New Elections in France: Will the Business Environment Get Better?

Nicolas Sarkozy, the moderate-turned-conservative candidate for the French presidency, is up against Socialist Segolene Royal in the upcoming second round of elections. In the first round, Sarkozy captured 30 percent of the votes, defeating Royal who lagged behind Sarkozy by five percentage points.

I've been wondering what that means since the first round of elections on April 21. And after having just spent a whole week discussing business-building strategies with 28 smart entrepreneurs, I've been thinking about the effect the upcoming election will have on the French business environment.

I have an interest in France. Thirty years ago, I learned to speak French while teaching at a French University in Chad and playing with a French rugby team. I was married in French West Africa and spent my honeymoon in Normandy. In the past 30 years, K and I have traveled to France at least a dozen times on vacation, and I have been there two dozen times on business. I have a partner who lives in Paris, and, through my relationship with him, I am invested in several French businesses.

Sentimentally, I'm an advocate of France. Intellectually, I am appalled by how it runs its economy.

Of all the countries I have invested in all over the world, France has given me the worst return on my money. It hasn't been a return at all, to speak the truth. It's been a loss. In one venture alone my partners and I lost more than $8 million. In another venture, the loss is currently at $2 million or $3 million and mounting.

France is one of the most difficult countries in Europe to invest in. The business markets are old and tradition-bound and heavily regulated. Taxes are high. Bureaucracy is daunting. It is extremely complicated and expensive to start a new business and very difficult to keep an existing business going. So many forms to file. So many new rules to comply with.

And the cost of being an employer is almost prohibitive. First-time employees get five weeks of paid vacation every year, reimbursements for travel and lunch, and a very liberal number of sick days for just about any malady you can think of - including stress. One of our French employees became stressed out because his supervisor chastised him for not working hard. He stopped coming into work altogether and filed a complaint with the government ... which forced us to allow him to work as little as he pleased and pay him full-time for the bad job he was doing when he did show up at the office. The idea of a fair day's labor for a fair day's wage is passe in France.

The cost of keeping an employee in France is probably 50 percent higher than it would be in the United States, and the cost of firing one is even higher. The combination of perks, guarantees, and prohibitions is so daunting that most employers are very reluctant to hire people in the first place.

I have French friends who fled to the U.S. because they could not make their small businesses bloom in France.

So what was I thinking? Why did I ever put one nickel into France?

Well, it wasn't me. It was my partner. He's the culprit.

And why did he get us into France? The official reason was that he intended to include the French market in our company's growing readership. That would have been a good plan - if, that is, we had taken a ready-fire-aim approach to our business building there. But had we done that - had we begun by trying to find out if the market could work before we hired people, rented office space, and subjected ourselves to a thousand French regulations, we would have concluded, very early on, that the French market wasn't ready for us. We would have pulled back and rethought our position and come out again a year or two later when we had a genuinely different and better idea.

Instead, we persisted in following a business model that worked elsewhere, but not in France.

I think we persisted despite Mr. Market's telling us to go home because we had an ulterior motive. You see, we are in the business of telling people what to do - with their money and their time. Plying that trade in France was a temptation we couldn't resist.

Our hubris has cost us money - millions and millions of dollars. But, luckily, the company can afford it. And the fight isn't over yet.

With each passing year, we move slowly forward, inching our way through the bureaucracy by means of a handful of very hardworking French employees who have the same hope-against-hope aspirations for the French economy that we do. These are bright, earnest people who don't get tied up in "what should be" but rather focus on "what is."
France is a country of self-styled intellectuals. Writers, composers, philosophers, and scholars are given substantial coverage in the press, sometimes rock-star-level coverage, and their ideas are seriously debated by panels of TV and movie personalities who want to be seen as serious. This has always seemed to me to be to be the most pretentious and embarrassing aspect of French culture.

French people love nothing better than to argue over dinner about the three subjects we are told to avoid: religion, sex, and politics. In most bourgeois circles, the preferred political orientation is far left by U.S. standards, although in France such a perspective is seen simply as "correct."

To get back to Sarkozy, his win, by more than five percentage points in an election in which 84 percent of the adult population voted, is significant.

