How James Patterson Went From Adman to Bestselling Mystery Novelist

And now he's out to conquer TV thrillers with Zoo

"Nobody tells you when you pay six figures for a lion for a couple days that, to perform, they have to eat a lot of meat. The problem is they eat so much they get lazy and stop being scary after a couple days, so then you have to bring in a second lion. Now we have one lion who's great at snarling and snapping and roaring, and another one that's great at running."

Bill Robinson, co-president of James Patterson Entertainment, is talking about Zoo, one of two projects it is currently working on for CBS. (Zoo premieres June 30, while For Justice, a mystery pilot set in Ohio, has not yet been ordered to series.) Along with fellow co-president Leopoldo Gout, Robinson runs all film and TV ventures with the superstar author (300 million-plus books in print) and former adman's name on them, including a TV series in development with Paramount based on one of Patterson's most popular characters, Alex Cross.

Patterson on the set of Zoo outside New Orleans

James Patterson's empire is a vast one, and the movies and TV shows based on his work are myriad. With the dual CBS series, the Alex Cross project and, a little further down the road, a film called Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, distributed by Lionsgate and produced by Participant Media, the Patterson brand is connected to a whole array of entertainment properties, stories and characters—including those lions, named Felix and Major.

Oh, and there are wolves, too. "The best part of casting animals is that when we cast the wolves, we cast the wolves from The Grey," Robinson reports. "They already had a credit. And a resume." (No wolves straight out of Juilliard for CBS!)

Zoo is not just a TV show but a multimedia extravaganza. It's also a novel and a comic book, all of its iterations riffing on Patterson's high concept: Every animal on earth goes crazy and turns on humans. It is not an apocalypse anybody has seen before, so it makes sense the suits at CBS would jump at it.

Zoo star James Wolk, whose earlier work includes Mad Men and The Crazy Ones

Patterson's career wasn't always paved with stars and wildlife. When he wrote his first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, he couldn't get arrested for it. As a 26-year-old, he wasn't exactly a slouch in his day job—already working his way up at J. Walter Thompson, the 150-year-old agency that counts among its clients Ford and Unilever. (By 1996, he had risen to CEO of JWT North America but was so successful as an author that he was able to move on to writing books full time.)

After Thomas Berryman was rejected 31 times, Little, Brown took a chance on the Southern-fried murder mystery, and it ended up selling about 10,000 copies—not exactly a smash, but not bad either.

Patterson chats with James Wolk.

Lovers of the genre took notice. "I get a call at Thompson, and it's this woman," recalls Patterson, now 68. "She goes, 'I'm with the Mystery Writers of America, and we're having our big dinner at the Commodore'—or wherever the hell it was—'and it's on Friday, and you know, you've been nominated.' And I said, 'Oh geez, I can't come.' And she says, 'Oh, you know, this is a big thing, all the famous mystery writers are going to be there.' And I go, 'I'm so sorry.' Then finally she goes, 'You have to come, you won.'"

He went.

Even as Patterson moved up the ranks at JWT, he not only continued spinning out his Hudson News-ready line of thrillers but was also, unsurprisingly, intimately involved in their marketing. Patterson's dealings with the marketing team at Little, Brown are legend. One such tale has him persuading the publisher to toss out the promotional plan it had developed for Patterson's Alex Cross books for what he saw as a superior one. It's not so much diva behavior as owing to the fact that the man has marketing in his blood.

It is a given that his book series are seen not as Pulitzer hopefuls but as product lines (in a profile earlier this year, Vanity Fair called Patterson "the Henry Ford of books"), including dozens upon dozens of stories he helps to outline before turning over to other writers to flesh out. It's a process he's taken knocks for—or, depending on one's bias, pioneered, given that others, including the late Tom Clancy, also followed the formula. Plenty charge Patterson with going for quantity over quality—not to mention ruling his staff with an iron fist. Adweek spoke with several people, both on and off the record, who have had dealings with Patterson over the years. Nobody used the word "humble."

The author defends his approach, particularly the use of multiple writers. "It's an interesting thing in that I don't think people get it," he says. He thinks of himself less a mass-market taskmaster as chief of an art studio that produces frescoes. "You go around to the cathedrals of Europe and you start looking around and realize there were 20 painters working on this," he says.

André Nemec, one of Zoo's writers and executive producers

It is something that comes naturally, considering his past life at JWT. "In advertising, obviously, it tends to be teams," he says. "People think it's, like, so strange, but it really isn't that strange. What I do is write a 60- to 80-page outline. I mean, last year I wrote two books by myself, and then over a thousand pages of outlines. And the outlines are a lot of the imaginative work. Not all of it, but a lot of it."

If that makes Patterson seem like a micromanager, it shouldn't. "He's not precious about his own material when it comes to transitioning it into a TV show," says Julie McNamara, evp, drama development, broadcast and cable programming at CBS. With Zoo, she adds, "He read every piece of material, every series outline, every script. He read. He provided feedback as he saw fit. So there was a point in the story where, without giving anything away, he felt that, no, you don't want your protagonist imprisoned during this section of the show—you want him out and active and solving the problem."

