James Patterson: Selling more books than any other living writer every year

“James Patterson is a terrible writer who became very very successful.” – Stephen King. 

But what made him a success? After all, Patterson has sold over 400 million copies of his books. Today, out of every 100 hardcovers sold, 6 are his! Is James Patterson really a terrible writer? And if so, how did he hoodwink the world to buy his books?

Patterson always wanted to become a writer. Even when he was working as a copywriter for J. Walter Thompson, he would find time in his busy schedule to write everyday. He would write during lunch breaks, or on flights during his business trips, or at midnight on a busy day. 

His first book was rejected 31 times before it was published. On publication however, Patterson won the prestigious Edgar award for the best debut novel from the Mystery Writers of America. “The Thomas Berryman Number” was critically acclaimed but ended up selling less than 10,000 copies. 

Patterson wrote 6 more books after this, all of which were duds.

It was only during the process of writing his 8th book that he stumbled upon an epiphany.

Patterson’s writing process

You see, James Patterson had a writing process. He wrote with a pencil on paper. And before writing, he would first create a long outline. All the scenes would be outlined. The hero and the villain’s back stories would be outlined. He would know the beginning, middle, and the end before he started writing the book. Sometimes, his outlines would be 50 pages long!

But during his 8th book, when he was going through the outline, he realized something. He had already written the book. The short scenes in his long outline seemed perfect. It kept the pace of the book hot. Why flesh it out with more boring details only to add length to the book?

He recalled a Bruce Springsteen story his editor had told him. While writing “Nebraska” – Springsteen had picked up his guitar and created a rough demo. But he eventually realized that the demo was the record: just him and his acoustic guitar. Nothing else was needed.

Write the outline. Keep everything else out.

Patterson realized that his outline made a better book than a book filled with long detailed scenes. And so, he made the whole book full of short, quick scenes. 2-3 page chapters. Each chapter with one scene, one thought. 

It became a page turner. And “Along came a spider” hit the second spot on the New York Times bestsellers list! 

Unknowingly, Patterson had found the magic that videogame makers chase. Give quick wins to the readers to hook them. Readers would get satisfaction on finishing chapters. Which would make them keep on turning the page.

Outselling every other author

Patterson’s quick pacing and 2 minute chapters hit the perfect spot for our attention deficit population. And Patterson realized that what he is best in the world at is not crafting stories that were memorable, or writing prose that is quotable. But in pacing the stories in a way that gave quick wins to the reader. He made ok stories fast paced!

When he realized that, he parlayed that a step further. He focused on only writing the outlines. And then finding co-writers to flesh out his 50-80 page outlines to form a 250-300 page book. But all of the writers that he collaborated with had to follow his rules: keep the chapters short and sweet. Make the book dialogue rich because dialogues are quicker to read. End as many chapters on cliff hangers as possible, even if it feels ridiculous. Because the goal is to keep the reader hooked. To make the reader feel a sense of accomplishment.

Thats how, close to two dozen new books with James Patterson’s name on it are published every year! Because of this strategy of working with other writers, Patterson has published over 350 books till date!

And his books are recommended by librarians all over the world because they get people who are not book readers – to start reading! Which is how, Patterson outsells Stephen King by a huge huge margin!

How can you implement the James Patterson strategy?

The idea is to give quick wins to your audience – to your clients as well as your employees and colleagues. Why?

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer once set out to study the lives of 26 project teams in 7 companies. They wanted to see what led to highest levels of creative output in a workplace. And so they asked all the folks in these companies to write a daily journal of their work and thoughts. They also asked these people to rate their work days: was it a good day or a bad day?

What they found after reading 12,000 journal entries surprised them. People were most motivated on the days they had made progress in their work. Motivation followed progress, and not the other way round. 

Even more surprising? The type of progress made didn’t matter. Minor progress had an outsized impact on people’s mood and motivations. 

Win quick to win more

Mark Van Buren writes about a research sponsored by a strategic roundtable group in Harvard Business Press. The group conducted a comprehensive survey on a sample size of 5400 leaders. And asked their managers to rate their performance.

Without fail, the leaders who had secured quick wins on being hired were rated an average of 20% higher than their peers! A quick win gave reassurance to their managers that they had hired the right person. And so, folks who delivered quick wins were given more responsibilty and better opportunities faster. Leading to them succeeding even further.

The scope of the wins didn’t matter as much as the speed of the win. 

Just like Patterson broke down a big chapter into 6 small chapters to give quick wins to his readers so that they kept on reading, you’ve got to plan tasks and project delivery in a way that secures quick wins. Because thats what will keep people around you motivated and invested.

Action Summary:

  • Don’t bore your audience. Give them quick wins. Break progress steps down into smaller units.