers by corporate publishers. I don't mind light, formulaic books for the vacation readers, but the brand aspect you highlight is troubling, at least in this case because Patterson has so little involvement in writing the actual book! Thanks for the post.

  4. What irks me about the list, Joann, is the predictability of it. It seems that once an author cracks the list, he/she is almost guaranteed to be on it for the next three or four books...sometimes for dozens. People, readers included, are sheep.

  5. Jen, you're right...the lists are just sales totals and have nothing at all to do with quality of books being sold. I just find it a shame that so many people get sucked in by those lists and read nothing else but books that appear on them. That's shameful because some brilliant writers never make a blip since there's only so much money that can be allocated to book purchases from most folks' budgets.

  6. Brian, that's exactly what bothers me most about this kind of thing. I believe that it's extremely misleading for a big-name author to slap his name on the cover of a book of which he did so little of the actual writing...borderline dishonest, IMO.

  7. In the case of the book you've got pictured in your post, the big-name author isn't just slapping his name on the cover, he's putting it at the top. Since the actual writer of the book did most of the work, it should be the other way around, but I guess the money-maker name gets to be first.

  8. That's exactly my point, Library Girl. I would probably feel a little better if the big name was at the bottom, after the word, "and," but we know that will never happen. It would limit the effectiveness of a scam like this one.