Some pundits are saying that his win is due to the economy. For more than 25 years, you see, things have been getting worse for France. Since the early 1980s, France fell from having one of the world's most robust economies to standing 17th on the list. The drop became steeper and faster in recent years as the country spent itself into record-high debt (the fastest growing public debt in Europe, according to The New York Times).

And if that weren't enough, the French have a serious problem with a growing population of marginally employed Arabs and North Africans that burden the country's huge welfare system and gnaw at the hand that is feeding them.

French voters "clearly marked their wish to go to the end of the debate between two ideas of the nation," Sarkozy said after the results were announced, "two projects for society, two value systems, two concepts of politics."

Sarkozy's value system favors cracking down on crime and freeing up regulations so that small businesses can grow. He says that he believes France will progress only if its people "work harder." He has promised to lower personal and corporate taxes, eliminate obstacles to job creation. That sounds sensible to me.

On the other hand, he vows to protect French corporations from foreign competition - which, in the long run, will be bad for the French economy. And he has recently taken strong stands against immigration, which has been interpreted in some circles as an attempt to capture some of the vote that Marie le Penn, a right wing candidate, gets every election.

It seems to be working. Some French - perhaps those who live in or near the blighted immigrant communities - are fed up with the idea that the French government is supporting an increasing number of foreigners who hate France and the French but are more than willing to live off its social support system.

Segolene Royal - the Socialist who came in a close second in the election, but who reportedly has little chance of actually becoming President - has a very different vision of how to fix things. She advocates "participatory democracy," reducing presidential powers, and the maintenance of France's general welfare system and strong state involvement in the economy.

I don't think it takes much to see that, for the most part, Socialist policies in Europe have failed. Socialism's fundamental idea - that redistributing capital assets (either periodically through coups and confiscation or regularly through confiscatory taxing) can equalize wealth over the long term - ignores some simple human facts. We aren't all equal in any regard: in ambition, intelligence, tenacity, or the willingness to work.

If working hard is a key component of wealth building, then Sarkozy is right. To reverse France's 25-year economic decline, it must get its citizens to work harder, not come up with new schemes that make it easier for them to work less.

Socialist promises are most attractive to those who don't, for whatever reason, work productively. A society that establishes policies and protocols that reward the low end of the production pole is one that is going to get the economy it deserves.

Nature rewards the smart, the quick, and the productive. When France does that too, its economy will thrive.

You don't have to ignore or penalize the disabled to have a robust society. There is plenty of capacity to take care of them. What an economy can't afford is a policy that treats criminals and loafers as disabled and encourages able-bodied working people to take as much as they can regardless of how little they contribute. That's what France has been doing to its people for some time. And that - more than anything else - is the cause of its so-called "immigration problem."

I will be interested to see what happens. The second round of elections will take place on May 6.

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posted by M. Masterson @ 4:31 PM, ,

The Well-Stocked Wine Cellar

In ETR #1997, I explained the basics of starting a new wine collection. Then, in ETR #2001, #2002, #2006, #2007, and #2008, I gave you a crash course in how to buy specific types of wine.

Now you need to develop some practical knowledge by sampling a wide variety of wines. This will help you put together a well-stocked collection - one that will offer you and your guests plenty of choices, while favoring the wines you prefer to drink.

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posted by M. Masterson @ 8:14 AM, ,

The Descending Standards of Airline Travel

Ever since the U.S. airline industry was deregulated, service has deteriorated. In the old days, standard travel included comfortable seats with adequate legroom, helpful stewardesses, and free food. Nowadays, you are crammed into a seat that should be outlawed by the ACLU, berated by shiftless and threatening flight attendants, and charged money for junk food you shouldn't be eating anyway.

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posted by M. Masterson @ 1:24 PM, ,

Getting on a Plane and Pining for the Old Days

Returning home after a tour of colleges with our youngest son, K and I boarded a flight going from Denver to Baltimore. Because we were among the last to get into the first-class cabin, the overhead space was already tight by the time we got to our seats. There wasn't enough room in the compartment for both my carry-on bag and K's - so, since I had seen the passenger who boarded just ahead of us put two bags overhead (which violates the limit by one), I asked if he'd mind stowing his smaller bag under the seat.

He was perfectly willing to oblige.

While I moved his bag out of the overhead compartment, a man sitting in the next row - a guy about my age (which is to say in his 50s) - said, "You better not move my bag."

