The 15 Highest Paid Authors of 2012 – What’s the Secret?

It’s the best of times and the worst of times. A great time to be a thriller writer, and a not-so-hot time to be a literary novelist. At least that’s the conclusion one draws in reading this article on the 15 highest paid authors of 2012. Taking aside luck, timing, and arguably talent, why are these 15 authors as successful as they are? What, as an author or aspiring one, can be gleaned from this “data” to guide one’s work toward saleability?

The authors chosen for this list, not listed in order of wealth are:

Rick Riordan
Ken Follet
Stephenie  Meyer
George R.R. Martin
J.K. Rowling
Dean Koontz
Suzanne Collins
Danielle Steel
Nora Roberts
Bill O’Reilly
Jeff Kinney
John Grisham
Janet Evanovich
Stephen King

What commonalities do these authors share? What trends in book consumerism can we discern? Here are those we found, and welcome insights from others.

1) These authors have nothing short of brand empires. All have film adaptations of some kind to their books. Some have product lines and Amazon Stores of their own. But most critically, they have armies of fangelists, each of whom knows exactly what they are getting when picking up the next book in the series, just as any consumer knows exactly what she’s getting from a well-marketed brand. These authors are more than authors, they are giants among content producers.

2) Books by these authors are largely series-driven. Fans come to care about the characters these authors have created, whose lives or adventures are so incredible that we literally cannot wait for the sequel. To maintain an engaged and active fan base, these authors must write prolifically, and most by a given “formula” that’s proven to work.

3) Almost all of the authors on this list have been in the game – for a while. They began their careers many years before the establishment and dominance of self-publishing. For those long ago discovered, they had already built audiences before the marketplace flooded with books. If they began writing today, would they have the same superstar careers?

4 ) Adding to point 3, readers, at the time most of these authors gained traction, weren’t bombarded with social media promotion the way they are now. There were few, not infinite, ways to get the word out about a book, which again points to the competition issue–too many loud voices on the megaphone. While a required tool for writers looking to gain a readership, it is also the canvas upon which we’re all competing fiercely for a look. Janet Evanovich and John Grisham never needed to care about their number of Twitter followers.

5) With small exception, most of these authors have written a lot within one popular genre — you know exactly which table to find their books at Barnes & Noble. There appears to be real value in consistency: once Stephenie Meyer captures a new fan, she’s not only sold her next book, but possibly the entire Twilight series. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that authors should think first about getting the right formula down, and then staying true to their readers’ expectations (and this applies across the board, from thrillers to diet books to business books to Emily Giffin). By this logic, only when you’ve reached bestselling success should you chance at something new, if you’d like to. For authors in becoming, it’s crucial to know who your readers are and what they care about, and sometimes this is different from what you most care about writing. Of course, enjoy what you do, and take risks…but understand you may lose readers if you depart too much from your signature style or story. Fortunately, blogs, articles written for third party sites, Twitter and all the virtual world can all inform you. Simply said, the viral world is your personal editor, and it will be as honest and blunt as your real editor.

A word of optimism for the literary writer: even if there’s no room on today’s top 15 list, trends change. Yesterday’s bullied computer nerd is everybody’s favorite superhero today. Don’t let your genre hold you back from trying. From the proven to be successful thriller formula, we can conclude that most readers want suspense, or reason to keep turning the pages; characters they’re invested in. As author Sarah Jio notes in a recent NYT article about her own career: “to take my writing to a deeper level, I’ve found that a better practice is to simply write what frightens you, haunts you, even.”

What other similarities do you see in this list? What can we take away from them?





Paul Jarvis

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