James Patterson: Give Them What They Want

Author on his career in advertising, controversial methods and huge success.

March 13, 2008— -- When you put James Patterson near a pad of paper, you get movies like "Kiss the Girls," or television shows like ABC's "Women's Murder Club." But more than anything, you get books: rows and rows and rows of books. More, it seems, than even James Patterson can count. He says he has "no idea" how many titles he's authored.

For the record, the number is 48, unless a new one has come out since this piece started that we don't know about.

"I don't do the counting," he said. "But every once in a while someone will hit me with one of these statistics. And I go, 'Oh, that's interesting.'"

Interesting that James Patterson has sold nearly 150 million books. Interesting that has had more No. 1 bestsellers in the past five years than John Grisham, Tom Clancy, JK Rowling and Dan Brown combined. Very interesting that last year, one out of every thirty-five books sold was a Patterson title.

'The Pages Turn Themselves'

How is he so prolific? Patterson, who writes by hand, says he gets up early to work.

"I think what I do is put together a good story," Patterson said.

Millions agree. This blunt, supremely confident man is the creator of the wildly popular Alex Cross crime novels. Two of them, "Kiss the Girls" and "Along Came Spider," were turned into Morgan Freeman movies.

He also writes the "Women's Murder Club" novels, now a television series. And lately he has been focusing on books for teenagers with his "Maximum Ride" series.

The main characters of these three series are a black man, a group of women and children with wings — a pretty diverse mix from this white 60 year-old writer.

"I wish we could evolve to this a little bit … the similarities between us are a lot more than the differences and we seem to really be just blowing up the differences and forgetting about the similarities," Patterson said.

If his protagonists are different, the books all share a style that is distinctly Patterson: direct and to the point. He writes in short chapters that can be just a page or two long.

"I'm not going to put in a lot of that detail that a lot of people skim," he explained. "I think it worked well for a lot of people. It would be terrible if all books were that way, but I like it that mine do sort of, you know, the pages sort of turn themselves."

No Writer's Block Here

Patterson's office is strewn with projects in the works. One counter has about 20 yet-to-be-published manuscripts. Some critics have called this a factory, a word Patterson detests.

"If it is a factory, it's a factory where everything is hand-tooled. So it's kind of a Mercedes factory or something."

"This is a 'Cross' book in the making, this is the beginning of an outline for another 'Cross' book," he said, showing us around his office. "I'm not sure what the hell that is. That's an outline for a 'Woman's Murder.' Oh, no, that's a 'Cross.'"

Patterson's outlines are a bit controversial. In a sense, Patterson is writing only so much; he has run out of time to write and has others do it for him. Many of his books are actually written by someone else, after Patterson provides what he calls a detailed outline.

"A detailed outline is pretty much every scene, here's what happens," he said. "I tend to write in scenes. And you know, one of my agents said, she read my outline, she said, 'I could write this book.'" Patterson says that some of his co-written books are "the best books that I've been involved with."

And if you don't like the way he works, frankly, Patterson doesn't care.

"There are thousands of people around the country who don't like what I do," he said. "Fortunately, there are millions who like it a lot."

Including several presidents like Bill Clinton, who has been photographed carrying Patterson's work. But in Patterson's mind, even that heady accomplishment doesn't measure up to an appearance on "The Simpsons" that he calls "a highlight of my life."

A little of his unflappable attitude might come from the fact that Patterson never needed to write to put food on the table. For a long time it was hobby, while he was lighting up the world of advertising. Patterson is the man behind famous lines like, "I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys 'R Us kid," who rose to the title of CEO at J. Walter Thompson, one of Madison Avenue's top firms. He wrote his first several books before work, or at odd hours, finally giving up advertising in 1997.

"I think the biggest thing I've brought from advertising to the writing is the awareness that there's an audience," he said.

And he tries to attract that audience any way possible. Early on, when his publishers wouldn't pay for adverting, he actually produced his own commercials, and he has changed at least one ending when a focus group didn't like the original.

"I want to entertain them," he said. "And I want to play to a big house."

One of Patterson's most recent complaints is that bookstores are placing his "Maximum Ride" books in the children's section, and he is using his considerable muscle to get bookstores to put them out front, with the adult books.

"You're just going to do better if at least some of those books are right in front of the store, not just mine, but others," he said.

Patterson, who is married with 10-year-old son, says he is "totally obsessed with the notion of getting kids reading."

He gives out a $250,000 award every year to people or organizations that promote reading, and he isn't shy about suggesting that one of the authors kids should be reading is James Patterson.

"I think that it's important that they pick up books that they're going to love," he said. "I think a lot of the stuff that are thrown at them is just not that interesting to them."

That is the quintessential Patterson. He wants to sell books that people read, not win some literary parlor prize.

"You know, years ago I read 'Ulysses,' and I went, wow! This is unbelievable and I'm not capable of this level of writing so I've got to find something else because … I can't write something that great."

He might not be James Joyce, but so far James Patterson seems to be doing just fine.

ABCNews.com Producer Katie Escherich contributed to this report.