TO MAINTAIN HIS frenetic pace of production, Patterson now uses co-authors for nearly all of his books. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course. This kind of collaboration is second nature to Patterson from his advertising days, and it’s certainly common in other creative industries, including television. But writing a novel is not the same thing as coming up with jokes for David Letterman or plotting an episode of “24.” Books, at least in their traditional conception, are the product of one person’s imagination and sensibility, rendered in a singular, unreproducible style and voice. Some novelists have tried using co-authors, usually with limited success. Certainly none have taken collaboration to the level Patterson has, with his five regular co-authors, each one specializing in a different Patterson series or genre. “Duke Ellington said, ‘I need an orchestra, otherwise I wouldn’t know how my music sounds,’ ” Pietsch told me when I asked him about Patterson’s use of collaborators. “Jim created a process and a team that can help him hear how his music sounds.”
The idea of the author as the lonely genius is very powerful in our culture, but there’s no reason to be so attached to this. Sole authorship is no prerequisite for ancient classics. There are debates as to whether Homer is actually a composite of various poets, but there is no scholarly dispute as to the fact that the production of the the Bible was due to multiple individuals, often operating independently and with different visions. This is not to say that James Patterson’s works aren’t schlock (I’ve never read them myself, but my genre tastes are nerdier). Rather, there’s no reason that workmanlike collaborative writing process necessarily entail lowest-common denominator fiction. The main issue today is probably that the more people you have to pay, the fewer risks you would want to take, as the costs are going to be higher and you want to make your money back. But the film industry has a huge range of budgets and production values. With the rise of e-books I assume that the publishing industry will exhibit even more long tail distributions.