James Patterson’s Innovative Instinct

Jonathan Vatner
From the July/August 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In his acceptance speech for the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award in April, blockbuster novelist James Patterson stressed the need for the publishing industry to innovate. “Some people would say—to some extent rightly—that ‘publishing’ and ‘innovation’ don’t belong in the same sentence,” he said. “But book publishing…badly, badly needs to innovate.” With that spirit in mind, the author has launched his latest publishing venture: a series of short, lightning-paced novels called BookShots, available in both paperback and e-book formats, each under a hundred-fifty pages in length and priced below five dollars. Part of Patterson’s ongoing efforts to support literacy and reach new readers, BookShots are driven by muscular plots that the author hopes will appeal to people who are too pressed for time to read full-length novels, those more attuned to mobile devices and television, and existing fans of his personal brand of addictive, plot-driven stories. “We’re trying to take out parts that people skim,” says Bill Robinson, editorial director for BookShots at Little, Brown, Patterson’s longtime publisher. “It should feel like reading a movie.”

The first two books in the series hit stores in June: Cross Kill, the latest in Patterson’s immensely popular Alex Cross thriller series, and Zoo 2, cowritten by Patterson and Max DiLallo, about a fight for survival between humans and animals. Four more titles, including a Women’s Murder Club mystery, are slated for a July 5 release. Little, Brown aims to issue a total of thirty-six BookShots per year, including twelve BookShots Flames, a subcategory of romance novels. All titles in the lineup will be either written or cowritten by Patterson, except for those in the Flames series, which will be written by a handful of best-selling romance authors. Nonfiction BookShots tied to current events are also in the works, as are hardcover anthologies that will be made up of three or four BookShots bound in one collection.

According to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, 27 percent of adult Americans had not read a book within the past year. Considering that Patterson’s hundred-fifty-plus books have sold more than three hundred fifty million copies, the author may be uniquely qualified to awaken these dormant readers. To that end, Little, Brown will be advertising to commuters in venues such as train stations and subways. For now, BookShots are sharing shelf space with Patterson’s full-length novels, but the author hopes the pocket-size books will soon squeeze into places where books aren’t normally found, like the magazine racks along grocery-store checkout lines. And to make them even easier to buy, a dedicated BookShots app, also launched in June, allows readers to download the e-book or audiobook versions.

This focus on accessibility follows Patterson’s recent efforts to boost literacy in the United States. In May 2015 he launched JIMMY Patterson, a children’s book imprint of Little, Brown, whose profits are funneled entirely toward “turning kids into lifelong readers.” The imprint’s sales have provided hundreds of thousands of books to children in underprivileged areas, and have funded teacher scholarships, bookstores, and school libraries. Patterson also launched ReadKiddoRead.com, which offers book recommendations, lesson plans, and free book raffles to help parents and educators ignite a love of reading in children.

Patterson’s philanthropy has also extended to independent bookstores and communities throughout the country: The author donated $1 million in unrestricted grants to independent bookstores in the United States in 2014, allowing them to purchase bookmobiles, update their sound systems, or give employees a raise. In 2015 he handed out $250,000 in holiday bonuses to bookstore owners and employees who were nominated by colleagues and customers. He also awarded $1.75 million in grants to 467 school libraries so that they could buy books, improve their catalogue systems, and expand programming. Scholastic’s Reading Club matched that gift with Bonus Points, which can be used toward books and school supplies from the educational publisher. This year, Patterson is repeating the program with another $1.75 million, along with another matching gift by Scholastic.

“He’s shining a light on bookstores and libraries,” says Sabrina Benun, marketing manager for JIMMY Patterson and the author’s many charitable initiatives. “The coverage these gifts receive is able to raise awareness of the bigger problems: that school libraries are underfunded and people are not shopping enough at independent bookstores.”

In addition to the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award, Patterson also received the National Book Foundation’s 2015 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community last November. “We can’t solve a lot of the problems in the world,” Patterson said in his Los Angeles Times acceptance speech. “But [this] is a problem we can solve. We can get a huge number of kids in this country reading. We can do this.”

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the staff writer for Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology.