According to Forbes, James Patterson makes an annual income of $80 million. Industry insiders have estimated it to be much higher. One said that Patterson earned 20% of all royalties earned by all authors in 2019, making him the highest-paid American author.
Even though he sells the most books, I don’t hear his name mentioned often at writers conferences or in podcasts for authors.
I think it’s time to stop ignoring Patterson and investigate his methods.
How is he so successful? Are there any marketing lessons from James Patterson’s approach that you can apply to your own marketing and writing?
Lesson #1: Hone Your Craft with Short Stories
If you’ve been listening to the Novel Marketing Podcast for a while, you’ve heard me talk about writing short stories to improve your craft. You can imagine how excited I was to read in James Patterson’s memoir that he got his start writing short stories.
As a young man, he had a summer job with a lot of downtime. He used that time to write short stories every week. Once he got a real job, he forced himself to wake up at 5:00 AM every morning to write. He did that for a decade before he got his first publishing contract.
By the time Patterson wrote his first novel, he had written hundreds of short stories.
In our course, The Five-Year Plan, our students write one short story monthly, but Patterson wrote one or two short stories every week while working a job. He also wrote them on a typewriter.
If you’ve written a dozen short stories, you’re doing great! Keep writing. It takes a lot of practice to become a bestselling writer.
If you’re looking for a shortcut in publishing, here’s the newsflash: there aren’t any. The Five-Year Plan is the shortcut. It takes most authors ten years or more before they can pay the bills with their writing. Overnight successes do not exist in this business.
Before a traditional publisher releases a book, they send advanced reader copies (ARCs) to certain readers for feedback. The advanced reader feedback determines how much marketing money the publisher will spend on the book. The more positive the feedback, the more money the publisher will spend.
One of Patterson’s early ARC reviewers said, “I’m quite sure that James Patterson wrote a million words before he even started this novel.”
Between his short stories and the marketing copy he’d written, Patterson had done the work to hone his craft. He didn’t look for shortcuts or tell himself he didn’t need to work hard because “God had called him to write.”
James Patterson did the work, and he has reaped the benefits.
If you want to learn more about writing short stories and how they can help your marketing, listen to the following episodes:
- How to Write Short Stories with James Scott Bell
- How to Build an Email List Before Your First Book Comes Out Using Short Stories
Lesson #2 Reconstruct
James Patterson studied English at college, but he worked as a marketing copywriter for J. Walter Thompson, a giant marketing agency in New York City. During his time as a “Mad Man” copywriter for J. Walter Thompson, he reconstructed the worldview his English education had tried to deconstruct.
When looking back on his time as an English major, he recalls: “It may be hard to imagine that Hawkes – who wrote ‘I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme’ was once a hero of mine, but he was, back when I was a literary snoot.”
When Patterson refers to his reconstruction, he uses class language like “snoot” and “snob.” But he also uses religious language to refer to the writing taught at his university. He refers to it as the “righteous road,” a road he left to write popular books.
I experienced a version of this reconstruction during my sophomore year in college. As a freshman, I was in the university honors program with a major in communications. I took many English and communications classes from well-meaning professors.
Then, as a sophomore, I switched my major to Business Management and took a class in Business Communication taught by Dr. Chrisann Merriman. In that class, I learned that much of what the English professors taught was nonsense.
The problem with the English department, and with arts degrees more generally, is that many professors have a postmodern worldview.
Postmodernism rejects objective truth. If you don’t believe objective truth exists, you won’t search for a way to find it.
If you don’t believe truth exists, how do you learn what works and what doesn’t?
Postmodernism eschews pragmatism as a relic of the old, modern way of thinking.
In academic writing, students write for the professor. Success comes to students who can parrot back to the professor the worldview and politics presented in class. Long, grammatically complex sentences are celebrated. In this teaching method, “good” writing is determined not by what works but by what appeals to those in power. It’s a worldview of “Might makes right.”
On the other hand, the school of business still holds the older modern worldview. We often hear about the value of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) degrees because those schools also hold a modern worldview where truth exists.
My business school still believed in pragmatism, which meant it didn’t matter if the boss thought the writing was good. Good writing was the type that helped businesses make money.
The modern worldview is more useful, in my opinion, because modern thinking provides a method to discover the truth.
In the 20th century, marketers would snail mail two versions of a sales letter with two different 1-800 phone numbers. They’d wait for those letters to be opened by the addressees and then listen for the phone to ring. The version of the letter which prompted more phone calls was the most effective copy.
Using this method, marketers could find out which letter was better at causing the customer to act. Decades of experimentation led to a science of communication that came from experimentation.
My English professors never presented that research. You’ve probably never heard of it either.
The school of scientifically guided modern writing is called copywriting, and copywriting is what James Patterson did at the J. Walter Thompson agency.
