Meet James Patterson: America’s Richest and Most Prolific Author

You’ve heard the name, and judging by how many books he’s sold, chances are you’ve probably read at least one of his. If not, then you’ve at least seen his name, embossed and shimmering, in big, bold text, in supermarkets, airport kiosks, and bookstores. Basically, his books are everywhere, and there’s a simple reason for that. James Patterson is simply one of the most prolific, if not the most, writers on this planet.

James Patterson holding up his book, 'Private Royals' in front of a view with a Ferris wheel behind him
Photo by Jonathan Hordle / Shutterstock

He just has a knack for making books people love to read. With over 305 million copies of his 150 books (currently) in print, Patterson has been the top-selling fiction writer (either living or dead). He even holds a Guinness World Record for being the first author to sell over one million e-books. The man makes $70 million a year at this point, okay? He’s also the seventh-highest-paid celebrity in the world (more than Taylor Swift and LeBron James).

Fast and Impressive Facts

Since 2017, James Patterson holds the Guinness World Record for the most #1 New York Times bestsellers – a total of 67. He’s also the first author to have new #1 titles simultaneously on the New York Times Bestsellers list in both the adult and children categories. As of 2016, about 1 out of every 17 hardcovers sold in the United States were Patterson’s novels.

Women's Murder Club (TV Series 2007–2008) based on a series of books by James Patterson
Source: ABC 

In 2016, he was ranked by Forbes as the “Highest-Paid Author” for the third consecutive year, with a total earning of $95 million. Reportedly, as of 2017, Patterson’s novels have sold more copies than those of John Grisham, Dan Brown and Stephen King – combined!

But, despite the massive income and a sheer number of bestsellers, the author faces his fair share of criticism.

Facing the Critics, Including Stephen King

James Patterson continues to crank out novel after novel, ignoring the critics. Let me start by telling you that Stephen King, in an interview with USA Weekend, called Patterson “a terrible writer, but he’s very successful.” Did Patterson hear about King’s remarks? Yes, and he told the Wall Street Journal that King had been taking shots at him for years, and his approach towards it will be the opposite – “to heap praise.”

Stephen King on the set of one of his horror movies
Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

Patterson has been criticized countless times for being focused on quantity over quality – focusing on money rather than on the craft. He’s also been criticized for simply co-authoring many of his books and then taking all the credit. Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson trashed Patterson’s work as “sick, sexist, sadistic, and sub-literate.” Ouch.

An Army of Co-Authors

Critics say that it’s only with the help of his army of paid co-writers, that he can be so prolific. Patterson’s methods have been met with controversy. He uses a group of co-writers (around 23 or so), allowing him to publish his books at such an impressive rate. His co-authors include former colleagues (who wrote fiction on the side), and even his ex-doorman came to him for advice. Some are struggling writers, and others are bestsellers in their own right (like Swedish author Liza Marklund).

Source: Facebook

This has become a major argument for Patterson’s critics. The truth is, when it comes to other creative disciplines, collaboration is customary. But in literature, Patterson is considered to be a brand manager. Many say he’s more like a superstar editor than an author.

The Process

The claim: that he comes up with the title’s premise and plot drafts an outline of 50 to 80 pages, and hands it over to a co-writer. In Publishers Weekly, co-author Mark Sullivan explained the process. According to Sullivan, the outlines are like “trusted navigational charts” that can up to take six weeks to sketch out. The co-authors then connect the plot points, rough out the text, and add their own ideas.

The Games Book Cover - Authors: James Patterson and Mark Sullivan
Source: Amazon 

The co-authors then send sections every few weeks to Patterson, who tosses them some notes. Patterson reads, revises, and demands new drafts – that is until he’s satisfied. Ever since Patterson became a full-time writer in 1996, just 20% of his novels have been entirely written by him since 2002.

He Pays Them Out of His Own Pocket

These authors have been paid out of Patterson’s own pocket. It may sound like cheating, but the fact of the matter is that Patterson doesn’t deny any of it. Every novel declares the name of the co-authors on the cover, under Patterson’s much bolder name, of course. But if you’re feeling bad for these authors – don’t.

