What You Can Learn from the World's Top-Selling Author

Last Updated Apr 7, 2009 1:02 PM EDT

No, it's not J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. The world's top-selling author by number of books sold is mystery writer James Patterson. It helps that he churns out three books a year.

According to this Guardian.com profile, Patterson works with seven or eight co-authors, each of whom has a strength to lend to a book. Patterson's role is to come up with a plot, and fine tune the contributions into a recognizable whole as the book rolls along the assembly line. His chapters are short, the plot strong, the narrative forceful. Using outside contributors and following a highly structured model allows Patterson to deliver a consistent, high quality product each time out, numerous times a year.

Patterson is not a great writer, but he is a great brand manager, even writing his own advertising copy and buying billboard space.

Harvard Business School marketing professor John Deighton admires Patterson's savvy. Deighton told HBS Working Knowledge:

"Patterson understands that if you want shelf space you need to publish a lot of books; that you need a production system with more than one author; and that you need to mind the brand."
It's an interesting lesson in the power of operations and marketing to produce a successful and repeatable product, even if what is delivered to the customer falls a little short of high art.
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.