Even though it’s trendy for bibliophiles to take potshots at James Patterson’s quality as a writer, that’s not what this post is going to be about. Regardless of one’s opinion of his writing, the man is a tremendous supporter of public libraries and reading in general. He’s donated money for scholarships and for awards to institutions to help encourage the love of reading. I may not care for his work but I respect his contributions to literacy and the love of reading. Honestly, albeit unrelated to my main point, Patterson does come off as much more of a classy guy than Stephen King does when the latter snipes at the former:
In an interview for USA Weekend, Stephen King referred to Patterson as “a terrible writer [but he’s] very successful”. Patterson said of King in a Wall Street Journal interview, “he’s taken shots at me for years. It’s fine, but my approach is to do the opposite with him—to heap praise.”
Though I don’t have a strong opinion on the quality of his writing, I do have a few thoughts on his prolific output and what it might mean for the future of his career. This opinion is informed pretty much entirely by my experiences working in a public library and conversing with several dedicated Patterson fans.
Patterson is one of those writers that I consider to be a brand unto itself. He’s not the first writer to do this; Tom Clancy turned his name into a brand years before his death. You knew what you were getting when you picked up a Tom Clancy book, whether it was one of his Jack Ryan novels or one of the series that were ghostwritten under his name: Op Center, Netforce, and Splinter Cell are the ones that come to mind first, although I’m sure there are others. Regardless, when you pick up a Tom Clancy book, you can expect a political/military thriller of some kind. It’s what people who read Tom Clancy want. It’s why they read him.
Originally, you could say Patterson fit into this same brand identity, albeit as a more general thriller. This is the advantage of the Patterson brand: if you like thrillers, you can reliably pick up books with his name on them because they’re going to be thrillers of some sort.
Scoff if you like, but this is a reliable way to sell books. Here’s why. Most readers don’t want to venture too far out of their comfort zone. I’m not being dismissive of this tendency. For many people, free time is at a premium. The time one has to spend reading is valuable and there’s nothing worse than spending that valuable, precious, limited time on a book that you’re going to hate.
You might only have enough time to read four or five books a year. Me, I try to pack in around 100 or so a year, but I have the kind of life and the kind of work situation where I can do that. I can read for an hour every day on my lunch break. I can read for a few hours when I get home because I don’t have kids or pets that require much attention. Not everybody has that kind of time.
Thus, if you’re a reader with limited time to spend on books, you’re more likely to stick with something you know you’ll enjoy. You pick up a Patterson because he always entertains. It’s a safe investment for your reading time.
The scope of the Patterson brand is growing. It’s also changing. In addition to his thrillers, he’s writing YA fantasy novels. He’s writing humorous novels about kids in middle school. He has a picture book. Romance novels. Crime novels. Some nonfiction.
You can’t look at the Patterson brand and expect to pick up a thriller anymore. And I have to wonder: is that a good thing?
Is the value of the brand harmed when the brand identity is diluted? Patterson’s strength is his prolific output and the fact that his name on the cover sells books. What if that output becomes so vast that readers with limited time/funds/attention lose what made him an attractive option? If you can’t trust the Patterson brand to deliver what you want, you won’t pick up a book or trust a book that’s carrying his name. That weakens the ability of the Patterson brand to sell books.
The widespread nature of what Patterson’s name has been attached to is also potentially weakening to the strength of the brand as a whole. While authors often like to spread their wings and try different things, few authors have ranged as widely in subject, theme, and appropriate age level as Patterson. Stephen King readers would likely not pick up a Stephen King book for their middle schooler, but Patterson has a few YA series. Do readers of his YA series also want to read his adult novels? Do parents reading his adult novels want their kids reading the adult books after finishing his YA fare? It’s hard to say.
Ultimately, I perceive a potential future where Patterson’s name is put on too many things and it loses its value to readers. Already, I hear rumblings from some of our more dedicated Patterson readers coming into the library. They can tell which books have his actual writing and which books are a ghost writer working from the man’s outlines and style guides (or at least, they think they can tell). It doesn’t matter if they’re right, because if that’s what they’re thinking, it’s already going to affect their browsing habits. If the Patterson brand loses its ability to promise entertainment, they’ll turn to different authors until they find someone who fills that need for reliability.
James Patterson isn’t going anywhere, not when he’s sold over 260 million books. He alienate thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of readers and still bring home a nice paycheck.
But could the success of his own brand turn off some of his dedicated readers? Could he become a victim of his own success? It’ll be interesting to watch and see what happens.