James Patterson holding his new book at the time, '3rd Degree,' in 2004
Photo by Marion Curtis / Starpix / Shutterstock

The novice authors tend to become instant bestsellers and attract their own book deals, if not receiving royalties. While reports have been made that his co-authors get paid, Patterson has been quoted in 2009 as saying, “They actually pay me. Because they’re learning so much.” He reportedly said that with a completely straight face, by the way.

Prolific is an Understatement

In referring to his co-author approach, he likens it to the collaborations of Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Patterson himself said that his strength lies in devising plots, not in making individual sentences. He is all about the story and has managed to use capitalism to the commodify storytelling.

Rodgers and Hammerstein
Rodgers and Hammerstein. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

But despite all the criticism that his style is mechanical, Patterson managed to create a commercially successful formula. He’s written 21 novels just about detective Alex Cross. And you can’t argue with the numbers: since 2001, James Patterson is the world’s best-selling author. Calling the man prolific is kind of an understatement. After someone broke it down, it has been revealed that, on average, Patterson has consistently written 4.7 (published) pages every working day since the year 1976.

A little about the author, if you will…

From a Tough Little Town

Patterson himself said that he went from “being poor to middle class and back to poor and back to middle class… and now I’m rich.” And he’s thankful that he went through all that since it made him a better person. James Patterson was born in 1947 and grew up in Newburgh, New York. It’s a place he describes as “a tough little town with a lot of problems.” His father was an insurance salesman, and his mother was a teacher at a Catholic school.

Patterson in the mid-1970s, early in his career at J. Walter Thompson.
Source: Vanity Fair

While he was valedictorian of his all-boys high school, he wasn’t even much of a reader. But that all changed after graduation. His family moved to Massachusetts, and the Manhattan College undergraduate got a job at a psychiatric facility, McLean Hospital. He would work the night shift during the summers and holidays. That’s when and where he “just started reading, reading, reading,” Patterson said. Cambridge wasn’t far away, so he would often visit its secondhand bookstores.

To Writing Good Fiction

He started reading books by John Rechy and Jean Genet, thinking, “Holy sh*t: People don’t all think the way they do in Orange County, New York.” But Patterson never figured he could be a writer by trade. He admitted that he read Ulysses twice and thought he was incapable of that level of craft.

Zoo (2015–2017), series based on novel Zoo written by James Patterson
Source: CBS

But when it came to popular fiction, like The Exorcist and The Day of the Jackal – those were the kinds of books that he could wrap his pen around. As an English graduate student at Vanderbilt, in the 1970s, he started writing “goofy, marijuana-laced” fiction. Patterson said Evan S. Connell’s 1959 debut novel “Mrs. Bridge” is his greatest influence.

He then moved to Manhattan, where he got a job as a junior copywriter at an advertising agency called J. Walter Thompson.

To Working In an Ad Agency

He got the job after meeting one of the agency’s employees. According to Patterson, “She was wearing a T-shirt to work and had a Viet Cong flag in her office, and she said she was making a fortune. I thought, ‘This could be OK.'” While his 9-5 was writing ad copy, he was still very much interested in literature.

Book Cover The Thomas Berryman Number
Source: Amazon

He spent his nights and weekends typing away on his typewriter in his small Manhattan apartment kitchen. Gradually, he created what would become his first novel: “The Thomas Berryman Number.” It was a suspense novel that a total of 31 publishers rejected. That is before Little Brown bought the manuscript. In 1976, the book signing took place at the World Trade Center. No one except his girlfriend came. Patterson said once how he was invited to another book signing, and once he got there, it was for Richard Patterson’s novels. They asked the wrong guy! Embarrassing yes, but he ended up signing them anyways!