The publishing industry currently straddles the modern and postmodern worldviews. There are literary awards from publishing experts (postmodern) and bestseller lists (modern). Interestingly, books that perform well amongst the experts don’t tend to perform well on bestseller lists. Likewise, a pub board meeting is where modern marketing people debate the postmodern editorial people.
James Patterson strikes me as a modern pragmatist rather than a postmodern deconstructionist. His worldview changed while he was in the cutthroat world of marketing. He emerged as a modern writer whose books rank on bestseller lists without catering to the whims of powerful literary award voters.
If you want to know what works, you must believe that truth exists and can be found. A postmodern worldview will likely lead you down the path of obscurity.
To reconstruct your worldview, study the scientifically informed style of marketing writing we call copywriting.
If you want to learn how to measure what works, listen to these episodes:
- The 10 Commandments of Book Marketing
- How to Use Marketing Data to Sell More Books
- How to Track Your Book Promotion
Lesson #3 Write for the Reader
The key to effective marketing is to realize it is not about you. It’s about your customer. Your brand only means something when it makes the customer feel something. Good marketers spend time and money on market research, which is a fancy term for the ancient practice of listening to your customer.
James Patterson’s primary target is the casual reader who doesn’t read many books. He believes most people don’t read books because there are no books they enjoy. He aims to write books that would get someone into reading again. If he can thrill those most discriminating readers, he can thrill nearly everyone.
Paterson’s targeting strategy is a brilliant for two reasons:
- There are a lot more non-readers than readers.
- Few authors write for this market.
In his memoir, Patterson talks about promoting literacy because once people get comfortable reading, they’ll probably read a Patterson book. But here is the $100,000,000 question: How does James Patterson write for inactive readers?
How could you reach that massive market?
People who don’t read much want short sentences and fast plots. They prefer a reading experience that mimics watching a great movie in their mind.
Patterson’s approach can be summarized in one statement:
Patterson had to overcome his preference for fancy, abstract writing.
Postmodern writing celebrates complex and beautiful sentences, but modern copywriters know that complex sentences don’t make the phone ring.
The shorter your sentences, the broader your market. Long sentences alienate some readers.
If you want to maximize sales, find editors who will help you cut the average length of your sentences to six or seven words. To bring the average down, you’ll learn to write three-word sentences. It won’t hurt.
Patterson’s writing relies on strong nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs. Simple language makes his writing approachable and fast-paced.
If you choose the best verb, you don’t have to “fix” it with an adverb.
Authors.ai (Affiliate Link) is a tool that will generate a statistical analysis of your writing. You’ll get a report about how long your sentences are and how many adverbs and adjectives you’ve used. It even compares your stats with similar bestselling books to see if your writing is up to snuff.
Consider speeding up your plot by cutting unnecessary words, subplots, and characters.
If your novel is concise and fast-paced, readers won’t be able to put it down even if they don’t normally read books.
If you want to tighten your writing, the following episodes will help:
Lesson #4 Collaborate with Assistants
James Patterson is often on the New York Times bestseller list with multiple books at the same time. He has written over 200 books, and more than 100 of them have hit the New York Times bestseller list.
How is he so prolific? It all goes back to his time at the marketing firm.
As an advertising man, Patterson rose from copywriter to creative lead and eventually to marketing executive. In marketing firms, creative leads provide the overall creative vision for a project. They work with teams of assistants to bring that vision to life. A creative lead may give feedback on multiple projects on the same day.
Patterson uses the creative lead approach as an author. He drafts a detailed 80-page outline and hands it to a collaborator who uses it to draft the story. Then Patterson gives detailed feedback on the draft, and the assistant makes the revisions.
The team expands as editors are brought in. As the creative lead, Patterson can work on multiple projects simultaneously.
Patterson learned this approach in advertising, but the practice has been used for centuries.
When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel (Paywall), he provided the creative vision. He created a paper outline of every square inch of the ceiling, but his assistants helped apply paint and plaster. Painting a fresco requires applying paint to wet plaster, so time is of the essence. The drying plaster required a team of people to take on different tasks so that the work got done before the plaster dried.
I imagine the posture needed for painting the ceiling also required the assistants to take turns and rest their arms.
Before you dismiss this approach, let me ask you a question.
What makes someone a master artist?
The word “master” has two meanings. A master could be someone skilled at a craft, but it could also be someone who acts as the boss. Michelangelo was a master of his craft and the master of a team that worked to create a masterpiece.
When I look at James Patterson, I see a master working with a team of professionals to do more together than they could individually.
Lesson #5 Outline
James Patterson is a huge proponent of outlining. Working with assistants to rapidly write multiple books each year depends on his ability to outline.
