James Patterson™, perennial mainstay of the best-seller lists, just renewed his deal with Hachette’s Little, Brown for his next 17 books. That’s right: his next 17 books. That commits the former advertising exec to the publisher until 2012, for 11 more adult books plus six books for younger readers. That’s actually a slackening of his current publishing pace. By year’s end, Patterson will have published a whopping 22 books in the last three years alone. (Many people I know haven’t read that many books in that time.)

But Patterson, of course, is more than just a proverbial book factory. He’s an actual book factory, typically using credited co-authors to compose “first drafts” from elaborate outlines that he sends (as he detailed in a 2006 Time profile). Like Patterson himself, most of his collaborators have a background in advertising: There’s Richard DiLallo on the Alex Cross thrillers, Michael Ledwidge on the Michael Bennett thrillers and the Daniel X young-adult series, Maxine Paetro on the Women’s Murder Club mysteries, and Howard Roughan on various standalone thrillers. And while there is no co-author listed on the cover of the popular Maximum Ride YA series, about a group of kids who are part bird and part human, the copyright on those books is listed not as “James Patterson” (as it is on most of his titles) but the cryptic “SueJack, Inc.”

It’s an impressive commercial operation. The question is, can James Patterson™ be considered a prolific author in the way we regard Joyce Carol Oates (nine books in the last three years, by my count) or Alexander McCall Smith (ten books in three years)? Or is he more like Carolyn Keene or Franklin W. Dixon, the credited “authors” of the comparably well-branded Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery series? Are you still a writer if you subcontract out much of the actual, you know, writing?