Sunday, July 11, 2004
Is James Patterson Laughing At Us?
A very flattering photo of James Patterson from Marathon.com, obviously scanned from the back cover of one of his many popular books.
Jim Patterson has had not one, but two, astonishingly successful careers. I hope he doesn't mind me calling him Jim, because even though we weren't friends, we both worked at the same ad agency, albeit in different cities. He was an important cog in NY. I was not so important in Chicago. And back then, he was Jim.
The Jim Patterson I knew, before he became the storytelling and book sales marketing phenomenon known as James Patterson, was one of the most powerful ad guys in America -- at the top of his game -- overseeing global creative efforts for J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest ad agencies in the world.
Even as his first two major hits, Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, took off into the stratosphere with obscenely successful book sales, he continued at JWT. Getting up early to write his novels. Then going to work to supervise some of J. Walter's best advertising efforts. All the time continuing to win awards, year after year.
The few times I was in meetings with him, on his infrequent trips to our office, his hair was always mussed. Like he'd fallen asleep in the cab coming from the airport. And he had a professorial look, slightly disheveled, in a business that prides itself on quirky, yet carefully turned out fashion statements. Mostly he always seemed to have other things on his mind. Apparently so.
Finally when sales for his books hit so big he didn't need no stinking advertising career anymore, he left JWT, married, moved, and had a child. Maybe even two by now. And became the toast of an absurdly successful second career as the novelist James Patterson.
Good for him.
So why do I think he's laughing at us?
He's obviously a great writer. And clearly, he has worked hard to master his craft. He has a very compelling style that keeps you hanging on every page for fear if you stop reading you might fall off.
But there are hundreds of good writers published all the time. And none of them is selling nearly as many books. The difference is that James Patterson, with Jim Patterson's help, has figured out how to make a lot of money writing and selling his. Mwwaahahahahahah!
His first laugh probably came when he cracked the code for the detective genre. That's probably the first time James Patterson, the novelist, called on Jim Patterson, the ad guy, to share his knowledge of marketing to pull it off.
Detective Alex Cross was a brilliant creation, a unique protagonist. He answered the question -- what is it about this character that will set him apart from all other detectives in the genre? The Big Idea, to borrow an ad cliche. His Raisin d'Etre, to use one of J. Walter Thompson's own phrases.
Alex Cross, unexpectedly, is African-American. How many minority heroes are represented in this type of fiction? Written by a white guy. Nice touch. Most lead characters seem like wishful extensions of the author. [There's a laugh.] But Alex Cross is also not an overworked, black version of a crusty, overweight white detective, either.
Alex Cross has his doctorate. He's tall and lean, soft spoken and full of angst. And about 180 degrees this side of Elmo Leonard's hardboiled cops.
Alex Cross was also tailormade for the new, more "politically correct and anxious to prove it" Hollywood. In my opinion, Jim Patterson began the marketing of James Patterson's detective books starting with his lead character. Mwaaahahahahahahha!!
The cynic in me can't help but assume that James Patterson is laughing at us in another way. He named his Alex Cross books with familiar phrases and names from children's nursery rhymes. Kiss the Girls, Here Comes a Spider, Four Blind mice, etc. An affectation that almost seems to mock other detective writers who have used colors and numbers to link their titles. [Oops, Patterson is doing that too with his Women's Detective Club series].
Which brings me to another point in all this laughter. The yes-he's-very-clever-and-hugely-successful-BUT portion of my humble essay. Which is -- What's with those embarrassing commercials he's doing?
Why is this smart, sophisticated, and erudite man, who knows how to make really good advertising and write successful books, doing some of the lamest commercials onTV? They make ME laugh.
Are book sales so soft that he has to shill like Ron Popeil to get people out to the stores?
Or is it the opposite -- that TV sells so many books it doesn't matter what kind of advertisng you do -- just do some and watch the money roll in.
Someone must have told him he had an open-faced honesty that would be appealing to his fanbase on TV. I'm thinking females 18 to 84. But he ought to fire whoever gave him that idea.
At first, you might think that he could pull off that kind of folksy, easy going, Charles Kuralt-ish warmth from looking at his picture. He's kind of like that in person. But something has happened between his warm and fuzzy photograph and the moment he opens his mouth. Which isn't pretty.
He looks like a placeholder on camera. The guy that's sitting in for James Patterson until the real James Patterson arrives. The guy they're using to check the lighting. And the sound levels.
Whoever this is can't possibly be James Patterson. He's just not right for the part. Why?
Because the commercials are so amateurish. In my opinon, they're just not up to the standards Jim Patterson set for himself and the rest of the JWT agency creatives, when he was the top creative guy at J. Walter.
In one spot, he admonishes women to buy his latest book, a love story, for their boyfriends. He goes on to say if the guys don't like it they don't have a romantic bone in their bodies. There's something about an author selling his wares so hard. It just feels unseemly.
As Albert of Albert's World of Artsy Fun commented to me so eloquently, "WTF?"
Patterson even did a second spot for the same book. In this one he says this new book is a three hankie read. Maybe four. Or was it six? Oh, the pandering.
On the other hand, maybe he WANTS us to laugh at what he's doing. Perhaps the commercials are supposed to be tongue in cheek. And he's just teasing us. Kidding around. If so, the spots are a take off that doesn't quite take off. Gotta be his delivery.
What is that old saying -- a lawyer is his own worst client. How about an ad guy is his own worst advertiser.
In his favor, I understand that he singlehandedly invented the concept of marketing books with TV advertising. Once again Jim Patterson is helping James Patterson. He's using commercials to go straight to the readers -- particularly the Amazon.com crowd that tends to skip the bookstores and The New York Times Book Review.
I also hear he may be paying for the ads himself, as well as writing and producing them. If so, that should give you an idea of how much money he's raking in.
At the same time, he has to know how lame he seems in his commercials. Zero style points. But I'm sure he would not keep doing them if they weren't getting folks to buy his books.
Sh-h-h. Be still. If you listen carefully, you can hear his laughter.
All the way to the bank.