Friday, March 02, 2007

Tuesdays with Markus (and James Patterson)

from James Grippando

Me again. Filling in for Jackie. She’s in NYC singing and dancing on Broadway (Okay, she’s probably holed up in her hotel room, writing and on deadline). Anyway, she asked if I had anything to say in her absence, and it turns out that I don’t. Luckily, James Patterson does. Or at least he did on Tuesday. Here’s some of what he had to say.

To bring you up to speed, this week was the Direct Marketing Association’s Leadership Forum. It’s a three day conference not strictly for the book industry, but for executives all over the world whose companies market directly to consumers—everyone from, AOL and Yahoo! to Burger King, Eastman Kodak, Xerox and others. Even Publishers Clearing House attends. I asked for my check. No go.

On Tuesday the forum had a special session called “Conversations with the Authors.” It was put together by Markus Wilhelm, CEO of Bookspan, a company that knows a thing or two about direct marketing; Bookspan owns the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and Book of the Month Club. James Patterson and I were the authors on the panel, and so was John A. Deighton. John is a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, whose specialty is—you guessed it—direct marketing. What’s interesting to us naked authors—and to everyone else who is still trying to figure out why one book explodes onto the charts and an equally entertaining book flops—is the fact that John did a very detailed study called “Marketing James Patterson.” That study was the topic of discussion for our panel.

First off, I heard some interesting numbers that I’ll share with you. Did you know, for example, that from November 2002 to the end of 2003 (the year of John’s study), James Patterson’s 6,005,000 hardcover sales on his 9 titles exceeded the combined sales of Tom Clancy (2 titles, 1,984,000 sales), Patricia Cornwell (2 titles, 1,045,000 sales), Stephen King (4 titles, 2,664,000 sales) and Dean Koontz (4 titles, 981,000 sales)? And here’s something else that surprised me. Can you name the two main outlets for hardcover bestsellers? Are you guessing Barnes and Noble and Borders? Wrong. It’s Costco and Walmart. The key to my question is the word bestsellers. Costco and Walmart sell fewer titles, but they sell more bestsellers. Their share of the book market overall, says Deighton, is 12%, but their share of the “bestseller” market is 34%. Here’s something else I found interesting: In 2004 had only a 2% share of the bestseller market—a number that Deighton regards as “relatively insignificant.” I wonder what it is now, but I’m suspecting that it is less than I thought it was.

One of the reasons that Deighton found Patterson to be such an interesting “market study” is the fact that his increased productivity has not hurt his “per-title” sales. Many authors have, in essence, cannibalized their own sales by producing more than one or two books a year—their overall sales increase, but if you look at the number of units sold per title, their sales are down. Patterson is now up to 6 books a year, and the per-title sales for each of his books continue to grow. Deighton wanted to know: why is this?

I wish I could share the answer with you, but it was right about this point that the marketing geniuses in the room started throwing around industry terms like “long tail,” and since I know nothing about marketing, and being a man, I zoned out and started to think about sex. But here are some things I came away with. Patterson created a look, a brand for his books. He developed a consistently entertaining style of writing—short paragraphs, lean prose, short chapters that broke at points of tension in the narrative. But more than anything else, it seemed to me that Patterson is different because he has taken control of every aspect, both creative and marketing, of his books.

I could give plenty of examples of what I mean by this, but I think this personal story sums it up. I shared it with the group at the conference, and they laughed, but it is one of those humorous stories that tells you a lot about James Patterson.

The first time I gained any insight into Jim’s marketing and creative genius was in December 1991, when I made my first trip to New York to meet with my literary agent, Artie Pine. Artie was anything but flashy. He had simple offices at 250 West 57th Street, but the collage on the wall told at least part of the story: A colorful scattering of hardcover book jackets --- bestsellers, books-to-movies, and a huge blow-up of the NEW YORK TIMES list with James Patterson's "Along Came a Spider" at #1. Patterson was Artie’s client, and on seeing the blow up I said, “I didn’t know ‘Along Came a Spider' hit number one.” Actually, it hadn’t. Not yet. Patterson made the blow-up to help his agent visualize the goal. "Patterson will be huge someday," Artie told me.

Perhaps there are a few writers out there reading this post. Maybe you have a manuscript sitting in a drawer somewhere next to your underwear and socks. Maybe your novel is not even written yet, and it's just an idea bouncing around inside your head. Whatever shape your novel may be in, my advice is to think like Patterson. Visualize your goal. Do what it takes to make those around you visualize it as well. And go for it.

All the best, James Grippando
P.S. Normally I enjoy parktaking in the banter after my posts, but today I'll be heading for the Denver airport at 8:30 a.m. Denver time. I'll catch y'all when I'm back in Miami this evening!


  1. Hi James,
    Safe trip home. Don't forget to dodge tornadoes...

    Great information regarding marketing of books and promotion stuff. Setting goals, etc. I create opportunities and marketing niches for selling my husband's artwork as well as my own. I do do better at selling and relisencing his works though. He's the so much bigger 'name' and earner - so there's a ready made market. I just have to find it. In the last two months, I've managed to tap him into a collector's conclave, set up a sales blog, and continue to help him maintin the blog I built for him in December. He's been selling works off of all three with reasonable, and sometimes surprising consistency. I've only sold one little painting so far from my site - and that was at a convention last week in Dallas. However, a good chunk of the fun is thinking up new ideas for Bob's paintings when the incoming work hits a bit of a slump like it has at the moment.

    I suppose you could say that I work in place of 'mother'. Our J. and Patty - having forthright and proud mamas promoting them - know what I mean.

    Sometimes, when I'm not promoting art, I try a little promotion or submission of my writing. :-D I should try writing more. Sigh.