First Novel, First Award

The following year, Patterson got a phone call from a woman on the Edgar Awards committee. She invited him to the mystery writers’ annual banquet. At first, he said he wasn’t sure if he would make it, etc. But then she blurted out: “You have to come – you won!” He later said how when he was in the audience, “I was still frightened that she lied to me just to get me to go,” Patterson remembers. She didn’t lie, though: “The Thomas Berryman Number” won the 1977 award for Best First Novel.

James Patterson surrounded by his books
Source: Master Class

But the fresh writer didn’t prepare a speech. He something around the lines of “I guess I’m a writer now.” He told The New York Times that his first book compares to his current works: “The sentences are superior to a lot of the stuff I write now, but the story isn’t as good.”

Losing His Girlfriend

He continued writing while he held the advertising job, waking up early every day to write before heading over to the office. He wrote five more modestly successful novels throughout the next decade, including the “Cradle and All” and “Black Market,” the 1986 conspiracy thriller that Kirkus Reviews called an “abysmally dumb terrorist novel whose plot would embarrass a Superman movie.”

Sundays at Tiffany's (2010), telefilm directed by Mark Piznarski, based on novel Sundays at Tiffany's
 Source: Lifetime Television 

But then, in 1979, Patterson, 32, received devastating news. His girlfriend, 29-year-old Jane, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She died two and a half years later. It took him years to recover. “It was devastating to me,” he said. As a result, his blood pressure dramatically escalated, and he developed Bell’s Palsy. Her death, however, motivated him to work more deliberately. He set out to write a popular book.

An Awkward Study

By 1991, Patterson became the CEO at J. Walter Thompson. He co-authored a study that polled more than 5,000 anonymous Americans about things relating to sex, God, family, and politics. The findings, which were published as “The Day America Told the Truth,” suggested some rather awkward things about the nation’s personal life.

Photo by Chris Sorensen For The Washington Post/Getty Images

Curious as to what was discovered? Of course, you are. Around 25% of the respondents said they would abandon their families for $10 million. 7% claimed they would kill a stranger for the same amount. The results of the study also suggested that African Americans and Hispanics were held more closely to traditional values than other demographics — that they were ingrained with a sense of moral duty. The research lit a lightbulb over Patterson’s head…

Creating Alex Cross

Patterson used the research to cast his next protagonist: Alex Cross. The character is a likable African American detective and psychologist who works against the structure of a class in Washington, DC. The psychological thriller “Along Came a Spider” proved to be a big hit. Little, Brown liked the novel so much that they signed Patterson to a two-book deal.

Tyler Perry as Alex Cross
Tyler Perry as Alex Cross. Photo by Qed International / Kobal / Shutterstock

Patterson wanted to promote the novel with a commercial, but the publishers were doubtful. So he produced and shot a 15-second clip on his own dime. Little, Brown later agreed to split the cost. “You can stop waiting for the next Silence of the Lambs,” was the closing line of the commercial, which aired in three markets.

From Thrillers to Films to Picture Books

In 1993, “Along Came a Spider” debuted at No. 9 on The New York Times hardcover fiction list. The paperback version debuted at No. 2 and sold more than two million copies in one year alone. Today, there are 20 novels in the Alex Cross series, three films, and a holiday spin-off. In addition to the series, Patterson released more than 32 individual thrillers, five romance novels, and two nonfiction books.

Morgan Freeman, Dylan Baker, and Monica Potter in 'Along Came a Spider,' 2001.
 Photo by Paramount / Kobal / Shutterstock

He’s also written a picture book. As a matter of fact, Patterson likes to write for young readers and hopes to raise the literacy rate. He started an initiative called ReadKiddoRead to help librarians, parents, and teachers find the best books for their children. He also runs a scholarship program called College Book Bucks that awards high school seniors with gift certificates to pay for their books.

Stirring the Pot

While his actions indicate that he certainly cares about young readers, his words say otherwise. In 2016, Patterson made a speech at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach. He told the students: “Never become a writer, you’ll never make it.” Understandably, the teachers were furious with his statement as they believed his words would discourage students who were essentially aspiring writers. Provocative? Yes. His actual intentions? No.

