James Patterson and Brad Meltzer have scores of best sellers between them, but it’s not because of a strategic, business plan-like approach. Both say they are writers, not business or marketing experts. They write about what interests them, not to fill an opportunity in the publishing market.
Both Patterson and Meltzer work from South Florida. Patterson moved to Palm Beach County in the late 1990s. Meltzer came here as a kid in 1983.
They have created a library of titles stretching across genres and mediums: mysteries and thrillers, young adult and historical biographies for kids, comic book characters, documentary film, a cartoon series on public television.
Neither wants to be defined solely by their ever-growing list of successful projects across books, television, film and elsewhere.
"People have their ideas about who you are, and in my case it's usually not right," says Patterson.
For Meltzer, he says, "I never want to think I made it. The moment I think I made it, I'm finished."
Patterson and Meltzer made names for themselves first as thriller writers. Both had their first books rejected over and over again, before breaking through and eventually breaking out. They successfully maneuver between publishing categories and mediums, becoming personalities in their own right.
Don't Box Patterson In
We had been talking for about 20 minutes in his home office in Palm Beach when Patterson called me “a nasty man.” He said it jokingly, I think. I had asked a few questions about the business that his work has become, and his use of co-authors to expand the James Patterson line of books.
Don't put Patterson in a box. "I write stories," he says.
Patterson turns 72 in March. He still writes longhand and is as prolific as ever. Since 2012, he has released at least a dozen books each year. He has three separate books scheduled to be published in March; in April, five of his books are due to go on sale, including a kid's book and thrillers.
"I don't have a box. The most important things for me are our family -- the people around me. That's what drives me."
The walls of Patterson’s home office are lined with bookshelves. In a corner of the room, the tall shelves give way to a counter forming a desk. There’s a telephone and some papers scattered across the top of it. A window looks east, out over Ocean Boulevard and to the ocean. Hanging on the wall just to the right is a framed cover of a 2010 New York Times Magazine. It has a photo of Patterson at a desk in a monochrome room with a simple light. He’s writing longhand next to an endless stack of books. The headline reads “James Patterson Inc.”
"Again, somebody walks in with a point of view. It's not that it's a wrong point of view, but it's not much about me. It's more about somebody trying to put somebody in a box."
Patterson wasn't shy about using his first career skills as an advertising executive to assist his career as an author. He was the North American chairman of advertising firm J. Walter Thompson when he started writing mysteries and thrillers. The breakout came in 1993 with “Along Came a Spider.” He paid to produce and air television commercials in key cities and readers first met the character Alex Cross. Cross was eventually played in the movies by Morgan Freeman. There are two dozen Alex Cross novels. The most recent was published in November.
All around Patterson’s office is evidence of his productivity. Stacks of manuscripts are neatly arranged in piles. Each one of them is topped with a blue sheet of paper. Printed in bold letters on each paper is the name of the project underneath.
"There are a lot of them," he says. "I think in 95 percent of the cases I have written a 50 to 80 page outline.
"I have this pile of ideas and when it's time I will usually go through there and make a list of five, six, seven ideas that I find interesting -- not commercial, as much as just I have some interest in writing about them."
One of his latest novels is “Liar Liar.” It is the third book featuring Australian police investigator Harriet Blue. The two other books followed the same titling strategy. The first was “Never Never,” followed by “Fifty Fifty.” The fourth installment will be called “Hush Hush.” The series follows Blue’s descent from police detective to vigilante murder suspect. “Liar Liar” was published in July, when Patterson had a different book at the top of the best seller list -- his novel co-authored with President Clinton.
In late January, he will have two books on the New York Times Best Sellers lists -- “The House Next Door” for fiction and “Dog Diaries” on the children’s list -- but Patterson says market data isn't any use to him.
"I see sales figures for whatever that means."
Of course, Patterson has been at the top of those bestseller lists dozens of times.
"I think the only times that bother me really are (when) you read something that's just not fair," he says. "Hundreds of thousands of people don't like my books, but fortunately tens of millions do. That just a little ad talk, but there's some truth to that."
Core Belief Not Brand
Brad Meltzer says he shouldn't be a bestselling author and television shot. He doesn't mean that his work doesn't warrant his success. He means his childhood and growing up in Miami didn't hold any hint about his accomplishments.
"The idea that you can take a kid who used to get into fights in Brooklyn, and no one in his family went to a four-year college, and somehow gets on the bestseller list, defies all logic," he says.
Like Patterson, Meltzer has successfully worked across traditional publishing industry categories: thrillers, comic books, children’s books and non-fiction. He’s written for television and hosted two cable TV programs mixing mystery and history. He’s had more than a half dozen bestseller books, including his most recent -- “The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington.”
"Everything I work on, whether it's fiction, whether it's a nonfiction, whether it's television, or the kids books, they do have one thing in common. It's my core belief. I believe ordinary people change the world," he says.
Despite Meltzer's past success and more than 10 bestsellers, each work's reception is not a given. He says his thriller publisher, a division of Hachette Book Group, rejected "First Conspiracy." It was published by a division of Macmillan publishing.
"We had no idea what was going to happen because it was just brand new. You hope that people follow you. There's something when you're in the creative field -- there's some level of faith. You've just got to leap off the cliff."
By way of an example of his willingness to "leap off the cliff," Meltzer recalls teaching himself how to swim. He says in summer camp, the younger brother of a friend was swimming in the deep end of the pool. Meltzer says he saw that and climbed up on the diving board to jump. "And you better believe I figured out right there how to swim."
In 1983, Meltzer moved to Miami with his family. His father was 39 and lost his job in Brooklyn. "He called it 'The Do Over of Life at 39.' He took the leap."
Meltzer has lept beyond his base in thillers and into historical biographies for children, comic books, scripted television and television series.
"If I was smart I should never do any of this. If this was about cold hard cash and making money I should just write thrillers," he says. "That's what sells and for thrillers, you've got to be there every year. That is what builds an audience. But if I had to do the same thing every year for 20 years I would hate it."