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Bestselling author James Patterson: the man behind Alex Cross (and many, many others)

Producer and author James Patterson poses at the premiere of Alex Cross at the ArcLight Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, Oct. 15, 2012.


James Patterson must be slowing down. Between now and year's end, he's only releasing eight novels.

Three will come humming off Patterson's Alex Cross assembly line, adding to the 17 he already has printed in the best-selling series.

Their arrival roughly coincides with the premiere of the third cinematic incarnation of the Cross imprint. Opening today and bearing the only title it needs – Alex Cross – it stars Tyler Perry, the once-oversized actor (he lost 30 pounds for the role) best know for his comedic drag character Madea.

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The pre-Christmas harvest of Pattersonia also includes a new graphic novel called Zoo; a fourth installation of his best-selling Witch & Wizard series (The Fire); a sixth volume of the best-selling illustrated paperback spinoff Maximum Ride: the Manga; and two additions to the line of his best-selling children's series, I Funny and Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. That makes a total of eight, I think; it's really difficult to keep track.

I promise not to use the adjective 'best-selling' any more. Just assume it's there in connection with any Patterson title.

His late-autumn crop is part of a 17-book contract he signed with Little, Brown three years ago. Thrillers, kids' books, police procedurals, romance, horror, sci-fi, even non-fiction – there's scarcely a genre in which the Patterson footprint is not present, if not omnipresent.

To call him prolific is an insult. A sprawling 2010 profile in The New York Times Magazine claimed that one out of every 17 novels bought in the United States was written by Patterson. His annual income, reports The Wall Street Journal, is north of $80-million.

If Wikipedia is accurate, his total estimated sales (150-million) would place him well behind the likes of Jackie Collins (250-million), Robert Ludlum (290-million) and Agatha Christie (four-billion), among others, but ahead of Robin Cook (100-million), Stephenie Meyer (116-million) and Dan Brown (120-million).

But few of these writers are as stylistically versatile or able to mount the kinds of innovative marketing campaigns that accompany new Patterson releases. That's fitting: He started out as an advertising copywriter, and he often appears in promotional videos for his new work, hawking novels like laundry detergent. (So confident is he of his ability to hook readers that his official website typically offers free downloads of the first 20 or 25 chapters of many books.)

Regardless of his position in the sales ratings, Patterson says he's not terribly impressed by his publishing accomplishments.

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"I don't take myself very seriously," he says on the phone from what the Wall Street Journal described as his 20,100-square-foot, five-bedroom, 12-bathroom, beachfront home in Palm Beach, Fla. Bought in 2009 for $17.4-million, it includes a 75-foot pool, gym and media room. "I still have my two best friends from first grade," he insists, "and they still tell me I'm full of shit."

Of course, Patterson's astonishing productivity owes a great deal to the roster of about a half dozen associate writers he has on contract, some of whom eventually merit credit on book jackets, albeit in smaller type than his own name.

His standard approach, he says, is to write a 60 to 70 page outline of the prospective novel, then hand it off to one of his staff. He annotates their draft, sends it back for a rewrite and polishes the next version. He still works, he says, seven days a week. "But it's not work – it's play. People ask me when I'm going to retire [he is 65]. You don't retire from playing."

Patterson makes no apologies for the committee approach to commercial literature. Most scripts for feature films and TV shows, he argues, are the product of similar team arrangements, as is virtually every advertising campaign. Why should popular books be any different?

"Go to churches in Europe and you may find that eight painters did the ceiling," he says. "It's not that peculiar."

He's too nice to point it out, perhaps, but fans of Robert Ludlum's thrillers have been reading books issued under his name – written by others – since 2001, when Ludlum died.

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Patterson could be a candidate for similar treatment, but he may have another succession plan – his son Jack.

A few years ago he told Jack, then 12, that he'd be excused from household chores during summer holidays if he spent time reading every day. At first reluctant, the lad was soon devouring books. It's too soon to predict whether Jack will join the family business, but, Patterson allows, Jack reads "a lot and writes very well."

Getting people to read is a personal mission for Patterson. He sponsors a website promoting readable books for kids and offers advice on how to motivate reading. "Parents often complain about their inability to get children to read," he says. I ask them,'Can you get them to the dinner table?' Parents need to take command of reading in the home, and it begins with making some rules."

What Patterson writes, he acknowledges, is not high art or literature, per se, but popular entertainment – "And I'm definitely cool with that. I'm quite sure I could write literary novels that would get reasonable reviews. I know what's required."

In the late 1960s, as a grad student in English literature at Vanderbilt University, Patterson says he read nothing but serious fiction and was "probably a literary snob. I couldn't write a book like Ulysses or One Hundred Years of Solitude. And to write only a pretty good book didn't appeal to me. But I love the idea of writing for audiences that just want to take off for a couple of hours. Put it on my tombstone, I don't mind: 'Jim kept a lot of people up late.' "

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