I recently read the Forbes list of highest paid authors, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the earnings of some of our favourite authors, and by proxy, our reading habits.
A few things struck me about this list (which you can read below). First, it’s comprised of almost all American authors, apart from J.K Rowling and Paula Hawkins. Secondly, a lot of these authors have been around since I first learned to read; their longevity in itself deserves recognition. Thirdly, there’s a really decent spread of genre – from sci-fi to romance to young adult to crime.
The fourth thing that struck me about this list was the huge gulf between James Patterson’s earnings as number one highest paid author and the next richest (Jeff Kinney). Around $70 million worth of a gulf. Apparently, 1 in every 17 hardback novels sold bears Patterson’s name, and he has sold more books than anyone else since 2001.
The article I was reading mentioned in passing that James Patterson has a ‘team of co-authors’. It turns out he has 23 of them. Never having even picked up one of his books, I knew nothing of this. I was gobsmacked. He has, in effect, a factory of writers who by the end of 2016 will have churned out 34 books this year alone.
Apparently, he’s very hands on with the co-writing process. He writes a very detailed plot outline and gives the authors a lot of feedback as they write each chapter. He coaches them on the characters, the villain and the pacing (see author Mark Sullivan’s article What I Learned from James Patterson). He steers the ship, so to speak, and they shovel the coal.
He’s not coy about this at all – he calls his books ‘commercial fiction’ and differentiates them from ‘really serious literature’. ‘We are in the business of entertainment, not edification or enlightenment’, Patterson has said.
My first reaction was one of utter horror; I thought of all the authors that I know, and the millions of others that I don’t, trying to get their break. Surely this is not what publishing is all about? I was cross. It didn’t seem fair, or ‘in the spirit’ of the thing.
Then on reflection I thought, if he’s providing goods that people choose to buy in their millions, he’s obviously doing something right. He’s not being devious about it, his co-authors are delighted to work with him, and readers obviously love his products. (Although Stephen King is apparently not a fan, calling Patterson ‘a terrible writer’).
He is without doubt a marketing genius. His latest venture is BookShots – books that are cheap, plot driven and can be read in a single sitting. (‘Pulse-pounding thrillers under $5 and 150 pages or less’). His target audience is those who’ve abandoned reading for TV and social media.
Patterson himself has said: ‘I don’t like it when you get people who say, ‘Well, I haven’t read his books but I hate him’. It’s a fair point. So I intend to see what all the fuss is about. Australian author Candice Fox recently paired up with James Patterson to produce Never Never (‘It’s easy to go missing in the middle of nowhere’). I figured this would be a good place to start so I’ve requested a copy from my library.
I’ll let you know how I get on….
If you’ve read any James Patterson would you warn me off, or encourage me down this path? What do you think about his approach to writing books?
Any thoughts on the Forbes list below? It looks like this:
James Patterson – earned $95m. Patterson’s debut novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, was published in 1976.
J.K Rowling – earned $19m. Yet, only 1,000 copies were printed for the first run of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
John Grisham – earned $18.5m. The Firm stayed on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 47 weeks in ’91. I quite enjoyed it at the time.
Danielle Steel – earned $15m. First published in 1973, Steel has written 99 novels and 18 children’s books. She’s gonna crack the 100-milestone for sure.
E.L James – earned $14m. ‘Does this mean you’re going to make love to me tonight, Christian?’.
Paula Hawkins – $10m. I haven’t read it, but Girl on the Train if often referenced in the same sentence as Gone Girl. Is this fair?
Dan Brown – $9.5m. I actually saw someone reading The Da Vinci Code on the train last week. I was genuinely surprised that 13 years after its publication date, people are still reading it. Should I be?