James Patterson hasn’t always written science fantasy or fantasy, apart from his recent young-adult series. But he’s radically changed the whole publishing industry, and especially the way that genre fiction is handled, over the past two decades. The New York Times has a fascinating look at “Patterson, Inc.”

As the Times notes, since 2006, one out of every 17 novels that were bought in the United States was written by Patterson, who has had 51 New York Times bestsellers. And the Times piece is a deep investigation of how Patterson, who has a background in advertising, helped to invent the “blockbuster” novel as we know it with his push for more aggressive promotion and sharper packaging of his incredibly prolific output. Including slick television ads and carefully crafted messages.

And it’s probably no coincidence that the mid-1990s, when Patterson started his push in earnest, was around the same time that you started to hear genre authors bemoan that there was no longer a place for the “midlist” author, the person whose books sold tens of thousands of copies rather than hundreds of thousands.

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The Times article gives a pretty good summary of how publishing has changed over the past few decades:

The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.

And there’s a telling quote from the former CEO of the Time Warner Book Group, Larry Kirshbaum, who says the publishing industry had always resisted “the thought that you could mass-merchandise authors,” until Patterson came along. Of course, other authors—like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling—had a lot to do with it as well. But it’s super interesting to get a window into the mindset that shaped the world we live in now.

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Edited to add: I didn’t realize the Times article was from 2010 at first, because it was linked to on SFSignal as if it were a new article. (I also did not catch that SFSignal’s linkpost was also linking to a new rant about the 2010 article at first. They appeared to be just one link, to the Times piece. My bad. Sorry about that.)

Image via NeoGAF. [via SFSignal and TeleRead]


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming Jan 26 from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.