I looked at him in disbelief. "I'm not touching your bag," I said to him, trying to restrain myself.

"You better not," he said.

I couldn't take it. "You are a jerk," I said.

He said something back.

I shook my head and went about fitting our luggage into the compartment, but he kept mumbling. I stared at him for the longest time, trying to convey without words that I would relish the opportunity to beat the living crap out of him.

There is something wrong with the world we live in. Laws that are written to protect the weak can be, and often are, used by arrogant people to be arrogant with impunity. This obnoxious loudmouth was a prime example. He was able to speak to me as he did only because he was confident that I wouldn't punish him physically for his rudeness. In another time and place, I could have - and would have - given him the treatment he asked for. And afterward, I would have felt very good about what I had done.

Instead, I had to force myself to calm down and ignore him. By telling myself that the universe will pay him back. By reminding myself that people who are disagreeable live disagreeable lives, even if they have the trappings of happiness and success.

This miserable schmo probably spends half his time fighting with people, and the other half gloating over his bad behavior. That is no way to live.

Still, I can't help but feel that a feint to the head followed by a quick takedown followed by a two-minute pound-down on his face would have been good for both of us.

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posted by M. Masterson @ 9:46 AM, ,

Making Our Lives Golden

I have always been a strong opponent of television. But, as I told you on Friday, K and I recently started watching it together. Just a little bit here and there, but enough to get me thinking about the way people spend their recreational time... and make me wonder if the kind of activities we engage in during our down time really make a difference.

On Friday, I pointed out that the more time you spend working, the more successful you're likely to be - but acknowledged that even the most ambitious and hardest workers need to take at least a few hours out of the day to do something that gives them pleasure. Something that isn't work.

The question then becomes, "What should that 'something' be?"

As I said, just about any activity we choose to do can fit into one of three categories. It can:
Think of the best choices - the ones that improve you - as Golden. Think of the neutral choices - the ones that just help you pass the time - as Vaporous. And think of the worst choices - the ones that hurt you - as Acidic.

It's up to you how much Gold, Vapor, and Acid you are going to have in your life.

When I think of my own choices - good, bad, and neutral - I notice that they have the following characteristics:

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posted by M. Masterson @ 2:18 PM, ,

The Choices We Have

Now that our last child is about to leave home, K and I are talking about getting television service. For about 20 years, we have been without TV. The idea was that our children would become better readers without the distraction - and that objective was achieved. All three of our boys are voracious and skillful readers.

So now, as empty nesters, we are thinking that it would be kind of fun to watch some shows together - to spend an hour after dinner, sitting next to one another, laughing at the same things.

To test this hypothesis, we jimmy-rigged an antenna connection for the set that used to play only DVDs, and we spent a few evenings watching it.

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posted by M. Masterson @ 8:10 AM, ,

How - and How Not - to Sell a Product

"You guys already know a lot about the academic program here at Colorado College," Max said. "So we can skip some of the routine stuff and get to know each other. You probably want to know about me. And I'd like to know something about you. So why don't you tell me something amazing that happened to you this year."

The college had appointed Max to lead an informational session with prospective students and their parents. "I wonder if they know how he is doing this," I thought.

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posted by M. Masterson @ 8:39 AM, ,

Get a Better Rate at Your Next Hotel

In ETR #2009, I described my distasteful experience with the Hotel Park City. They refused to give me the lower room rate I found published online, and even threatened me with cancellation penalties if I went to another hotel. Fortunately, most hotels are much more reasonable and will accommodate your request for the lower rate in such a situation.

Here are five additional tactics (recommended by Frommer’s Guidebook Series) you can use to save money when booking your next hotel:

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posted by M. Masterson @ 10:31 AM, ,

How to Read the Daily Newspapers

Do you read a newspaper in the morning? Be careful if you do.

Newspapers are designed to be engaging. And the best ones are successful at pulling you in and getting you emotionally involved. By making you care about the news, newspaper publishers gain your loyalty. In getting your loyalty, they boost their circulation levels. That raises their ad sales, which ups their profits.

You may feel that you are in charge of deciding what you care about and, therefore, what you read about. But behind every story, there are several smart and skilled people working to get you interested in it and make you care. Good newspaper writers and editors are like good advertising copywriters. They know their customers and how to push their emotional buttons.

