James Patterson is mad at the New York Times. Specifically, this author of more than 260 New York Times bestselling books is mad at the New York Times bestseller list. On March 29, Patterson posted to Twitter a letter that he says the newspaper refused to print. Perhaps the most striking thing about this missive is the text alignment he chose: Does JPat center the text of every letter he sends? A word to the wise: This is a good way to come across as a bit unhinged.
The second most striking thing about the letter is Patterson’s beef with the Times. He insists that his new book, Walk the Blue Line: No Right, No Left―Just Cops Telling Their True Stories to James Patterson (written with Matt Eversmann), outsold all but 3 of the other 14 titles on the Times’ hardcover nonfiction bestseller list in the week of March 26, 2023, yet Walk the Blue Line was ranked only at No. 6. Outraged, Patterson calls for the Times to stop “cooking the books” when it comes to the nation’s most prestigious bestseller list.
Patterson does have a point. The New York Times bestseller lists (there are more than a dozen of them) are the product of a lot of math, but also a good deal of art. Contrary to what many people seem to think, there is no practical way to count all the copies of any book that have sold in a given week—not from every bookstore and airport, and especially not from drugstores, gift shops, mail-order companies, Amazon, big-box retailers, book clubs, etc. The service that publishers consider the most reliable source for such data, NPD BookScan, often shows major discrepancies with the New York Times’ list, but by the company’s own admission, BookScan only tracks 85 percent of print sales in the U.S. BookScan numbers were what convinced Patterson his book had been given short shrift; the Times, in reply, apparently told Patterson what they have long insisted: that such “raw” data is not sufficient.
The most contentious issue in calculating a book’s sales figure is bulk sales. Authors for whom writing is a sideline—business executives, self-help gurus, and politicians—often arrange for their books to be bought by the box, then given away at speaking engagements as a write-off, or otherwise distributed to supporters. By artificially juicing their sales, they can claim the status of “New York Times bestselling author” to further promote their brands. In order to prevent authors from gaming the system in this way, the Times uses a top-secret formula that is rumored to be heavily weighted toward sales of single copies in independent bookstores. According to the newspaper, it has a full-time staff of three devoted to arriving at a list that they believe represents what real readers are actually buying. Nevertheless, ringers do squeeze through: In 2017, an author named Lani Sarem paid a company to successfully land her debut novel on the newspaper’s YA bestseller list for a single week.
Nobody, however, suspects Patterson or his publisher of doing anything fishy to make Walk the Blue Line a bestseller. Patterson has more than amply proven his ability to write books that lots and lots of people want to buy and read—400 million of them by a recent count. So why get so salty about the fact that his latest is ranked at No. 6 instead of No. 3? As I pointed out in a review of Patterson’s recent autobiography, the author “is keenly aware of the disdain heaped on his work, and he seems to feel every slight.” He writes boilerplate thrillers that snoots love to look down on, and his practice of hiring co-authors seems crass to anyone who reveres novels as the works of a unique, individual talent. But I have a theory about why this particular slight rankles Patterson so much.
Publishers Weekly magazine has declared Patterson the bestselling author of the preceding 17 years. Yet in the same magazine’s list of the 150 bestselling books since 2004, not a single title out of Patterson’s hundreds of books appears. Patterson sells boatloads of books; he just hasn’t sold boatloads of any particular book. He makes up for the difference in volume.
While Patterson likes to pass himself off as a regular Joe who lucked into a fabulous career “telling stories,” he is in truth fiercely ambitious and competitive. (Once, back in 2009, Stephen King dismissed Patterson as a “terrible writer,” and Patterson will never, ever forget it, going so far as to attempt to publish a novella titled The Murder of Stephen King in 2016 before being dissuaded by King’s representatives.) I suspect Patterson can’t help but be nettled by the fact that for all his dozens of bestsellers, no single one of them has had the iconic staying power of, say, The Stand or The Hunger Games. Granted, Walk the Blue Line really doesn’t seem like the kind of title likely to break that streak, but for a superstar author feeling insecure about his legacy, every notch on the nation’s most esteemed bestseller list counts—a lot.