In the world of fiction writing, there are two rival schools: Outlining and Discovery Writing. Discovery writers are often called “pantsers” because they write “by the seat of their pants.”
Steven King is perhaps the most well-known proponent of discovery writing. I have to wonder if King’s and Patterson’s mutual animosity comes from the fact that one is a pantser and the other is an outliner.
Most authors fall somewhere in the middle.
I think outlining has some marketing benefits over discovery writing.
Marketing Benefits of Outlining
Your marketing team will have an easier time prepping your marketing campaign from an outline than a rough draft.
- Outliners tend to write faster. Although some pantsers like King and Jenkins can still write rapidly.
- Outlining makes it easier for an assistant to draft and revise. When Jerry Jenkins (a discovery writer) works with a collaborator, he does 100% of the writing.
- Outlining shows you how well you know storytelling and plot rules.
Patterson’s memoir makes it clear that he believes outlining gives him an edge over pantsers.
Lesson #6 Rapid Write
James Patterson makes more money than all other authors because he releases more books. If publishing is a lottery, Patterson has more tickets than most.
If you want to maximize your writing income, learn to write faster. Rapid writing has the following benefits:
Rapid Writing Helps You Get Better Faster
The carpenter doesn’t just build the house. The house builds the carpenter.
The more you write, the more your writing improves. Spending a decade rewriting the same novel is the slowest way to improve your craft. Sometimes the best thing beginning writers can do to improve their craft is to lay aside their cherished work-in-progress and start a new book.
You can start improving by learning to rapidly write short stories. It’s easier to get feedback on a short story than a full-length novel.
After you get feedback on one short story, implement what you learned on the next. If the short-story method is good enough for James Patterson, it’s good enough for you.
And before you think this is just an “outliners thing,” Steven King also got his start writing short stories.
Rapid Writing Makes More Money
If you are a professional writer and write one book each year, your sales must cover all your bills for the whole year. That’s a lot of pressure for one book, and few books sell enough copies to pay a year’s worth of living expenses.
If you write one book every month, however, your sales only need to cover your expenses for that month. Rapid writing is a more feasible way to become a professional writer, but it will require you to approach your writing professionally.
Rapid Writing Supercharges Your Marketing
Each book you launch helps promote your other books, especially if your books are in a series. More books provide more money to spend on promotion, cross-promotion, price pulsing, and more.
Rapid Writing Protects You from Mistakes
If your book is a dud, your fans will wait a month for your next one to come out. But if your fans waited five years for a dud and have to wait another five years for your next book, you’ve lost them.
Everyone writes a dud eventually, so the best way to protect yourself is to write faster.
Slow authors know that pressure for good sales slows them down even more. I suspect that’s why Patrick Rothfuss hasn’t released a novel in the last decade. The ever-growing pressure is slowing him down.
How to Rapid Write
If you want to speed up your writing, the following episodes will help you:
- How to Write More Productively with Angela Hunt
- How to Write Faster and Better with Chris Fox
- Productivity Tips for Authors With Joanna Penn
- How to Write 5000 Words Per Hour with Chris Fox
You may notice that many of these marketing ideas are actually writing ideas. That’s intentional. The best way to help market your book is to write the kind of book readers already want to read.
Marketing is not about convincing people to like a book. Marketing is helping people realize they already like a book they don’t know about yet.
Postmodernism rejects this “writing to market” approach and prefers platitudes like being “true to yourself” or “true to your art.”
What does that even mean?
The first commandment of Novel Marketing is to “Love thy Reader as Much as You Love Thy Book.” If you learn to love your readers and write the kind of books they want to read, you’ll sell more copies. You won’t automatically become James Patterson, but these marketing lessons from James Patterson will put you on the path he has walked for the last thirty years.
If you want help walking the path toward publication, check out our course, The Five-Year Plan to Become a Bestselling Author.
I crafted this plan with bestselling and award-winning author James L. Rubart. The Five-Year Plan is a step-by-step guide for your writing career. Learn what to do in each quarter of the year to avoid the mistakes that hijack success for most authors. Set yourself up for success. Learn more at NovelMarketing.com/courses.
Becoming a massively successful self-published author can be challenging. Just one missing link in an otherwise perfect plan can kill your results. In Why Authors Fail, award-winning author Derek Doepker reveals the 17 biggest mistakes authors make that sabotage their success and offers practical steps to fix each mistake.
You can become a Novel Marketing Patron here.
We had planned to take my course Obscure No More out of beta, but I am running behind.
The children are not sleeping. They don’t want to go to sleep or stay asleep, but they still wake up early! I haven’t had an uninterrupted night of sleep all year, and it’s taking a toll on my health and productivity.
Please bear with me. We are trying something new with the timing of naps that we hope will help. I still plan to take Obscure No More out of beta this fall and host the Book Launch Blueprint early next year.