If you read the newspaper naively - that is, with the notion that you are reading "news" - you are putting your emotional intelligence to work for somebody else. But if you are careful about your reading - if you read selectively and purposefully - then you can earn dividends on the time you invest in the newspaper every morning.

(Note: If you watch the news rather than read the news, all of this applies.)

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Reading today's New York Times passively (i.e., naively) creates the following experience:

I am upset by a photo of Arab men in Baghdad tearing an American flag to shreds. The mix of hate and glee in their faces scares me a little. I start thinking about my next trip to Paris, about how many Arabs I'll encounter there. I wonder if they will harbor this hate for me. I'm left with a swirling, emotional brew of fear and anger and despair - not a good way to fuel a day.

Reading an account of a family of Latino Americans on Long Island that were roused from their beds early in the morning by pack of shouting, gun-wielding federal agents looking for illegal immigrants, I am upset again. I imagine how those guys broke into the house, waving around their machine guns, breaking open doors, screaming at the little children, threatening to shoot. And for what? To arrest some illegal immigrant who came to America to work 60 hours a week doing work that other Americans on welfare find beneath their dignity? I think about how America is turning into a police state. And then I think about all the people who think this kind of tactic is good, who know so little about economics that they think these raids make any sense. Recognizing how ignorant most people are about how money works, I am exasperated.

Then, noticing a small story about a trial that continues for two cops who put 42 bullets into the body of an unarmed black man outside a Queens nightclub last November, I am upset again. I know lots of cops, and most of them are leery of using their guns. But each one of them knows someone - a stupid young buck, usually - who is dangerous. How can they not weed out guys like this from the force? Maybe because history has proven that, most of the time, bad cops can get away with murder. In this particular case, the defense is hoping to move the court venue away from Queens to get more whites on the jury. In 2000, four NYC police officers accused of shooting 42 bullets into another unarmed citizen, Amadou Diallo, were successful in moving the trial and were all acquitted of wrongdoing. I'm not happy reading this. I'm thinking about getting involved. But how?

Then I turn to a story on the Don Imus controversy. I never liked Imus, but I can't help feeling that he's not the bigot he's being portrayed as. He lost his television gig because he made a bad joke. It was degrading, yes. But it wasn't any more degrading - as he himself stupidly pointed out in his defense - than the lyrics that many rap stars use to praise both the black community and the liberal white community that supports politically correct speech. There is no question that black women in America don't get the respect they deserve, but going after Imus is an ineffective way of getting it.

I catch myself and think: "Why am I even wasting my energy worrying about Imus?" I don't listen to his show. And I don't care if he is executed by the political-correctness police.

All of these stories in my morning newspaper are upsetting. I haven't yet finished my coffee, and I am already in an emotional boil. None of the feelings I have is conducive to having a good day. I can't channel them into anything productive. As an American citizen, I am very much affected by the war in Iraq and the cultural shift away from personal freedom. But on a daily basis, there is no benefit in getting myself riled up about it.

"Screw it," I decide. "I'm not going to invest myself into these sorts of stories any more."

What should I do then? Cancel my subscription to The New York Times and subscribe to USA Today?

I could do that. USA Today is certainly more upbeat. But I don't want to give up the good stuff in the NYT. Instead, I will continue reading the NYT and The Wall Street Journal every day. But I'll read them actively and purposefully, not passively and naively.

For me, that means ignoring most of the news about war and crime and politics, and focusing on stories that are - or could be - useful to me.

When I say "useful," I mean useful in giving me information and ideas that can help me make better decisions and also give me stories that can energize and inspire me.

I see an article in the business section of the Times about American Home Mortgage, a Melville, NY-based lender of Alternative A mortgages (i.e., made to people whose credit ratings are good but not great) whose earnings are going down because they have to buy back and write down some of their loans. This is the first signal that the problem banks and investment firms are having with sub-prime loans is just the tip of the iceberg. I congratulate myself for getting out of the real estate market when I did - about a year ago - and remind myself that there will be big opportunities for me (and for you, if you have some cash ready) to invest in real estate when the second wave of the crash takes place in the next 6 to 18 months.

