An Author Looks Beyond Age Limits
Three years ago James Patterson, the creator of the blockbuster best-selling Alex Cross and “Women’s Murder Club” series, began “Maximum Ride,” a series for young adults about a group of genetically mutated kids who are part human, part bird. The idea, he said, was to get children to love reading — or at least to love reading his kind of books.
Of the three installments to date, there are about 4.8 million copies in print, according to the publisher, Little, Brown & Company. Despite the kind of numbers that would make most authors beam, Mr. Patterson — who has an estimated 150 million copies of his books in print worldwide, and whose adult novels typically outsell his young-adult titles by two or three to one — wants to sell more. A lot more.
Now, with a new volume, “Maximum Ride: The Final Warning,” going on sale next month, Mr. Patterson figures the best way to get young readers may be through their mothers.
“The reality is that women buy most books,” he said in a telephone interview. “The reality is that it’s easier, and a really good habit, to start to get parents when they walk into a bookstore to say, ‘You know, I should buy a book for my kid as well.’ ”
As a result, Little, Brown has asked booksellers to commit to keeping the new “Maximum Ride” book — along with “The Dangerous Days of Daniel X,” the first title in a new young-adult series, due out in July — at the front of their stores as long as Mr. Patterson’s adult titles usually stay there, in the hope of luring more adult buyers.
In the past, Mr. Patterson, who is accustomed to having his books dominate the eagerly sought display tables and shelves at the front of the store, felt that the “Maximum Ride” books (on which he works with a co-writer) were getting buried in the children’s section. The most recent book in the series, he complained, “was No. 2 in the country of all books when it came out, and then it had a tremendous drop-off because it just kind of disappeared.” (According to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, “Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports” sold 192,000 copies in hardcover, hardly a poor showing.)
In addition to wanting more young people to read the books, Mr. Patterson and Little, Brown maintain that more grown-ups would buy and read them, if only they could find them. According to market research conducted by Codex Group on behalf of Little, Brown, more than 60 percent of the readers of the “Maximum Ride” series are older than 35.
Publishers and booksellers have increasingly documented the popularity of young-adult titles among grown-ups. The Harry Potter books had as big a fan base among adults as they did among youngsters. Other titles by authors like Stephenie Meyer, who writes vampire romances, also for Little, Brown, and Philip Pullman, who wrote the “Dark Materials” fantasy trilogy, are snapped up by adults as well as young readers.
Hoping to capitalize on that trend as well as on Mr. Patterson’s existing reputation among adult readers, Little, Brown has altered the cover design of “The Final Warning” to appeal to a broader audience, emphasizing the book title rather than, as is common for books aimed at younger audiences, the series name.
And whereas the flap copy for the first three books named all the main characters and used exclamation points and short words, the new title’s flap copy employs a slightly more complex vocabulary and emphasizes the global warming theme at the center of the book.
On the back of both “The Final Warning” and “Daniel X” is a new marketing rubric defining each book as a “James Patterson Pageturner,” written “for readers from ten to a hundred and ten.” Reminding readers of the books’ young-adult roots, the pitch promises that “special care has been taken with the language and content.”
“The Final Warning” — which, like the other three titles in the “Maximum Ride” series, has an uncredited co-writer, Gabrielle Charbonnet — still bears the hallmarks of a novel aimed at juvenile audiences, with its irreverent teenage lingo and an action scene that hinges on one character’s flatulence.
In a typical passage, when Max, the 14-year-old narrator, is talking with Fang, her best friend and erstwhile boyfriend, he asks, “What do you want from me?” and Max is flustered. “I hated conversations like this,” she thinks, “hated talking about my feelings unless I was, like, furious. Then words came easily. But this mushy hearts-and-flowers stuff? Ugh.”
David Young, chairman and chief executive of Hachette Book Group USA, which owns Little, Brown, likens the books’ appeal to that of certain movies that cross age lines. “When you take kids out to see ‘Spider-Man,’ you don’t say, ‘I’m going to see a young-adult movie,’ ” Mr. Young said. “You go along and you’re entertained along with the rest of your family.”
Kim Yamaguchi, a stay-at-home mother in Palmdale, Calif., who reviewed “Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports” positively for Mothertalk, a blogging network (mother-talk.com), says she was surprised by how much she enjoyed the book. “He does a really great job of capturing your attention,” Ms. Yamaguchi said in an interview. “That’s great for kids, because if they don’t get their attention captured they’re not going to read.”
Ms. Yamaguchi said that she passed the book on to her 11-year-old daughter, and that they were both eagerly awaiting “The Final Warning.” Asked who was likely to read it first, she responded, “I will.”
Little, Brown has also asked booksellers to shelve hardcover editions of the new “Maximum Ride” title and “Daniel X” in the adult section. Six months after hardcover publication, it will release a paperback version for the young-adult sections of the bookstores, and six months after that a mass-market paperback edition for the adult shelves.
Booksellers have responded differently to the request. At Borders Group, Diane Mangan, the director for the children’s category, said that although the new “Maximum Ride” would be promoted heavily at the front of the store, it would ultimately remain in the young-adult section.
At Barnes & Noble, Bob Wietrak, a vice president for merchandising, said his chain would allow the “Maximum Ride” books to spend as much time at the front of the stores as one of Mr. Patterson’s adult titles would, and would shelve the hardcovers with the adult books, even though it has rarely done so for other juvenile titles, including the Harry Potter books.
Mr. Wietrak said he was willing to experiment. “If the sales grow and more readers are reading it, wonderful,” he said. “If we haven’t seen significant growth, then we would say, well, maybe only the young teenagers are still buying it and the adults didn’t want it.”
Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, said that if the promotion works for James Patterson, it could work for other young-adult authors. “I do like the idea of making books available to as many potential readers as possible,” he said.
Mr. Patterson said that if he simply wanted to make more money, he would have developed another adult series. “I just am convinced that there aren’t enough books like this — books that kids can pick up and go ‘Wow, that was terrific, I wouldn’t mind reading another book,’ ” he said of his “Maximum Ride” series. “The most important thing to me is that more kids read these.”