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James Patterson, Inc.: Alex Cross author on churning out bestsellers

Rock Center

Chances are if you’ve walked by an airport newsstand, watched a movie trailer or picked up a major newspaper in the last 20 years, you’ve stepped into James Patterson’s world. It’s hard to avoid.

The 65-year-old crime and thriller author has written 106 books, sold more than 260 million copies and boasts 76 bestsellers, a Guinness World Record.  His characters and franchises have become household names- Alex Cross, Michael Bennett, The Women’s Murder Club, Private. 

“Somebody says you’re lucky if you find something you like to do and then it’s a miracle if somebody will pay you to do it,” Patterson told Harry Smith in an interview airing Thursday, Dec. 20 at 10pm/9CT on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.

A glimpse inside the inner sanctum of Patterson’s office reveals shelves stacked with paper. They are manuscripts in progress with everything from screenplays to a Christmas themed Alex Cross book to his latest passion, writing children’s books.

Click here to read an excerpt of James Patterson's upcoming book, "Private Berlin."

The author is one of the most prolific of our time and has done it in a way that’s garnered criticism from his literary rivals. Patterson often works with co-authors.  By the end of this year, he will publish 13 books, most of them written with co-authors. Some critics say that Patterson is less of a writer and more of an assembly line. Patterson defended his work.

“You’ve been in my office, it ain’t a factory.  It is an artist studio.  I’m deeply involved.  I’m doing this thing seven days a week,” Patterson said. “Nobody looks at Mercedes and goes, ‘It’s an assembly line.’  They go, ‘It’s a Mercedes,’ you know? And I think the books are good reads.”

Patterson said that he usually does an initial outline of a story and a co-author will take a stab at a first draft. Then, armed with a sharpened, yellow pencil, Patterson fine tunes the draft into what he hopes is a page turner.

“People are looking for entertainment, that’s what I try to do.  I don’t consider myself to be a super serious writer, but I think I do write entertaining books,” he said.  “I think there are a limited number of things that really are consistently entertaining and I think my books are consistently entertaining so people read them a lot.” 

Of his millions of readers, 70 percent of them are women, he says. Traces of his hometown, Newburgh, N.Y., can be found in his work.  Patterson returns there to visit and has named characters after childhood friends.

In college, Patterson said he became a voracious reader and dreamed of writing, but never thought he could make a living from it.

After being rejected 31 times, Patterson’s first novel, “The Thomas Berryman Number,” was published in 1976. The mystery received the prestigious Edgar Award, but sold only 10,000 copies.

After the book’s commercial failure, he made a decision that changed the way he approached writing.

“I made the decision I’d like to write books that sell better,” Patterson said.

Patterson chose to write bestselling books and not the next great American novel, he said.

“I don’t have those chops and I don’t want to write something that’s halfway there.  I don’t want to write a well-received literary novel that sells 5,000 copies and that people that I don’t particularly want to talk to like it,” Patterson said. “I don’t want to write for those people.  I could, but I don’t want to.”

Selling is something Patterson knows how to do. According to Forbes Magazine, he earned $94 million last year, making him the highest-earning author in the world.

Patterson learned how to sell after working more than 20 years as an advertising executive, overseeing popular campaigns for companies like Toys R Us and Burger King.

“The key is you have to hit people in the face with a cream pie, you have to get their attention and then you have to say something smart, something motivating, something that’s worthwhile, but you do have to get their attention,” Patterson said.

Patterson used his advertising background to make one of his most well-known novels, “Along Came a Spider,” a bestseller. He had the idea to make a television commercial promoting it, something that had rarely been done for hardbacks when it was released in 1993. Patterson said he utilizes his time as an ad man when it comes to the covers and titles of his books.  He has also helped his characters, like Alex Cross, journey from the page to the big screen.

Patterson, the father of a 14-year-old son, has started cranking out books for children, too.

“I in particular love writing the kids’ books,” Patterson said. “I think that’s really my passion right now.”

He has even launched a website, ReadKiddoRead.com, full of book recommendations aimed at getting more children to read.

“This is a passion and a cause for sure,” Patterson said. “You got to give kids books that they’re going to read.”

Despite his success, Patterson has no plans to slow down. 

“I love stories, that’s it.  I love storytelling.  I’m addicted to it.  I think it’s a harmless addiction and one that’s worked out very well for me,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Harry Smith’s full profile of James Patterson airs Thursday, Dec. 20 at 10pm/9CT on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.