I spend two minutes reading a story in The Wall Street Journal about the emergence of a luxury car market in China and remember how awed I was by the wealth and immensity of Shanghai. The growth of China is not a temporary fad, I tell myself. In fact, the globalization of the world's economy is an inevitable trend. I'm glad that AGP is part of it. With the Internet linking us all together, the opportunity for international marketing will continue to grow. I spend a few moments thinking about other ways I can get involved in this trend.

I glance at the "Money & Investing" section of the Journal and am thankful that I am an entrepreneur and real estate investor. As such, I can put most of my risk capital into businesses and properties that I both understand and control. "Leave the fancy investing to those who have eight hours a day to get above-market returns," I tell myself.

I see that Bush is going to lengthen the tours of duty for soldiers in combat zones. But I'm not going to read the article, because I am sure there is nothing in it that I need to know - and there is certainly nothing I can do about it today. Every four years, I get to vote. That's enough for me.

In the NYT, there's a story about a man from Ghana that I probably shouldn't read but can't help myself. It seems he came to America to work and send money back to his family with the intention of bringing them over when he was financially able. Everything was going according to plan when his wife died in Africa. He redoubled his efforts to bring his children over and was making good progress when he discovered, through a new requirement - a DNA test of his children - that three of the four were sired by another man.

I review, very briefly, the physical characteristics of my own boys. I am quite sure each of them has at least one body part that resembles that of his father. "Enough is enough," I decide. Another half-hour spent, and nothing much from it except the conviction that I should continue looking for real estate and international business opportunities. The rest is turmoil. The papers go into the trash basket - except for the Arts section of the Times, which I will savor, as cultural entertainment, later on. I've invested 30 minutes in this roller-coaster ride. That is plenty. On to work!

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posted by M. Masterson @ 2:55 PM, ,

The Great Yellow Bike Experiment: Why Socialism, Even in Ideal Situations, Can't Work

While touring Colorado College with my youngest son, I heard a great story about a socialist experiment that illustrates something important about economics.

Several years ago, the school decided to encourage students to bicycle around campus. So they bought dozens of bikes, painted them yellow, and parked them all over the place for the free and unfettered use of any student who wanted to ride them.

The idea was that you could grab a yellow bicycle, ride it wherever you pleased, and then drop it on the ground and not worry about it. When you got out of a class, a bunch of yellow bikes would be lying around and you could grab one. Then you'd ride it to your next class and leave it there.

It was a great idea ... but it didn't work. What happened was this: In the beginning, all the bikes were the same. But after a few months, there were differences between one bike and another. If you had a good bike that wasn't banged up and had gears that worked well, you didn't want to give it up. And if you did give it up and then came out of class to find only junky bikes there, you were really disappointed.

Kids started hiding bikes, locking bikes, even fighting over bikes. And to make matters more complicated, they started branding them like cattle by putting decals on them.

It is hard to do away with the human instinct to differentiate products and attach value to them. It is harder still to tell someone that something he has can be taken away from him by anybody who wants it.

If you can't get people to agree to share bicycles when the "state" supplies loads of them for free, how can you expect them to cooperate with limited goods and resources whose costs must be paid?

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posted by M. Masterson @ 4:02 PM, ,

Losing Weight Slowly

Dr. Sears was in here the other day for a meeting. He took my body-fat measure. I was worried that I would make a poor showing since I'd only lost about three or four pounds in the weeks that have passed since I agreed to join him in his PACE program fat-loss challenge.]

As it turns out, I did pretty well. My body fat dropped from 29 percent to 22 percent. I accomplished that by watching my eating and working out really hard twice a day.

Dr. Sears did even better. He lost 14 pounds of total body weight (as opposed to my three to four pounds) and eight percentage points of body fat. But what's astonishing is that he did it without changing his diet and by exercising only a fraction of the time I did.

Naturally, I wanted to know what he had been doing.

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posted by M. Masterson @ 8:15 AM, ,

A Good Story From My Friend Alec

"I played full-court basketball until I was in my middle 40s. And, as my friend Michael Masterson has said about himself, I was better in my 40s than at any other time in my life.

"One day, around 16 years ago, I was playing full-court in one of the gyms I used to play in. The other guys were mostly in their 20s or early 30s, while I was in my 40s. I did not seek out this gym to play with younger men. I had played there for years. I kept getting older, but the other players' ages remained the same.

"This particular day, I was on the same team with a young man about 22 or 23 years old. I knew his father and had known him since he was maybe 15. He was a very good ballplayer. He played for his high school team.

