Why does James Patterson care about our kids’ reading habits?

Posted May 06, 2012, at 4:05 p.m.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — He is one of the most successful writers in the world, so he knows how to grab attention, but then that’s a primary reason he’s one of the most successful writers in the world.

Facing an auditorium full of innately restless middle school teenagers at Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach, Fla., James Patterson begins by saying: “Hi. I’m Stephen King.”

Big laugh.

“I tell stories,” he continues. “It’s a good job. I recommend it highly. I make more money than LeBron James. I obnoxiously mention that because I grew up poor.”

At this point, rowdy adolescents clutch their free copies of Patterson’s young adult novel “Maximum Ride” and listen intently as he gives a prescription for success in writing, or, beyond that, life.

“You have to have a dream; you have to have passion. And I strongly recommend you have a back-up dream. You have to have focus. Outline, baby. Before you write anything, outline.”

He tells them to write down the coolest story they know. The sentences might not be any good, but the important thing is to get the story down — polishing can come later.

“Reading should be fun. You’re in middle school; you have to learn to read well — that’s the most important thing that can happen in middle school — learning to experience different points of view.”

It is a gung-ho pep talk full of Patterson’s particular brand of laconic wisdom, followed by questions and answers. He tells the kids that he was never a huge reader until high school, that he polishes his own writing at the tail end of the process, and that he should polish more.

He exits to an ovation.

A few randomly chosen statistics that show why people listen when James Patterson speaks: Since 2006, one out of every 17 novels sold in America has been written or co-written by James Patterson. He has published 95 books, more than 60 of which have been New York Times bestsellers — more than anybody in history.

No other writer has accomplished what Patterson has — extending his brand through eight, 10 or even 13 books a year, in several different genres from suspense to romance. It’s a pace possible only with co-authors, and a feat he has miraculously managed without saturating his audience.

Not everybody has greeted Patterson’s flooding of the market with open arms. Stephen King has made withering criticisms of Patterson’s novels, while Patterson has responded with straight-faced enthusiasm for King’s work.

But people who know writing know how hard it is to do what Patterson has done.

“There is no doubt that his run has been remarkable, something never before seen,” says Michael Connelly, the Florida-based, bestselling creator of the Harry Bosch series and “The Lincoln Lawyer.” “We are talking about millions of readers coming back to his stories multiple times a year. You can look at it cynically and say it is simply just a formula, but the bottom line is that it’s storytelling and the man knows how to tell stories that people want to read. I admire that.”

Michael Pietsch is Patterson’s publisher at Little, Brown. “No writer I’ve ever read has created so many lasting characters or grasps the interlocking power of plot and emotion as Jim does,” he says. “He pours forth stories that engross, amaze and move readers, at the same time that they plumb the emotions we all live with — the power of love, of family, of friendship, the pressure of work, the inevitability of death, the meaning of good and the presence of evil. It’s immortal stuff wrapped inside the highest level of entertainment.”

Patterson puts it another way: “I’ve never liked books that lay out information without story or narrative power.”

Patterson has made storytelling a volume business, but it didn’t happen overnight. For many years, he was just another writer with a day job — he ran J. Walter Thompson’s North American advertising operation until 1996.

His first book, “The Thomas Berryman Number,” published in 1976, won an Edgar mystery-writing award and sold 10,000 copies — respectable, but no more. (He is best known for his Alex Cross mysteries, about a Washington psychiatrist-detective, which he writes himself.)

Today, in an average year, about 14 million copies of Patterson’s books are sold. According to Forbes magazine, Patterson earns Hachette, the corporate parent of Little, Brown, about $250 million a year, and as far as the author is concerned, his books have financed a Palm Beach life for his wife and family that includes a $17 million mansion.

With a separate unit within Little, Brown for the production and publicity for his books, Patterson has hurled himself into a movement to get kids to read with the same military precision with which he organizes his publishing program.

It’s all an outgrowth of a program he called “Read, Kiddo, Read,” which he started to get his son, Jack, reading after observing him not reading “with his knuckle-headed friends.”

That spurred Patterson to write the “Maximum Ride” sci-fi/fantasy series beginning in 2005, because, as he says: “my style is colloquial and fast-paced; it’s suited for kids. My idea in all of this is that when they finish a book, they won’t be able to wait to start another.”

For some reason, it’s this generation that has hit a wall with reading, even though a half-dozen generations grew up with diversions such as television and managed to read at the same time. Perhaps video games and the Internet were the tipping points, but above everything else, Patterson is a pragmatist.

“I don’t know when it happened,” he says, “and I don’t care why it happened. Let’s do something about it.”

At the age of 64, Patterson could be forgiven for working on his golf game — he has an 11 handicap — but instead he’s humping it around the country talking to schools. Mainly, he sees it as a way of leveraging his celebrity for the public good.

Patterson’s list of the top 10 things to do to get your kid to read indicates that one of the problems is an eat-your-vegetables attitude on the part of parents and teachers, which can result in the force-feeding of Ethan Frome or Silas Marner.

Patterson puts most of the blame on parents. “Kids need to come out of middle school as good readers, with basic math. If they don’t do that, a lot of things are going to be hopeless for them.”

Patterson is at an age when the philanthropic urge often kicks in; besides his reading program, he recently donated 200,000 Patterson books to the armed forces. Does he regard the reading campaign and the donations as a form of philanthropy?