Kiss the Girls publicity still
 Photo By Paramount/Rysher/Kobal/Shutterstock

A few years prior, in 2013, his own advertisements were titled “Who Will Save Our Books? Our Bookstores? Our Libraries?” Patterson claimed that they were an attempt to “stir the pot a little bit,” and the ads drew mixed reactions. Digital Book World stated that the ads were “refreshing, really. And brave.”

A Defining Moment

James Patterson married Susan Lori Solie in 1997, and the couple had a son named Jack a year later. The family lives in a 20,100-square-foot home in Palm Beach, Florida. They also have a home in Briarcliff Manor in Westchester, New York, overlooking the Hudson River. But the casual man with his untamed eyebrows and paternal vibe doesn’t come off as pretentious.

James Patterson home in Palm Beach, Florida

About a decade or so ago, Patterson noticed that his son, then in elementary school, wasn’t reading beyond the school’s obligation. And Jack’s friends weren’t reading either. That’s when Patterson saw the symptom of miseducation: children simply weren’t being introduced to books they liked. As most of us know, students are forced to read hard, boring books. That’s when Patterson set out to write books kids would like.

Please, Parents

When Jack turned eight, Patterson and his wife made a deal with their son. He wouldn’t have to do chores over the summer if he would read every day. After launching the child literacy initiative, Read Kiddo Read, Patterson turned his efforts towards the parents. In 2011, he wrote an op-ed piece for CNN urging parents to get more involved in what their kids choose to read.

James Patterson, Jack Patterson
James Patterson, Jack Patterson, Photo By Efren Landaos/Shutterstock

He also launched a children’s book imprint called JIMMY Patterson that focuses on one goal: turning every child into a lifelong reader. The book provides parents, librarians, teachers, and booksellers with different programs, resources, and strategies to use.

But the author also puts his money where his mouth is…

Putting His Money Where it Belongs

Patterson donated more than a million books to students from the most under-resourced schools in the country. He established more than 400 Teacher Education Scholarships at 24 colleges and universities in America. He donated $1.75 million to school libraries and $1 million to independent bookstores. He also gave $250,000 as holiday bonuses to employees in bookstores.

James Patterson with the cast of 'Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life.'
Photo by Efren Landaos / Shutterstock

The money just keeps coming. He donated over $26 million to the University of Wisconsin, Vanderbilt University, and Manhattan College (his and his wife’s alma maters). He sponsors after-school reading programs, where he donated up to 1000 books to the middle schools in Palm Beach County.

And students aren’t the only ones Patterson believes should be helped. He also donated 650,000 books to US soldiers both here and overseas.

Keeping it Old School

Patterson may be “new school” in his methods, but he’s quite an old school when it comes to actually writing. He writes every day, longhand, with a pencil and paper. What’s his daily routine? He wakes up with the sun, writes for a few hours, takes a break to play golf, returns to his work, and then heads out for dinner to hang out with his wife and son.

James Patterson sitting at a table writing on a yellow notepad

He also still makes commercials to promote his new material, but now he stars in them. You might have seen him dressed as a pirate or wearing sunglasses and a flashy jacket. If you’re wondering why he does this, I am too. He clearly doesn’t need the publicity anymore. But, according to Patterson himself, “It doesn’t take a lot of time, and it’s easy.”

He Reads 1000 Books a Year

Apparently, Patterson has only sent one email in his life – what he called “a test email.” But that doesn’t mean that he’s a technophobe or anything. He does travel with a tablet. He uses it to read. Allegedly, the author reads around 100 books a year. But now that he’s taken on children’s literature, his pace has slowed down a bit.

James Patterson sitting in a bed with his notes in front of him
Source: Facebook 

What does he like to read? Well, his taste ranges. He goes from “junk fiction” (his own words) to “serious stuff.” Patterson states that Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” changed his writing life the most. And he wants kids to also find those kinds of influential books. In 2005, he published the first book in the young-adult fantasy series “Maximum Ride.”

