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Whatever Works

How I Went From Ad Exec to Novelist

Whatever Works is a weekly column about working. In it we will feature a well-known person discussing a little-known aspect of his or her career, early working life or special project. Today's columnist is mystery writer James Patterson.

November 02, 1998|JAMES PATTERSON

At 46, with the real and attractive prospect of becoming CEO of J. Walter Thompson--one of the world's largest advertising agencies--looming before me, I decided to move on to a second career.

What I was doing--"second careering"--is probably a recurring daydream for many of you reading this column.

So here's what happened to this ship jumper.

For openers, I'm not really much of a dreamer, so I had begun to act on my second career years before I actually left my job at Thompson. I had always wanted to write novels, but I believed, rightly so, that it was a vain and foolhardy undertaking, fraught with unpleasantness, rejection, bitterness and with a high potential for poverty.

So, I practiced writing novels on the side, but I kept my day job.

I wrote fiction every single day, from 5 until 7 in the morning, and then I went to work. Interestingly, I believe it made me better at both jobs. I almost always went to the Thompson offices in a relatively celebratory mood, with the knowledge that I had accomplished something even before I got to work.

At that time, I also began to take stock of everything I have learned in advertising and marketing to see how it might apply to publishing. I discovered that the complaint of so many writers is absolutely true--far too many books are printed rather than published. Even huge bestsellers like "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Cold Mountain" are sometimes put out with small printings and have to catch on without much advertising and marketing support.

When it was time to publish "Along Came a Spider," the first of my Alex Cross novels, in 1993, I convinced the publisher--Little, Brown--to do its first television advertising commercial. Thank God it worked fairly well. The novel moved on to bestseller lists. The book is still selling tremendously well years later, and a movie is in pre-production at Paramount Studios.

During the marketing meetings for my next few novels, "Kiss the Girls" and "Cat & Mouse," I dared to talk with the publisher about "synergy" between book jacket, promotion, advertising, book tours and even foreign editions. Next came discussions of "the James Patterson brand." Everything I had learned at J. Walter Thompson was turning out to be valuable to me in this second career. Not the least of the skills I had developed was the ability to "speechify," which has served me well during my annual book tours.

Which brings me to early last month. I was invited to a large business meeting in an executive suite high over New York's Radio City Music Hall in the Time Life Building. It was the sort of momentous affair I used to attend several times a week when I was an executive at Thompson. At the meeting, I was shown marketing plans, promotions, a book jacket and an itinerary for this year's tour. I then presented four TV commercials that I had filmed the week before. At that point in the meeting, Larry Kirshbaum, chairman of Warner Books, stood up and announced that the first printing of my new novel, "When the Wind Blows," was a cool 1 million copies, the most for any hardcover novel in the history of Little, Brown or Warner.

And so I say to you: Dream on, look hard at that second career, practice for it, and if you know in your heart it's the right thing to do, jump ship.

James Patterson's latest thriller, "When the Wind Blows," is now in stores. Until this year, he was chairman of J. Walter Thompson/North America, which he joined in 1971 as a junior copy writer.

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