Let’s kick this off with one comment from a writer – a fairly successful and well-respected one. As H.L. Mencken said: “No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” And if you needed proof, here it is: The 2014 Forbes list of the World’s Top-Earning Authors.

“The top-earning authors list is perhaps the world’s most exclusive book club, with very few paths to entry,” writes Forbes staffer Natalie Robehmed. Oops, silly me: There was I thinking the Nobel Prize in Literature was perhaps just a tad more exclusive? But then, it’s only worth $1.12 million – and in a candy-ass Eurotrash currency like Swedish kroner too. Clearly not the same league.

“To form the list of highest-earning authors, we look at print, ebook and audiobook sales from Nielsen BookScan figures, consider TV and movie earnings and talk to authors, agents, publishers and other expert,” Forbes explains. “Earnings are tabulated from June 2013 to June 2014 and are pretax; other fees are not deducted.”

And want to know the really smart part? You don’t even need to write the books yourselves to bank those bucks. As Forbes shamelessly admits:

Take the No. 1 ranked author James Patterson, who published his first book in 1976 and made an estimated $90 million before taxes and fees between June 2013 and June 2014. Patterson produces at an astonishing rate, churning out 14 books a year with the help of coauthors, making him publishing’s busiest (and richest) penman. The author of the Alex Cross and Michael Bennett series, Patterson has sold more than 300 million copies since his 1976 debut and pulled in an estimated $700 million in the last decade. This year, he earned $62 million more than second ranked Dan Brown.

Co-authors are people who actually write the words for you. They do the hard work of stringing sentences together, and all you have to do is add your name-brand name to the front cover, and woohoo, it’s another $62 million in the bank. Maybe you should employ some of those hard-pressed UK authors who only earn an average $18,834 per annum to do that for you.

Interesting, that, because I don’t think Forbes gives too many awards for scientists who openly claim credit for other people’s research, or for marketers who intentionally deceive the public by passing off counterfeit goods. But in the world of big-bucks bestsellerdom, apparently it’s all good.

And why is this shit? Because, dear readers, those “authors” and their marketing cohorts are cynically taking a dump on you by fobbing you off with what is not theirs. And you swallow it. Well, enjoy.

I wouldn’t want to tar all of the writers on this list with that brush. There may be many here of real quality who genuinely deserve their success. But I also wouldn’t want to whitewash any of the undeserving.

And at the end of the day, no matter what the value or authenticity of the actual product between the covers, many of the suckers (oops, sorry … readers) will be just buying the success. Because there’s few buzzes to match the feel-good factor of a lush rich cover and that vicarious participation in big bankrolling. It’s almost as much of a rush as crack. And about as damaging to your brain.


  1. Paul, how dare you call some of the authors that Spock, in one of the funniest lines in one of the Star Trek movie series, called “The Greats.” Hundreds of years from now, when every record of those co-authors has faded away, James Paterson could rank with Shakespeare. Thousand will learn antique English just to read him in the original. They will be amazed that he was so prolific. Historians and sociologist will quote his tales as descriptive of day-to-day life in the early twenty-first century.

    Of course, like you, I doubt that. I looked through the list and there were only a couple that I’ve read with enjoyment. The rest I regard as a plague on writing.

    That said, I do think there are particular kinds of bad writing that lead to success. The hint lies in a different media, the two most lucrative movies in the first half of the last century. They were:

    1. The Birth of a Nation. Who are the heroes of this pioneering silent film? Why the riders of the Ku Klux Klan. The nation had been wrong, it taught, when after the Civil War it demanded equal rights for former slaves. Rebirth could only come when the North realized, as indeed it did, the error of its ways.

    2. Over twenty years later, Gone with the Wind finally unseated Birth as the most lucrative film. Again, racism was connected with a pioneering film, this one involving Technicolor. It’s theme so disgusts me, I’ve never been able to endure watching it, but it’s the counterpart to The Birth of a Nation. Birth portrayed the bad that resulted when black people were free. Gone is about what a rip-storting good time everyone had under slavery, including the slaves chopping cotton under a blazing sun. Yes, people once believed that bosh.

    In short, if you want to get filthy rich as a writer, appeal to the prejudices of your readers. Spot currently fashionable bigotries and stereotypes and play to them. Build entire stories around them. In literature, some of the traditional categories are romanticism and realism. This is an additional category for this writing, although I’m not sure what to call, although raunchy certainly fits many of them.

    Why is that so? One reason is that people with lots of time to read tend to be people who’re not doing much with their lives but read. Having dull lives with little contact with a broader world, a couple of generations back they thought that black people were like those they read and see in books and films like Birth and Gone. Now they have other prejudices.

    Recently, I must admit, I read most of of a book by a writer like these, although I think he’s only modestly successful. To say that he used excess violence is an understatement. The theme is terrorism in Europe. People aren’t simply shot, they’re shot in the face at pointblank range. Yes, like I said raunchy.

    But what finally disgusted me was the utter stupidity of his plot. This supposed terrorist mastermind would shack up with a woman in a city like Amsterdam, apparently to make himself a bit less visible than by staying in a hotel. That allowed for a little hot sex too. More raunch.

    But when it came time to leave, what did he do? He killed these women, sending a very clearly visible message to the authorities across Europe that he’d been there. He was no mastermind. He was a master idiot, and all the fans of such books were also idiots for not seeing that.

    Of course, in all that, this killer was fitting the stereotype of all these readers, fulfilling what they must imagine in their hum-drum lives what a terrorist would be like. Myself, I found the book so disgusting, I deliberately quit reading it just as it was about to reach its climax. This guy wasn’t going to string me along with his improbable plot. That said, he is successful. He’s got about three feet of shelf space at my local library. Write badly. Get rich.

    If there’s a reader of this who’s a bit short of cash, he or she might want to research just why these awful books do so well and publish it as a how-to manual. The rules are obvious. Appeal to popular bigotries. Be technically inaccurate but always in ways that lay people think is accurate. Remember, your readers are bored. Feed their fantasies. Never challenge them to get off their rumps and do something with their lives. If they did, you’d lose your readers.

    Perhaps, with the market glutted with dreadful write-alike books, these writers won’t be quite as rich.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride (a novel but very true to life)

  2. In the case of co-written books, they vary as to how much impute and writing the famous name does. Whatever the amount, the unknown writer becomes known, they make a great deal of money, and they have a leg up on their own career.

    According to the article on Patterson at Wikepedia, he outlines the plot and characters, and the other writer puts the words on the page. So, no harm, no foul, and readers don’t seem to mind since these books do well.

    Patterson works very hard, he puts a great deal of money into charities including ones that get kids to read, and he seems to be a decent person, so get over yourself, Paul.

  3. None of the 35 authors made it to my A list; in fact, none made it to my B list. C list, maybe but a C – at best and the odds of my picking up and reading one of their books are slim to none.

    I will not say all the books are shit – I’ll save that for self-publishing – because most are simply out of scope in my reading interests and I’d never even sample the samples. I just don’t do YA, series, or EXCITING action.

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