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Recently, Publishers Weekly identified the top 15 highest-paid authors. Be warned: your jealousy will grow by leaps and bounds.
Writers and authors – there can be a difference – often dream of big contracts and fat royalty checks. The reality, of course, is something a bit different. No one knows actual percentages, of course, but rest assured that the vast majority of even published authors only make enough each year to, for example, buy half interest in a leaky canoe.
The folks on the following list make enough to buy a yacht. Or five.
Here, then, are the top 15 (in ascending order), based on earnings for 2011:
Rick Riordan – $13 million
Percy Jackson books and Kane Chronicles
Ken Follett – $14 million
“Pillars of the Earth”
Stephenie Meyer – $14 million
George R.R. Martin – $15 million
Song of Ice and Fire series
J.K. Rowling – $17 million
The Harry Potter series
Dean Koontz – $19 million
Suzanne Collins – $20 million
“The Hunger Games”
Danielle Steel – $23 million
Nora Roberts – $23 million
Bill O’Reilly – $24 million
“Killing Lincoln,” “Killing Kennedy” due in October
Jeff Kinney – $25 million
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”
John Grisham – $26 million
Legal thrillers, other novels
Janet Evanovich – $33 million
Stephen King – $39 million
James Patterson – $94 million
As an aside, it took me a week to be able to come back and begin typing this paragraph. I was coming off a few days of hyperventilating. After reading the above numbers, I sounded like Lou Costello at a horror convention.
I understand these writers are gifted, but how do you make $94 million from writing books? No wonder Patterson’s publisher can afford to splatter the airwaves with ads. No wonder new talents like Meyer generate lavish book launches.
If your face now looks like the green, green grass of home, take heart. The good news for you is that all these writers once started with not enough money to go half on a leaky canoe. It wasn’t as if Henry Holt & Co. called up a 22-year-old Stephen King and said, “Where do you want the Brink’s trucks to park, son – on your lawn or in the driveway?”
I’m totally making this up, but let’s imagine Koontz, sitting by a fire at Aspen. He is looking out over the ski slopes, and he’s just slept in. Now breakfast has arrived on a luxurious dining cart. He needs to ring the accountant later in the day, perhaps after a nap.
You, on the other hand, can’t get your car started, and it’s early January. In Chicago. A foot from Lake Michigan. The store manager yells at you and you feel like crying, even though you are 38 years old. Your second-hand computer crashed last night, as you were typing the last paragraph of your masterpiece. Sadly, your Carbonite subscription lapsed after your credit card was denied.
What do you do? As a writer, I mean.
Do you suck your thumb and try to remember the name of that spell-casting witch in Cicero? You met her once at the Field Museum during the Arachnophobia exhibit. You think she might be able to turn Nora Roberts into a toadstool and that would make you feel better for five minutes.
Point is, you can lament what you don’t have – and, a close second, what someone else has! – or you can go about creating your bottle full of lightning.
You know that you have the ability to be a (handsomely) paid writer. At least, that’s what your writing coach at the weekly sessions tells you over coffee.
The biggest obstacle you’ll have to overcome is setting an agenda, a plan/goal, and mustering the discipline to pull it off.
Consider this: You are a terrific researcher, and more than a few people tell you the writing reminds them of a young, hungry Carl Bernstein. What project should you devote the next year to, including querying agents and publishers?
We know there have been 37, 312 books written about Barack Obama. Okay, maybe it’s closer to 29,000 and change, but we’re close.
How about your break-out project as a book about Barack Obama?
Notice anything wrong? Yes, I do, too.
Legions of squealing writers follow the writing herd, and then go off the cliff to oblivion. Why?
Sameness. It is the bane of writers.
A nice young girl from Hartford, Conn., gets an idea for a series based on vampire armadillos, and voila, a year later everyone and his brother is rushing to publish about blood-crazed highway fiends, but guess what? The chick from Hartford is cashing checks so fast her bank starts to get suspicious. Meanwhile, the market is glutted with campy, mediocre “thrillers” about vampire armadillos.
You see, your goal should be to strive to be that next author who says, “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”
In other words, don’t resolve to do a book on Barack Obama.
Write a book about Michelle Obama! Wow, how many of those have been done, and done well? You could resolve to research the First Lady so thoroughly, she’d think you’d known her since pre-school.
Don’t follow others, and don’t ruminate over what they have and what you don’t have. Blaze new trails, and put your energies into making whatever list you want to make.
Only then will you be able to focus not on who made the richest list, but on seeing your name on it.