I’m torn. On the one hand, you’ve got the Neal Gaiman quote Robin pulled:
[T]he barriers [between so-called ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’] are imaginary, the walls have already been breached and the key to literature in the early 21st century is one of confluence. There’s not much high and low culture any more: there’s just mingling streams of art and what matters is whether it’s good art or bad art.
And then you’ve got this NYT magazine profile of James Patterson, who isn’t an author in the traditional sense so much as an empire:
Patterson may lack the name recognition of a Stephen King, a John Grisham or a Dan Brown, but he outsells them all. Really, it’s not even close. (According to Nielsen BookScan, Grisham’s, King’s and Brown’s combined U.S. sales in recent years still don’t match Patterson’s.) This is partly because Patterson is so prolific: with the help of his stable of co-authors, he published nine original hardcover books in 2009 and will publish at least nine more in 2010.
There are many different ways to catalog Patterson’s staggering success. Here are just a few: Since 2006, one out of every 17 novels bought in the United States was written by James Patterson. He is listed in the latest edition of “Guinness World Records,” published last fall, as the author with the most New York Times best sellers, 45, but that number is already out of date: he now has 51 — 35 of which went to No. 1.
Patterson and his publisher, Little, Brown & Co., a division of the Hachette Book Group, have an unconventional relationship. In addition to his two editors, Patterson has three full-time Hachette employees (plus assistants) devoted exclusively to him: a so-called brand manager who shepherds Patterson’s adult books through the production process, a marketing director for his young-adult titles and a sales manager for all his books. Despite this support staff and his prodigious output, Patterson is intimately involved in the publication of his books. A former ad executive — Patterson ran J. Walter Thompson’s North American branch before becoming a full-time writer in 1996 — he handles all of his own advertising and closely monitors just about every other step of the publication process, from the design of his jackets to the timing of his books’ release to their placement in stores. “Jim is at the very least co-publisher of his own books,” Michael Pietsch, Patterson’s editor and the publisher of Little, Brown, told me.
Like Robin pointed out a year ago, all that literary stuff, even all of that cultural stuff — the Harry Potters and Da Vinci Codes that crack the popular consciousness — sits on top of the real book business, where the Pattersons and Nora Robertses move product like Wal-Mart.
At nine books a year, collaborating with and supervising “five regular co-authors, each one specializing in a different Patterson series or genre,” it almost doesn’t even make sense to talk about it in terms of stock and flow anymore, at least in the way Robin mapped it for writers working at a different scale — although Patterson deftly managed his own marketing that way at the beginning. But now, the production and publication of the book becomes its own marketing. It’s just… grinding.
I also love the idea that even blockbuster fiction of the last thirty years has its own history (again, a history that tunnels beneath but supports the rest of the entire book industry):
When Patterson published his breakout book, “Along Came a Spider,” in 1993, Little, Brown was still a largely literary house, whose more commercial authors included the historian William Manchester, biographer of Winston Churchill. Patterson’s success in the subsequent years encouraged Little, Brown to fully embrace mass-market fiction. But more than that, Patterson almost single-handedly created a template for the modern blockbuster author.
There were, of course, blockbuster authors before Patterson, among them Mario Puzo, James Michener and Danielle Steel. But never had authors been marketed essentially as consumer goods, paving the way for a small group of writers, from Charlaine Harris to Malcolm Gladwell, to dominate best-seller lists — often with several titles at a time — in the same way that brands like Skippy and Grey Poupon dominate supermarket shelves. “Until the last 15 years or so, the thought that you could mass-merchandise authors had always been resisted,” says Larry Kirshbaum, former C.E.O. of the Time Warner Book Group, which owned Little, Brown until 2006. “Jim was at the forefront of changing that.”