That’s Kind of What Happened

Patterson managed to rack up more New York Times bestsellers for youth than any other living author. His children’s books sold more than 30 million copies so far. Patterson may be on a mission to save books in America, but the man remains relatively modest when he speaks about being such a successful novelist.

James Patterson awards a further 62 independent bookshops grants in the UK and Ireland, Britain
 Photo By Jonathan Hordle/Shutterstock

“I thought it was arrogant to think that I could be a writer,” he said, as he sits in front of his massive wall filled with his own books. “Somebody [famously] said, ‘You’re lucky if you find something you like to do in life, and it’s a miracle if somebody will actually pay you to do that… That’s kind of what happened with me.”

Into the Double Digits

The truth is, it wasn’t until the ’90s that Patterson hit his stride, publishing one book a year, then working his way to a couple of books a year. Now, with the help of his co-author army, he has been able to produce an absurd annual output that reaches the double digits. The author has received several awards for his works, in addition to his first award for his first book back in 1974.

'Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life' film screening, Arrivals,
Photo By Mediapunch/Shutterstock

He won the International Thriller of the Year award, the BCA Mystery Guild’s Thriller of the Year, and the Children’s Choice Book Award for Author of the Year. Oh, and the man has even appeared in a movie. He made a cameo appearance in 2016’s “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life,” which was based on his novel of the same name. His role? The manager of a restaurant.

Some Unlikely Fans

Patterson’s books have earned him a massive following, including a population that he, nor anyone else, would necessarily expect: prisoners. His thrillers are the most requested books at Rikers Island, the infamous New York City jail. British people also particularly like his work. For the last decade, he’s been the most borrowed author in British libraries.

James Patterson with Camilla Duchess of Cornwall reading poems to children during a reading session at the West Greenwich Library in 2013.
Source: Shutterstock

Against the stereotypes, and despite the fact that his characters endure mutilations and gory deaths, women happen to be his most loyal fans. But considering how the man, and his writers, produces up to 20 books a year across every genre, it’s no surprise that he has a varied fanbase – from children to seniors.

The President is Missing

Clinton teamed up with Patterson to make a thriller that every America has either read or at least heard of. The gist of it: the president of the title –Jonathan Lincoln Duncan – is facing an enormous cyberattack, the “Dark Ages,” which will bring the country to its knees. The novel is now going to be made into a film.

Bill Clinton and James Patterson book promotion, Miami, USA - 01 Dec 2018
 Photo By JLN Photography/Shutterstock

Clinton and Patterson embarked on a 16-meeting tour to find the right outlet for a film. But in addition to the film, Showtime is turning the book into a series. According to Showtime president and CEO, David Nevins, “the pairing of President Clinton with fiction’s most gripping storyteller promises a kinetic experience, one that the book world has salivated over for months and that now will dovetail perfectly into a politically relevant, character-based action series for our network.”

He Also Wrote About Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘Unbelievable’ Crimes

In 2016, before the whole Epstein scandal and arrest, Patterson took a break from making thrillers to focus his attention on real-life criminal Jeffrey Epstein. As it turns out, Epstein was Patterson’s Palm Beach neighbor who, as you likely know by now, busted for some hideous crimes. After the book, “Filthy Rich” was published, Patterson was surprised by the lack of attention given such a “monster of a case.”

James Patterson - Filthy Rich
 Source: YouTube

Why didn’t this story capture the public’s attention? According to Patterson, the media doesn’t do its job. “The minute I heard of this, I thought, Jesus, this is insane. When we put the book out, I wrote letters to pretty much everyone, going like, ‘You have to pay attention to this case.'”

James Patterson Joins Guns N’ Roses

After writing “The President Is Missing” with Bill Clinton, James Patterson found an even more unlikely collaboration. He’s joined forces with the band Guns N’ Roses to create a children’s book no less. The picture book called “Sweet Child O’Mine” celebrates love and music. Patterson claims to be a longtime fan of Guns N’ Roses.

