Is James Patterson’s New Imprint the Second Coming of Pulp Fiction?

This is how the world's best-selling novelist sells more books.

Since March, we’ve heard about a forthcoming publishing venture from James Patterson, the best-selling novelist of the age. “To date,” writes the New York Times, “[Patterson] has published 156 books that have sold more than 325 million copies worldwide.” Or, rather, he relies on a stable of more than twenty co-authors to churn out his novels in what appears to be a tightly orchestrated Fordist scheme. BookShots, his new imprint with Hachette, will accelerate this output by producing short, plot-heavy, “cinematic” novellas. No fewer than twenty-three of these “shots” will be sprayed on readers throughout the remainder of 2016. And the spraying began last Monday.

According to the New Yorker, each “BookShot” will run between twenty-five to thirty thousand words (around 150 pages), and, as the imprint’s site explains, each will feature recurring “characters,” including “favorites like Alex Cross, Michael Bennett, and the Women’s Murder Club.” For now, the novellas will come as either romances or thrillers. And, in keeping with the imprint’s ethos — “Read Anywhere, Anytime” (was this a problem before?) — they will be available in print and by way of a stand-alone phone app.

For its part, the Times has already gushed about the imprint. In the March piece, it generously compared BookShots “to the dime novels and pulp fiction magazines that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, when commercial fiction was widely available in drugstores”:

The category seems ripe for a modern-day revival. Many readers have already developed a taste for shorter digital works. BookShots is like an analog version of digital publishing programs like Amazon’s Kindle Singles, Byliner, The Atavist or Nook Snaps, Barnes & Noble’s experiment with shorter digital content. Publishers and writers have tried to engage fickle readers with bite-size digital fiction in various ways, from unbundling short stories and selling them for 99 cents apiece, to serializing novels as short, plot driven e-books.

The issue is that no publisher has successfully ported this model to print. Hachette is banking “that Mr. Patterson is famous enough to overcome those obstacles.”

From the vantage of readers and writers, BookShots reveals the novel’s (and broader publishing’s) anxiety about both time and other media. Patterson’s insistence is that we no longer read because we don’t have enough time. (Another motto of the imprint: “Fast reads for fast times.”) To this end, Patterson disparages literary work that takes time to develop characters (as if all novels can be categorized by degree of character development). “We have this convention of the novel that you have to know everything about the frigging characters,” Patterson told the New Yorker. “Like: What? You know, a lot of people don’t know their spouses that well.”

In this respect, Patterson’s BookShots is in keeping with trends in authorship. Over the course of the last several years, the descriptive literary modernism that Patterson dislikes has (at least in part) given way to a TV-damaged style, one that privileges Dickensian coincidence and episodic plotting. And the “team writing” of novels is now a common and acceptable fact of literary publishing. The urge for automation — or at least ways of cutting back on the time required to produce a book — is self-evident.

What bothers me about BookShots is Patterson’s insistence that it’s a matter of literacy and readership. “My hope is that it increases the habit of reading,” he told the New Yorker. “We have this country of nincompoops now.” Does Patterson want to produce garbage books for what he presumes are garbage minds? Of course not. At the end of the interview he hints at his true aspiration: a world where one in ten people are drunk on BookShots. “You go to Sweden, and they have books that sell a million copies there. Gas stations sell books. It’s good for people.”