“I think I’ve always been inclined to give back, I just didn’t have such a large war chest. But I have a very clear focus — education. In particular, I’m trying to get kids reading, which will not just enrich their lives, it will open doors for them in the future. That’s what drives ReadKiddoRead, the hundreds of thousands of books I give away, and the scholarships I provide at universities and colleges.”

Why did Patterson think the mass manufacture of fiction would work for him?

“It was a little bit of an accident. I did this little golf book with Peter de Jonge, and I really liked doing it. Peter is a better stylist and I’m a better storyteller. And in my previous career, I was used to directing people, so I decided to give it a try.”

Patterson writes an outline for each book that runs from 30 to 50 pages. “It’s pretty detailed,” he says. “Anybody could finish it from there.”

After an incident early in his collaborative period, where a book came in that needed more work from Patterson than it would have if he’d simply written it himself, he began keeping tabs on the manuscripts by reviewing his co-writer’s progress every two weeks.

“I like to talk about it,” he says.

Sources indicate that Patterson pays his co-authors out of his own advance for each book. The total a co-author receives is a flat fee that runs into six figures. “I think I know how to power a story forward and keep the action bubbling. My co-authors put up with my intense work style. They understand that I didn’t join them, they joined me. Nobody ever quits.”

David Ellis is a Chicago prosecutor who recently prosecuted and convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Ellis published several books of his own before joining with Patterson to write the current bestseller “Guilty Wives.” Ellis viewed the collaboration as an opportunity to be mentored by a writer he admires and says that the Patterson School of Fiction boils down to story, story, story.

“It’s great to write atmosphere, but never at the expense of story. Jim wants to keep the readers’ heartbeats going. Each chapter has to have a punch.”

Patterson wants pace, drama and likable characters, but also invites a different take from his co-author. “We’re not writing a Patterson novel,” he told his co-author, “we’re writing a Patterson and Ellis novel.”

Ellis says that Patterson essentially functions as the producer, director and star, but genuinely wants input from his collaborating writer. “I had assumed that a bestselling writer and savvy businessman would put you at unease, but he made it clear that the process was relaxed. He’s honest, but it’s in a relaxed manner and couched in a constructive way.”

Patterson’s editor, Michael Pietsch has an interesting theory as to why the rules of market saturation don’t apply to Patterson.

“There are no rules of market saturation! Jim understands that when someone finishes reading a novel that they love, what they want right away is more of that character, more of that kind of story. He focuses intensely on making every story fresh and true, so readers keep returning and recommending his novels to his friends. Ideas about market saturation are for the convenience of publishers, not for readers.”

Patterson has a roster of a dozen projects in the works at any given time, not counting the books he writes himself, not counting TV or movie adaptations that he also sometimes writes himself. His own self-appraisal is not bragging, just fact:

“I am stunningly focused and efficient,” he says. “If I get a script from Hollywood, they have my notes the same day.”

Adding to the work load is a new Alex Cross movie that Patterson has produced that’s due to be released in the fall. The star is Tyler Perry.

“The movie was made by three pissed-off people,” he says, indicating that as one of said people, he wasn’t crazy about the previous Cross movies (“Kiss the Girls,” “Along Came a Spider”) starring Morgan Freeman. “Me, Tyler and (director) Rob Cohen, who was angry because a few years ago he was making the third ‘Mummy’ movie for Universal.”

Patterson wrote the first draft of the script, but he says it was more or less thrown out. He doesn’t seem concerned.

Indeed, he seems more interested in talking about creeping illiteracy than his own career and the records he’s in the process of setting with each best-seller.

“Look, individuals can’t really help with medical crises, or with economic crises. But we can find books for kids and get them to read them. It’s our job.”

James Patterson’s rules to get kids reading:

1. DON’T LEAVE THE BURDEN WITH SCHOOLS. It’s your job to get kids excited about reading.

2. READ MORE! Here’s a simple but powerful truth that many parents and schools don’t act on: The more kids read, the better readers they become.

3. PICK OUT BOOKS THEY’LL LOVE. Kids say the number one reason they don’t read more is because they can’t find books they like. The best way to get kids reading is to give them books they’ll gobble up.

4. WHERE CAN I FIND GREAT BOOKS? AND FREE BOOKS? ReadKiddoRead.com, GuysRead.com, Oprah.com, YALSA and ALA’s sites. Where to find free or low-cost books: ReadKiddoRead.com, FirstBook.org, ReadertoReader.org.

5. DON’T DISCRIMINATE. Freedom of choice is key: Comics, re-reading a book, easy books and hard books are all fair game. Don’t say no if the book is helping a kid get into the reading habit.

6. DON’T FEAR CHANGE. We need to embrace new programs in our schools and communities. Good models: the Drop Everything and Read program; KIPP Schools’ ‘carry a book at all times’ rule; Sun Prairie Schools’ switch from texts to trade books.

7. BOYS ARE SQUIRRELY. Boys’ differences in tastes need to be encouraged, not reprimanded. Too often, boy-appealing books like Guinness World Records or books with explosions and robots are disproportionately overlooked on schools’ recommended-reading lists.

8. BE A READING ROLE MODEL. The best role models for reading are at home. Moms and dads, it’s important that your kids see you reading.

9. THOSE IN POWER SHOULD HELP. The Obamas, ESPN, NFL, or Hollywood could help if they start pressing the issue. The UK’s World Book Day is a great example of those in power getting kids reading.

10. YOU CAN TAKE ACTION. Please go out and pick out some great books for your kids. It’s one of the most important, effective and caring things you can do for a child.

©2012 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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