From copywriter to best-selling author - Café Writer
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From copywriter to best-selling author

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Not only is James Patterson a best-selling author, he’s been the best-selling author on the planet since 2001. Yes, more of his books have sold than J.K. Rowling’s.

One out of every 26 hardcover fiction books sold in the U.S. in 2013 was written by James Patterson. He’s produced over 130 separate novels. His income last year was $90 million.

Patterson got his start as a junior copywriter at the venerable J. Walter Thompson agency. While that experience isn’t the main reason for his success by any means, there are nine things Patterson does that can help us with our copywriting businesses:

1. He has a system.

He creates outlines for each book where he sketches the action in detail, instead of writing the book itself from scratch. Some detractors call it “paint by number,” but it saves him time and it allows him to churn out books, or as he calls it, “crafting.”

Lesson: The more you can systematize your copywriting projects, the more projects you can take on, while still injecting your own creativity into each one.

2. He has an “Idea Folder.”

Where have you heard this before? Be an Idea Generator, even more than a copywriter, and you’ll never lack for work.

3. He takes an unorthodox approach to promoting his books.

Patterson advertised his first book, Along Came a Spider, on television in 1993, unheard of in those days.

Lesson: Consider marketing your own copywriting services in a different way than the masses.

4. He’s built a strong personal brand.

Enough said.

5. He publishes multiple titles per year.

This was a radical approach until Patterson came along and suggested it to his publisher, Little, Brown.

As copywriters, we often focus on quality over quantity. It’s certainly important to deliver good quality copy, but why not do both? Why not crank up your production?

Yes, you can double your rates…or you can find more efficient ways to deliver a lot more good copy and double your income that way.

6. He’s branched out into new niches.

Rather than relying on his mainstay of adult thrillers, Patterson branched out into young adult and children’s novels. He produces a dozen new titles a year for this audience, and they’re selling like crazy.

Lesson: Don’t limit yourself to one niche. If you can write copy in one niche, you can probably write copy in many areas.

7. He does more research than most authors.

It’s a lesson Patterson learned working as a copywriter on Madison Avenue.

“I know who my readers are and how to engage them, how to scare them, how to get people to feel for the characters, how to make my readers laugh,” says Patterson.

Lesson: More research, greater connection with readers, more of them taking action (in his case, buying more of his books).

8. He has a formula.

His books have lots of periods in the paragraphs, lots of paragraphs per page, and very few pages per chapter.

Each chapter begins with a quick reminder of people and events in the prior one, and most books end with a bonus preview chapter of another book.

Lesson: Like Patterson’s outline system, do you have a formula that works to speed up your writing process?

9. He writes every day.

Seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Obvious lesson: Not just practice, but productivity. What are you producing on a daily basis that someone is paying you for?

Summary

Take Patterson’s processes and apply them to your copywriting business. You’ll write faster, come up with more ideas, and be a more prolific (and probably better paid) copywriter.

And if you ever get tired of that? Start writing some novels on the side.

I’d like to know two things. Do you have a writing process for your copywriting projects, and do you have aspirations to write a novel?

Let me know here.

Steve Roller

Author Steve Roller

I'm a business coach, author, copywriter, world traveler (32 countries on five continents so far), and professional speaker. In addition to helping companies get more customers and make more money, I help other writers turn Big Ideas into profitable businesses. I offer one-on-one coaching, professional copy critiques, and three-day business-building immersion retreats. When I'm not writing, coaching, or speaking, I enjoy nothing more than hanging out with my wife and four kids and planning my next adventure.

More posts by Steve Roller

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Ryan Healy says:

    Great article, Steve. I knew Patterson started as an advertising copywriter, so in Sep/Oct I read Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls to see what Patterson’s style is like. Always inspirational to learn about copywriters who transition into other more lucrative careers. Thanks!

    • Steve Roller says:

      Thanks, Ryan. I get inspired by famous guys who started out as copywriters, too. I hope to use my copywriting skills to do even bigger things down the road myself.

  • Lesley Renwick says:

    Loved this post Steve. As a huge James Patterson fan I’m usually the first in the queue for his next book. Don’t think I’ve missed one yet, even his C&YA books.

    Another thing that James Patterson does to help his productivity is to leverage his reputation by co-working with other talented authors (e.g. Maxine Paetro, Michael Ledwidge). These ‘joint ventures’ help his productivity because there must be some share workloads and delegation going on. So partnering with people you can trust and rely on for quality and delivery is a business development possibility – will still need a systematic approach though.

    I’ve actually written my first novel – I’ve shown it to a couple of people for feedback but I haven’t got over that hurdle of putting it ‘out there’

  • Orane Ennis says:

    I didn’t know Patterson was a copywriter before but now that I do, it all makes sense.

    I was reading one of his books last night and I noticed certain elements of brilliant copy in there. Simple words, short sentences, a slippery slide that pulls you in and takes you all the way down.

    It’s pretty good and a great reminder about how truly useful it is to have good copywriting skills.

    I don’t have a book in mind but I do want to write a screenplay. More on that later.

    Thanks again for another great article, Steve. 🙂

  • Great post Steve!

    To answer your questions, I am not sure I have an exact process with my copywriting projects because every project and client is different, but I guess I always start out by asking questions from my clients and getting as much information about the product or service, the demographics or a buyer, and many other factors.

    Then I do my research and get in the writing vein.

    In regards to the question about writing a novel, yes, I do have an aspiration to write one. In fact, I have already begun jotting down notes and an outline for it.

  • I have no copywriting projects yet…except my own to-do list to get me to a place where I WILL have projects (I mean those that pay).

    I do have aspirations to write a novel, have been (also have been studying THOSE ‘masters’ via Writer’s Digest and various workshops and conferences, etc.), in fact. Also spent some long hours doing NANOWRIMO last November.

    In fact, Steve, someone in CC once called a fiction writer “a copywriter gone straight”. I was left to wonder…I started as a fiction writer…am I now CROOKED?? (Perhaps but it has nothing to do with THIS!).

    Yes, I have a system for my novels. Used to be I’d write “start-to-finish” and let the story go ‘somewhere’, having no idea what the ultimate story was to begin with (let alone characters). They usually ended up hitting a wall. Since studying fiction ‘masters’, I’ve taken to outlining a little more, sketching out characters (though not completely), and find that it does NOT take away from the creative aspect – so much of that is in the outlining process, but it also allows me to write more freely because I know the story and the people in it.

    I also have an idea folder. (Even for copywriting.) I have another novel waiting in the wings which generated itself out of my exploring the possibilities of my current one. That idea is in the idea folder. Along with some others…

    And I love research. Which can be a problem when I’m pouring over everything I can find about America in the 1940s and I read (and take notes) and read (and take notes) and read and read and…forget that I’ve found the information I was looking for so I need to stop reading!! 😉

    So I’m coming at this copywriting thing all backwards…In through the out door (not the Led Zeppelin version). Maybe that’s the problem. I’m a fiction writer gone crooked!!

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