Biography of James Patterson, Author and Producer

James Patterson sits in a blue leather chair onstage in Philadelphia to discuss his book,

Gilbert Carrasquillo / Getty Images

James Patterson (born March 22, 1947), perhaps best known as the writer of the Alex Cross detective series, ranks among the most prolific of contemporary American authors. He even holds the Guinness World Record for the number of New York Times number one best-selling novels sold and he was the first author to sell more than one million ebooks.

Fast Facts: James Patterson

  • Known For: Prolific and best-selling author with many works adapted to popular films
  • Born: March 22, 1947 in Newburgh, Newburgh, NY, U.S.
  • Parents: Isabelle and Charles Patterson
  • Education: Manhattan College, Vanderbilt University
  • Published Works: "Alex Cross" series, "Women's Murder Club" series, "Maximum Ride" series, "Michael Bennett" series, "Middle School" series, "I Funny" series
  • Awards and Honors: Edgar Award, BCA Mystery Guild's Thriller of the Year, International Thriller of the Year award, and Children's Choice Book Award for Author of the Year
  • Spouse: Susan Patterson
  • Children: Jack Patterson
  • Notable Quote: "There's no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books."

Early Life

Before Patterson headed off to college, his family moved to the Boston area, where he took a part-time night job at a mental hospital. The solitude of that job allowed him to develop an appetite for reading literature; he spent most of his salary on books. He lists “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a favorite. Patterson went on to graduate from Manhattan College and holds a masters’ degree in English literature from Vanderbilt University. 

In 1971, he went to work for the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, where he eventually became CEO. It was there that Patterson came up with the iconic phrase “Toys R Us Kid.” This advertising background is apparent in the marketing of his books, as Patterson supervises the design of book covers down to the last detail and was one of the first authors to orchestrate advertising his books on television. His techniques have even inspired a case study at Harvard Business School; “Marketing James Patterson” examines the effectiveness of the writer’s strategies.

Published Works and Style

Despite his widespread popularity—he’s sold some 300 million books—Patterson’s methods are not without controversy. He uses a group of co-authors, which allows him to publish his works at such an impressive rate. His critics, who include contemporary authors such as Stephen King, question whether Patterson is too focused on quantity at the expense of quality.

James Patterson's first novel, "The Thomas Berryman Number," was published in 1976, after being turned down by more than 30 publishers. Patterson told The New York Times that his first book compares favorably to his current works in one way:

“The sentences are superior to a lot of the stuff I write now, but the story isn’t as good.”

Despite its slow start, "The Thomas Berryman Number" won an Edgar Award for crime fiction that year.

Patterson makes no secret of his current use of co-authors, a group that includes Andrew Gross, Maxine Paetro, and Peter De Jong. He likens the approach to the collaborative efforts of Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein: Patterson says he writes an outline, which he sends to the co-author for refining, and the two collaborate throughout the writing process. He’s said that his strength lies in concocting plots, not in parsing individual sentences, which suggests he has refined (and perhaps improved) his writing technique since his first novel. 

Despite the criticism that his style is mechanical, Patterson has hit on a commercially successful formula. He’s written 20 novels featuring detective Alex Cross, including "Kiss the Girls" and "Along Came a Spider," 14 books in "The Women’s Murder Club" series, and the "Witch and Wizard" and "Daniel X" series.

Hollywood Blockbusters and Childhood Literacy

Given their broad commercial appeal, it's no surprise that several of Patterson's novels have been made into movies. Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman has played Alex Cross in adaptations of "Along Came a Spider" (2001) and "Kiss the Girls" (1997), which also starred Ashley Judd.​

In 2011, Patterson wrote an op-ed for CNN urging parents to become more involved in getting their kids to read. He discovered his son Jack wasn't an avid reader. When Jack turned 8, Patterson and his wife Susie made a deal with him. He could be excused from chores over summer vacation if he would read every day. Patterson later launched the child literacy initiative Read Kiddo Read, which offers advice for age-appropriate books for kids of various ages.