Know what you do and do it well

I’m a marketing guy and aspiring writer (as my family knows all too well). Another marketing guy and formerly aspiring writer is James Patterson. You might recognize the name as the author of “Along Came a Spider” and dozens of other books.  What you might not know is that before he became one of the most successful writers of all time (1 in 17 hardcover novels sold in the US since 2006  is written by him) he was in advertising. Let me rephrase that. He wasn’t in advertising, he did very well in advertising and was CEO of  J. Walter Thompson‘s North American operations.

So, the man knows marketing. I thought I understood that he knew marketing until I read this New York Times Magazine profile of him. He knows what he does. He writes things people will like. He writes a lot, and he knows how to market the heck out of them.

A few of the marketing ideas, things to learn that I learned from reading the article:

  • “Patterson built his fan following methodically. Instead of simply going to the biggest book-buying markets, he focused his early tours and advertising efforts on cities where his books were selling best: like a politician aspiring to higher office, he was shoring up his base.”
  • When sales figures showed that he and John Grisham were running nearly neck and neck on the East Coast but that Grisham had a big lead out West, Patterson set his second thriller series, “The Women’s Murder Club,” about a group of women who solve murder mysteries, in San Francisco.
  • “Jim was sensitive to the fact that books carry a kind of elitist persona, and he wanted his books to be enticing to people who might not have done so well in school and were inclined to look at books as a headache,” Kirshbaum says. “He wanted his jackets to say, ‘Buy me, read me, have fun — this isn’t “Moby Dick.” ’ ”
  • Patterson then proceeded to tell one of his favorite stories about his mother’s father, who drove a frozen-foods truck in Upstate New York. During the summer, Patterson said, he would occasionally get up at 4 in the morning to ride along with him. As they drove over a mountain toward his first delivery, Patterson’s grandfather, an irrepressibly joyful man, would be singing at the top of his lungs. “One day he said to me: ‘Jim, I don’t care what you do when you grow up. I don’t care if you drive a truck like I do, or if you become the president. Just remember that when you go over the mountain to work in the morning, you’ve got to be singing,’ ” Patterson went on. “Well, I am.”

My favorite thing about the article though is his understanding of what he does. In reference to one his recent novels that was a little rougher than some previous ones he said, “I like ‘The Swimsuit,’ ” he said. “It’s nasty, but I like it. But I think I went a little farther than I needed to. I’m going to tone it down for the paperback.”

Patterson noticed a look of surprise on my (the reporter’s) face; it’s not every day that an author decides to rewrite one of his books. “Look,” he said, “if you’re writing ‘Crime and Punishment’ or ‘Remembrance of Things Past,’ then you can sit back and go: ‘This is it, this is the book. This is high art. I’m the man, you’re not. The end.’ But I’m not the man, and this is not high art.”

James Patterson know what he does, and he does it well.

Side note – I grew up in a family of readers. Not everyone does. Helping your kids learn to love reading helps them in innumerable ways. If you didn’t grow up as a reader, don’t worry, you can still help your kids. Want some ideas how? Patterson has a great site with help. Check it out.

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