Guns N' Roses Sweet Child O Mine book cover, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin
Source: Pinterest 

The book follows a child’s discovery that music is everywhere around us. It’s an unexpected collaboration, for sure, but Guns N’ Roses aren’t the first musicians to turn one of their songs into a kid’s book. Paul McCartney has already turned his classic song into the book “Hey Grandude!” Then there’s Ringo Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden,” Keith Richards’s “Gus & Me,” and Pharrell Williams’s “Happy!”

From the Pages to the Screen

For the James Patterson book fans who are interested in watching a movie adaptation instead of reading a long book, there are a number of movies that were adapted from his novels. “Kiss the Girls” from 1997 features Alex Cross, the sharp Washington DC cop and forensic psychologist. His niece was kidnapped and held captive by serial killer Cassanova.

Kiss The Girls - 1997. Brian Cox, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman.
Photo By Bob Greene/Paramount/Rysher/Kobal/Shutterstock

One of his victims, Kate, escapes and joins forces with Alex to find his niece. The movie starred Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. The sequel to the book, came in the form of a movie, too. 2001’s “Along Came a Spider” featured Morgan Freeman again. But many of the book’s key plot elements were controversially eliminated from the film.

Made for TV Movies

The TV movie from 1999 was based on the novel by the same name. The sports drama revolves around the game of golf. A 50-year-old man played by Robert Urich loses his job. He then decides to try to make it on a golf tour. It causes him to neglect his wife (played by Meredith Baxter) and his family. Yeah, it’s not like his usual action-based thrillers, which is probably why it was only seen on TV.

Angie Everhart and Robert Patrick in '1st to Die'
 Source: Michael O’Hara Productions

“First to Die (from 2003)” is another book made into a TV movie. It’s about a homicide inspector called Lindsay Boxer, who successfully captures a serial killer. But hey, it’s a drama, so yes, she also finds herself falling for her partner.

Some Star Power

In 2005, Christina Applegate starred in “Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas” as Dr. Suzanne Bedord in the romance-drama based on Patterson’s book of the same name. Her character discovers the truth about her former lover through the diary that his first wife wrote to their son. Fun fact: Applegate and Johnathon Schaech, who play lovers in the film, were married in real life from October 2001 to August 2007.

Alyssa Milano as Jane Claremont in 'Sundays at Tiffany's'
Source: /Copyright: Lifetime Television

“Sundays at Tiffany’s” (from 2010) is another film. Alyssa Milano played the lead role, and she was attracted to the script because “it’s such an original concept, which I don’t think we see that often, anymore.” Milano also served as a producer of the movie, which she appreciated: “there is a sense of being more creatively involved and more emotionally aware.”

Maximum Ride

The science fiction film from 2016 is based on the novel of the same name by Patterson. YouTube personality Jenna Marbles (ever heard of her?) served as an executive producer of the movie. This action-thriller follows six children, who aren’t really human at all. They’re actually human-avian hybrids bred in a laboratory, which they escaped from.

A scene from 'Maximum Ride' 2016
Source: YouTube 

The movie stars lesser-known actors, Allie Marie Evans, Patrick Johnson, and Lyliana Wray. The first of Patterson’s books made into a film was called “Child of Darkness, Child of Light” from 1991, which was also a made for TV movie. In it, the Vatican sends priests (played by Anthony Denison and Paxton Whitehead) stateside for some good news and bad news about two births.

Alex Cross

Alex Cross is by far the most popular of all the films. The 2012 crime thriller film was directed by Rob Cohen and starred Tyler Perry as the main character. Matthew Fox played Picasso. The movie was based on the novel “Cross” by Patterson and was the third installment of the Alex Cross movie series.

Edward Burns and Tyler Perry in 'Alex Cross' 2012
Photo by Qed International / Kobal / Shutterstock

The main character was previously played by Morgan Freeman in “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider.” In 2011, Tyler Perry replaced Idris Elba in the role. Audiences, however, gave the movie an “A” CinemaScore. Tyler Perry didn’t fare so well in his role, though. The poor guy earned himself a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actor.