  2. Glad you're back, Jim. I'm with you 100% on visualizing your goals and also writing them down on paper. When my first book came out a friend copied The New York Times Book Review Best Sellers page, whited out the book in the #1 position, and typed in the name of my book. I still keep the page propped up near the computer where I write. You never know...

  3. Fascinating lesson in book marketing. The stats about Costco and Wal-Mart are really startling.

    I wonder, though, how relevant the James Patterson experience is to most writers. Patterson has succeeded in branding his name so that he now hires "collaborators" to write the first drafts of all those books.

    I'll bet that most writers wouldn't do that, even if they had the chance. Am I wrong here? Don't we write for the pure joy (or agony) of the experience? Don't we write because it's a scratch that must be itched? A form of insanity, maybe?

    If Patterson only sold 20% of those numbers, he'd still be a wealthy man. As Jake Gittes said to Noah Cross in CHINATOWN, "How many steaks can you eat?"

  4. This was fascinating to read, James, and thank you for putting it all together.

    I used to work at 250 W. 57th.... 13th floor with a view of the airshaft.

    Happy and safe trails to you!

  5. I agree with Paul. Not to bad-mouth Patterson at all, but I'm hard-pressed to imagine myself getting to the point where I was hiring other people to write the books with my name on them. He does that, fine, although I haven't been able to read anything past "Pop Goes The Weasel" although I was quite impressed with "Along Came A Spider" and "Jack and Jill."

    For me, although if somehow I were to makes millions I imagine I'd find a way to spend it, it's not really about the money. If it were, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have chosen writing. I can think of many other ways to make more money than writing novels including owning a pizza franchise (or mowing lawns, for that matter). I do it because, well, because.

  6. Thanks for this great post, James. I always enjoy learning more about the marketing side of this game.
    Safe travels,

  7. Hey all you writers- I don't write, but I read, and I don't read Patterson. Too commercial, and his name is on everything! I'm old fashioned, and I don't like having a big TV commercial telling me what to read. I'm always suspicious when I hear "the critics are saying..." I listen to other readers. I also buy alot of books, and have found favorite authors by accident (Ridley Pearson comes to mind) at Sam's. I love the process of finding good books. Like finding James G. I liked the book I bought, now he's on my list and I'll buy them all, little by little. I know you need to make a living, but keep doing what you're doing. Don't be like Patterson.

  8. Patterson's just an "idea" man. A bit like Walt Disney -- he comes up with ideas and concepts, and then he hands them to other people to flesh out.

    A lot of people hate him, but I've always found his books enjoyable and fast-paced. I read MAXIMUM RIDE recently and I was surprised how much fun it was.

  9. I'll bad-mouth Patterson.

    I don't like him. I don't consider him a writer. Not anymore, anyway.

    He is a genius at marketing, at advertising. He was all about the marketing from his very first title, and he is brilliant at it.

    But the last couple of books he wrote without help were not good, and these cookie cutters he's producing now... ouch.

    But the checks are clearing.

  10. James - great post.

    I want to write not be an idea factory but the reason the idea factory works (and the Patterson phenom is shared to a degree by Nora Roberst) has more to do with visibility I think than anything else.

    As an ex - ad person myself who was offered a job by Patterson:) back in the day the deal here is visibility begets sales. And when you have six books a year they are all advertising each other and your name.

    So everytime a new Patterson or Roberst book comes out its more advertising for the next one.

    The book itself and all its coop etc is an actual ad.

    And with bestsellers the coop lasts longer so the first three books are still on the tables when the fourth comes out.

    They're owning the shelf which is so important in a world where there are twice as many titles as 1996 and half as many reviews and four times as much compeitition for reading time (the interentet, cell phones, iPods and the like and one million cable station) the average reader is not only reading less but more confused about what to read.

    So what happens is a huge majority of readers buy what they see the most of because it becomes the most familiar.

    Its the old - the reason you want the book on the bestseller list is that readers figure out what to buy by looking at those tables.

    The average readers pick up Patterson because he's everywhere all the time.

    They might like something else better but they don't see it or hear about it. They don't "know" it.

    That's the part of advertising no one talks about. Exposure makes us comfortable with something. Makes us feel like its part of our world.

    Sales begets sales.

    The more titles out a year the more changes you get to make an impression.

  11. Great post I've linked.

  12. Thank you for the post, James. As a non-writer, reader only, I'm curious about the $ in writing, or lack thereof: what a beginning (first 2 or 3 books)writer gets per book vs. an established writer; what a M. Connelly, R. Parker, etc. gets vs. a new writer; set price per book in a contract, and/or royalties involved; sales requirements before a publisher drops a writer after 4-to-8 books. These are things I'd never come right out and ask (I was raised when you just didn't ask things like that), but I've been curious since I've heard good writers say they still have their day jobs after 4 or 5 books, and I've seen writers I've enjoyed for years dropped by publishers after 6, 7, 8 books.

    So your post has given me some insight (though I'm curious now about what J.P. gets/book, what share the collaborators get)--I'm not asking for an answer, just expressing curiosity.

    In defense of J.P., I've enjoyed his books for years, but haven't read him for a while. I was impressed to learn that Mr. P. was one of the first writers to support International Thriller Writers when they were trying to organize, not only by joining at a high-dues level, but also editing their anthology and accepting no pay--all proceeds going to the organization.

    There have been so many good authors I've discovered the last 5 or 6 years, and I've realized I can't read you all; consequently, I have limited myself the last couple years to those of you who come to Mysteries to Die For in Thousand Oaks, CA. If you take the time to visit the store I patronize, I'll support you. (There are a few oldtimers I still read--have to have some exceptions to the rule!)

    I thank you all for coming (Mr. Born finally came Saturday, and now I can read him!)

    Tom, T.O.