Just before merging into the convention floor, James Patterson, world's best-selling author, looks up at the hockey-rink sized banners hanging above the entryway to the BookExpo America 2014.
Dangled by their publishers from the ceiling of New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center are the likes of Jodi Picoult, David Mitchell, even Lena Dunham and James Frey. At the country's biggest book show, this is the big-time promotional stuff, the author's name and forthcoming work emblazoned on a Paul Bunyan bedsheet, letting all of the less-selling writers see how clearly it is that one big book begets another. Sometimes there is even a picture. Of an author.
But what of Patterson, the crime fiction and, more recently, young adult writer who's got two new titles coming out June 23, the man whose name adorns the covers of no fewer than eight books currently occupying the scant few bookshelves of a Hudson News at John F. Kennedy Airport?
"Where the hell am I?" asks Patterson. "Where's my stuff?"
Patterson is kidding. Mostly, the author, whose first career was as a top-level ad man, says he is excited to see the publishing industry starting to look a little more like the rest of ad-soaked America.
"Why should Comic Con be a big deal and this isn't?" he asks, happy that the BEA is now reaching out to the public, too, with a day billed as "BookCon," at which regular people can come walk the show floor.
"Somebody was talking about, 'We're all book nerds.' That's too limiting. No, we're not all book nerds. It's more, Everybody's welcome. Yes, nerds are welcome. Yes, kids are more than welcome. Parents. Everybody. Nobody should be excluded."
And why, he wonders, are most newspapers devoting less and less space to books, while movies — all movies — get the royal treatment. "I've said this before," Patterson says. "There's 'Son of Chucky 6,' and every paper has a review of it? Why?"
And while there may not be a giant poster for him this year, Patterson's publisher since forever, Little, Brown, treats him well, and he treats Little, Brown very, very well, with more than 300 million books sold in a career that renders the word "prolific" inadequate. This weekend, at the Printers Row Lit Fest, he'll accept the Chicago Tribune's 2014 Chicago Tribune Young Adult Literary Award for his multifaceted efforts to inspire young readers.
"Little, Brown has always been a real good publisher," he says. Most of his books, these days, are written with co-authors. "I love the fact that they do a lot of serious books, and they do commercial. I really love being open to all sorts of things. They listen to me within reason. I really do have a fair amount of say on most of the things."
As he says this, he is walking, provocatively, toward the big floor display of one of the rivals to Little, Brown's parent, Hachette.
"Let's go to Simon & Schuster. That's always fun when we go to one of the big ones," says Patterson, who wears his 67 years seemingly as easily as his fame in the publishing world. "They're like, 'Oh, what are you doing here?' At one point they made an offer (to sign him). I didn't take it."
A walk with Patterson on the BEA floor is equal parts discourse on the state of publishing; serial acceptance of sincere warm thanks for his work on behalf of independent bookstores; and victory lap of the conqueror.
He gets recognized quite a bit, but not in the way that Anjelica Huston, passing by to sign copies of her autobiography, is recognized.
"Hi, how are you?" Patterson says to the actress. "Love your work."
It's a level of fame that he says suits him well: "It used to be — when there were more bookstores — that if I needed my ego to be stroked, I could always walk in, 'Hi, I'm James Patterson.' That would work."
But you don't get the sense he needs much ego stroking these days. Personal compliments he deflects with easy self-deprecation.
"Are you James Patterson?" asks Ruth Cardello, an independent romance author.
"Why?" Patterson asks. "Does he owe you money?"
She says she is hoping to take a photo with him.
"OK," he says. "I'm past the romance phase, but ..."
Another woman, approaching him, says, "I live in Ossining, and I'm your biggest fan. Even my doctor likes your books."
"Even your doctor. Alright," replies Patterson. "How's your health?"
But talk to him about the book world generally or the $1 million he is giving this year to independent book stores specifically, and he engages much more directly.
"Can I just say hello and shake your hand?" says Charlotte Ward, whose badge identifies her as a children's librarian in Bellport, N.Y. "Thank you. Everything you've written. Love it all."
"You know, I write kids' books now," says Patterson. Part of his effort to promote children's literacy — inspired, in part, by trying to figure out how to excite his now-teenage son about reading — includes several series of young adult titles.
"That's what I'm gonna tell you," Ward says. "I love Read Kiddo Read. Just love it, love it, love it." Read Kiddo Read is another aspect of Patterson's literacy work, a website that identifies scores of books that he thinks will really "turn kids on" to reading.
"That's nice to hear, because it's a lot of work to get (the site) up," Patterson says. "You can't read a thousand books. We do a nice job of not reviewing, but just giving enough information about the book."
"Exactly," Ward says. "Just enough so that when the mother says, 'What do I give them?' ... I can't believe I got to meet you. I've been reading your books since 'Roses Are Red.'"
It's not long before a bookstore owner stops him. "I'm Terry Gilman from Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore (in San Diego, Calif.), and I received a grant in the first wave," she says, referring to the independent bookstore donations Patterson has been making. (A new round of recipients was announced at BEA, including Magic Tree Bookstore in Oak Park.)
"I'm not going to continue to reiterate how wonderful what I think you're doing is," she says.
"Oh, please do," says Patterson.
Gilman, though, is determined to tell him about "an unexpected and wonderful byproduct" of the grant: media attention, including her manager appearing on public radio and public TV to discuss the award.
"That's part of it," Patterson says. "It's something for the press to talk about. Excellent. Wonderful."
As we move away from Gilman, Patterson returns to self-deprecation: "They're all plants, Steve," he says.
And here comes another one. Robert Sindelar, a managing partner of Third Place Books, stops Patterson as he walks and says, "Hi, I have a bookstore in Seattle. Thanks for everything you're doing. We appreciate it."
Patterson is instantly curious, this conversation coming on the heels of Amazon limiting customers' access to titles from his publisher, Hachette, during pricing negotiations.
"Tell me about, insofar as you're comfortable: You've got a bookstore in Seattle. You've got Amazon there," the author says.
Sindelar says that he is "probably more comfortable" than most in the book world with Amazon, especially considering how big a part of his area's economy the company is. "Amazon employees shop at our stores," he says.
"And why is that?" Patterson asks wryly. "Not happy with the product?"
"They like what everybody else likes about independent bookstores," says Sindelar. "They want to come in and just run into serendipity."
"I think it's interesting that people from Amazon go in there to be with books," Patterson says. "All right."
Sindelar says that because Amazon was delaying shipments of some Hachette titles for up to several weeks due to the dispute, his shop is considering a promotion that would take the Web retailer's place by personally delivering books to customers who want to receive books on the day of their release.
"I was just looking at what's coming up," he says. "The new Robert Galbraith, it comes out on June 19th. So we're going to say, 'Pre-order them from us now, and we'll drive around, deliver them on the on-sale date.'"
"June 23," Patterson interrupts. "Two James Patterson books."
"June 23? Alright, we'll do that, too," Sindelar says.
"That," Patterson says, "is cool."
Steve Johnson is a Tribune features reporter. Read more about James Patterson's efforts to encourage children's literacy at printersrowjournal.com.