McNamara stresses that Patterson plays the part of convincer rather than dictator. He does not demand that something get done his way—he just tries to find a better way, if he can. "There was one notes call on For Justice where he was talking about a creepy scene on a dark and rainy night when something bad happened," McNamara says. "[Patterson] said, 'Try it on a bright, sunny day, when the family is out having a nice experience, and that will make it even scarier.' He didn't have approvals, he just provided really good insights."

For Christina Davis, evp, drama series development for CBS Entertainment, Zoo is just the latest effort in a summer programming strategy the network has been pushing for three seasons now. "With Under the Dome and Extant, we've decided to go with big, bold, noisy concepts," she says. "[Zoo] was No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list, so it has an inherent audience. We figured, who better to follow up Stephen King and Steven Spielberg with than James Patterson? That fan base is very important to us."

Brad Adgate, svp of research at Horizon Media, puts it another way: "CBS is more dependent on broadcast television for revenue than any of the other networks. They're smaller since they divested from Viacom—they don't own cable networks or theme parks. It's just not in the portfolio. If they can make money from these procedural dramas and sell them globally—and there's revenue to be made from that—why not continue to pursue that activity?"

The trick, Adgate says, is taking advantage of a surge in popularity around programming trends like serialized drama. It's paid off in the past. Beginning with Under the Dome, the network got into the serialized drama game in a way that made sense strategically, rather than filling up the schedule with cliffhanger-heavy big swings that mimic cable programming—as most of CBS' rivals have tried with varying success, notably ABC's popular Shondaland block. CBS is not exactly one to leap onto trends—its sitcoms have laugh tracks, its dramas mostly wrap up in an hour, and there are no dragons or Khaleesi to be found.

In general, that conservatism has less to do with CBS being blind to trends and more to do with it waiting to find the CBS-iest way to make them work. The network has its own subscription-based, over-the-top service after years of giving Hulu the side-eye, and that's the platform the net is using to introduce serialized drama. While the strategy worked well with Under the Dome, Extant didn't make quite the same splash. With Zoo, the network went back to the bookstore, and is expecting big things.

There's much at stake here for the Patterson brand as well. Alex Cross, originally set to star Idris Elba, switched its lead for a supposedly box office-friendlier Tyler Perry, but the film flopped. The author's last TV project, Women's Murder Club, in 2008, was canceled by ABC after just 13 episodes. There have been Hollywood successes over the years, notably the Morgan Freeman flicks Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, well-liked thrillers with solid theatrical grosses behind them. But it's been a while.

Patterson surveys the action on the set of CBS' Zoo.

Patterson calls Women's Murder Club "a painful experience." What went wrong? For one thing, the series didn't offer enough nail-biting moments, the author suggests, with ABC leaning too heavily on characters. "Now, off goes [Women's Murder Club star] Angie Harmon and she does Rizzoli and Isles [on TNT], which is very close to Women's Murder Club—and it's a huge hit. It's not a great show, but they do play by the rules of suspense."

So, Zoo will be suspenseful, come hell, high water or feral house cats, and it's going to be new and cool, Patterson promises. "It's going to play around the world," he says. "Not to compare it to Jurassic Park, but it has some of that really visual and very surprising storytelling. I've never watched or read a story like this one."

Patterson and CBS aren't alone in that confidence. Netflix dropped just south of $1 million per episode to put up Zoo quickly after the final episode of the season airs. Such serialized shows are exactly the sort of content streaming services are anxious to acquire to retain customers hooked on the latest gritty drama or sci-fi soap. The creators of Zoo see that as a good business opportunity. And Patterson is, above all, a businessman. It is a quality CBS likes. Network president and CEO Les Moonves included the freshman series in his opening remarks during an earnings call last August—the moment during such presentations when the network brass trots out their most ambitious projects—predicting that Zoo would be "immediately profitable for us."

Meanwhile, CBS hopes those Netflix viewers will become so hooked they'll seek the show out on broadcast as well. "The question is what impact [the Netflix sale] has on the linear television experience," notes Adgate. "Do people catch up on these shows online and then say, 'Wow, this is really good, so I'm going to watch it on CBS through the next season'? If it's something really good, they probably do."

James Patterson Entertainment co-president Robinson, a longtime Hollywood producer, offers that Zoo is a much less stressful project that the typical freshman TV outing. Having received a direct-to-series order from the network, enabling producers to skip the pilot phase, means a smoother process all the way around. "Whether it's sets or stages or wild animals, there are things that, in a pilot, you can blow a lot of money on, and then you have to sit around and wait to find out if you're green-lit," he explains. "Then when you're green-lit to series, you've got to rebuild and redo everything all over again."

And the best part for Robinson? "So far, no one's been eaten. Which is great."