"We played well together that day, and though there were three other players on our team it was his and my efforts that kept us undefeated. When it was all over, we were sitting on a curb outside the gym drinking Coke or water, which one I can't remember. We were going over our heroics - and in the course of the conversation, I told him that when he was my age he wouldn't be playing anymore. He said he would, and I again said that he wouldn't.

"Then he said 'Do ya wanna bet?' I said 'Yes' and bet him a dollar.

"I saw him maybe one or two more times since that day 16 years ago. Then last Saturday, while going through my mail, I saw an envelope from Portland, OR. I opened it and read 'You win' on a stick 'em note. It was stuck on a check made out to me for the sum of one dollar.

"How about that? The last honest man in North America. Sixteen years later."

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posted by M. Masterson @ 2:32 PM, ,

What If Everything You Believed About Investing Was Wrong?

That's the headline for an advertisement selling a book by Ken Fisher titled "The Only Three Questions That Count: Investing by Knowing What Others Don't."

Both the headline and the book title are good, don't you think?

Why? Because there they evoke curiosity - you want to know the answers. They work because they are relevant to the prospective customer for the book - an investor. And they promise a benefit: salvation from making mistakes. At a time when the financial markets are teetering, the implied promise is strong. ("Answer these three questions and you'll never again make the mistakes you've been making. Your portfolio will go up and up and up.")

After the "What if" question headline, there are three bullets:

Do you believe?

If you were intrigued by the "What if" question, you'd be captivated by those bullets because they run contrary to conventional wisdom. You'd think, "Yes ... I believe ... but I guess I shouldn't believe. What does this guy know that I don't?"

And then your eye would move to the only other copy in the ad - Fisher's credentials:

"Holy crap," you'd say. "How can I not listen to what this guy has to say?"

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posted by M. Masterson @ 3:47 PM, ,

The Power of Partnerships

A great way to get something done that you can't do yourself (for whatever reason) is to find a partner. There are usually five elements to any enterprise: time, talent, tenacity, ideas, and capital. Figure out what you have and what you are missing, and look for a partner or two who can supply the missing piece(s).

To produce my first movie, I had the idea and the time, and I figured I could hire the talent. But I didn't have the tenacity to push it forward. So I joined up with a protege of mine who had an interest in movies, and he did all the initial legwork - searching and locating the talent, setting up the auditions, renting the equipment, etc.

Lately I've been thinking of partnering up with someone to write a book. I have the time to write one book a year on my own, but I have at least three or four good ideas. So I'm thinking I can produce at least one more book a year by finding someone competent to be my co-writer. I haven't done it yet - but that's what James Patterson does. And according to USA Today, he produces more best-selling novels than anyone else, including guys like John Grisham. If he were a publishing company, the paper said, he would have been ranked fourth in 2006 for publishing the most best-sellers.

The partnership arrangement works well for both parties. For example, Patterson's most recent novel, Step on a Crack, was co-written by Michael Ledwidge. Ledwidge wrote three previous books on his own that sold a total of 20,000 copies. The first print run for Step on a Crack will be 1.25 million.

Ledwidge and Patterson met 10 years ago in New York City. Ledwidge was an aspiring writer, and Patterson helped him find an agent. When Patterson offered him the chance to work together last year, he jumped at it "at the speed of light."

The book has Patterson's regular ingredients: a sympathetic hero (Michael Bennet, who has 10 adopted kids with his wife, who is dying), a mysterious death, and short chapters. Patterson wrote a chapter-by-chapter outline and Ledwidge filled in the words. After fleshing out the chapters, he sent them to Patterson to edit.

At 41, Patterson became the youngest CEO in the history of J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency. By then, he had written five novels. He gets mixed reviews, being more popular with readers than with critics.

Patterson has a business, Patterson Entertainment, which has five full-time employees, including two at Little Brown (his publisher) whose job it is to create books, movies, video games, and TV series out of his ideas. He made about $28 million last year, and has set up a few charities to promote reading and writing.

Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post says that Patterson represents "the absolute pits, the lowest common denominator of cynically, skuzzy, assembly-line writing." Patterson admits that his books aren't War and Peace, and says, "You can't make everybody happy."

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posted by M. Masterson @ 8:15 AM, ,