What James Patterson and Michelangelo Have in Common (Not in a Good Way)

Michelangelo looking contemplative

It all started when I visited the National Gallery in London. I took the art tour with a curator, who diligently explained what all those famous paintings were about. When we came to a rather room-engulfing Michelangelo, the curator explained that only the sketch was done by the master himself. All the detail painting was done by his studio of apprentices and students.

Apparently, the Renaissance artist functioned more as a modern day advertising agency, providing all sorts of custom services to the patrons. Want a marble statue? He can do that? How about a mural in your foyer? No problem. Leonardo da Vinci advertised no fewer than 60 services he could provide.

So that famous work of art with the equally famous signature might have been composed by underpaid grunts hoping to break into the big leagues.

Then we shoot forward five-hundred years to brand name publishing and James Patterson. Just like Michelangelo, the author has saturated the market. Last year he made $84 million, twice his nearest competitor and more than J K Rowling or Stephen King. He released, on average, a book every two months. Last year is was ten books.

Patterson admits that he runs his publishing empire on the Henry Ford model, assembly-line style. He provides ghost writers with a detailed outline and lets them do all the heavy lifting. Then he reads through the finished manuscript, edits it, and collects the check.

Patterson claims that he is more skilled at writing a plot than the crafting of sentence after sentence. Excuse me, but isn’t that what writing is about? The writing?

Now, it’s true that the ghost writers do get credit on the book, far more than Michelangelo gave them. Yet in the art world, the Renaissance artists were only starting to gain reputations as individuals. Most were simply skilled artisans employed by guilds. Only two-hundred years before Giotto was the first to become a household name.

In this age of Internet and personal celebrity, individual artistic work should be rewarded. Yes, there’s no human way any author can churn out that much fiction. But why dominate the cover with your name when you’re only the idea man? The answer, of course, is money. The publishers make more off of brand-name authors than unknowns. And readers don’t seem to care.

It’s a pity. I know that when I pick up a Stephen King or a J K Rowling, I want to read their words on the page. It’s in the trenches of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters that the true novel is written.

Just today, my critique group questioned the direction my novel was going. I stood back and had a serious look at the chapters I’d written. Yes. It did need to change. The outline I had diligently put together had to be thrown out and reworked. Yet I was only fifty pages into the work. I could fix that.

Somehow, given the schedule pushed by the large publishers, I doubt that the edits made by James Patterson are ever major enough to cause a complete rewrite of the story. If the story sticks to the original outline, then it gets published.

I simply cringe. I mean I know that thrillers are churned off at a fast pace to satisfy avid readers, but I’d much rather wait for one or two quality books by an author than have eight or ten a year. If I need more to read, I can strike out and find a new writer.

It’s not like fast book production can’t be done. Chet Cunningham writes three to four books a year, and he needs a magnifying glass to see the words on the screen. He once told me a wrote a 50,000 page book in a week.

I guess is goes back to that old adage: You’ll never find me selling out, until someone offers. Perhaps if I had the opportunity to pull down $84 million, I’d wrangle some ghostwriters. But until then, let me write the words, thank you.

Tim Kane

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13 comments on “What James Patterson and Michelangelo Have in Common (Not in a Good Way)

  1. Amirh says:

    I liked reading JP’s books until I read that they were churned out by others, factory-style. I don’t know, but that info interfered with my reading pleasure, knowing that he doesn’t do the “heavy lifting.” [Sigh]

    • I got to thinking about the plotting versus writing thing. It reminds me of pitching to agents at conferences. Yeah, they always love the ideas. But anyone can work up a decent idea and plot line. It’s the months of writing and making the plot come alive that’s the real talent part.

  2. Tim, where did you get your information? If it’s true, it’s shocking and sad. Just for the record, I highly doubt that King and Rowling use ghostwriters. It’s only my opinion, but I’m sticking to it. Interesting post.

  3. never knew this was the case [but i havent read a JP for years]. its disappointing that this is happening without real clarity – and by that i’d want to see it stated on the cover. ie: from the studio of james patterson. but i guess you have a point – integrity often has a price.

  4. Saw an interesting interview about owning original art, against copied art or fraudulent art, the value of a piece drops when the buyer no longer believes it to be the authentic piece. Its like owning gold, instead of fake gold I think. The provenance is as important as the piece, because it is through that, that the artist solely communicates. So a piece of art is a dialogue between the viewer and the creator. That is authentic. That is why this guys books won’t be read by people like me, who love to read, but read the writers thoughts, impressions, experiences of what it is to be human, one on one. It is the difference between making love with a beloved, and copulating. ( so vulgar I know. Such alot of what we are about can be brought down to that!)

  5. Rick Gleason says:

    Thank you for this revealing expose on James Patterson, whose name by-the-way also appears in the newest Guiness Book of World Records (it probably has for a while).

    I’ve been aware of this ghostwriting phenomenon for some time and when I see a second author’s name on the book cover, I never buy it. I wasn’t aware however how Patterson has turned his enterprise into an assembly line process, but I guess that explains all those dollars.

    A shame it is that the draw of money has become more important than the art itself. I don’t have an issue with all the millions Patterson has ‘earned.” But really, how much is enough?

    Your refernce to Rowling and King as good examples was not lost on me.

  6. jessiebincr says:

    I had NO idea that Patterson used ghostwriters. Of course, I think I’ve only read maybe one or two of his books…that should say something, that I don’t even remember how many, because a well-loved book is always re-read multiple times.

    I’m a ghost-writer, and I am actually feeling very conflicted right about now. I take the gigs because I need the money, and then I have no time to write for myself…all the while, knowing that if I did write more for myself, I might be able to quit letting other people take credit for my own work. I hate it, and don’t know how to break this vicious cycle.

    Thanks for the post, it really gave me a lot of food for thought!

  7. […] I read on a blog I subscribe to that James Patterson, the gazillion-copy-selling thriller author, relies on a team of […]

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