“The world’s 11 highest-paid authors sold 24.5 million print books combined in the U.S. during our scoring period, logging $283 million. The prolific James Patterson takes first place, earning $86 million and selling 4.8 million books in the U.S. alone, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks 85% of the domestic print market.” – Hayley C. Cuccinello, Forbes
Most authors pay little to no attention to this list. We don’t expect or aspire to be on it because we don’t need that kind of money, don’t want to be public figures, write because it’s what inspires us and drives us, and really don’t want to be busy picking out red leaf lettuce in Kroger when somebody comes up and says, “Hey, aren’t you what’s his face?”
The worst thing about this list is that it gives many readers the idea that all authors make more than we do and are probably charging too much for our books. But otherwise, hearing that James Patterson, J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, and John Grisham are the top four authors on this year’s list isn’t surprising or exciting, nor does it provoke feelings of jealousy.
Every once in a while, I look at the advertising for book promotional sites to see what they’re pushing. All too often, I see that they provide studies and algorithms that will tell me what topics and plots authors should choose in order to make the most money. When I see that, I click on the X in the upper right corner of my screen and the site goes away. I have no interest in a list of hot themes and hot character types that the public is currently excited about. This is not to say that authors should pick ideas that nobody cares about and stubbornly write about them.
Most of us have our comfort areas, themes that interest us, character types that we love writing about, and locations that lend themselves to the kinds of plots we prefer. Most of us do our best work within our comfort areas and probably would fail miserably if we tried to write a novel that sounded like something any of the top writers on the list are writing. That truth has more to do with who we are than the fact we’d be in competition with a well-known author.
Some of my readers might think that I wrote the Florida Folk Magic trilogy of novels about racism in Florida during the 1950s because racism has become a hot topic again. But I didn’t. The racism I saw when I was growing up in the Florida Panhandle had been on my mind for a long time. While working on the first book in the series, Conjure Woman’s Cat, I had no idea that the topic was “trending.” I’m pretty sure that when Michael Wolff wrote Fire and Fury, he knew his topic was trending. Did he think his book would catapult him into the list of top-earning authors? I doubt it. I think his book did better than he expected. At the same time, my trilogy didn’t capture the attention I expected.
According to Forbes, Wolff’s book has sold over a million copies in the U.S. Most writers don’t think about sales figures like that. We do think about selling a few thousand copies of each of our books per year. That’s not easy to do for self-published or small-press authors. For one thing, we’re too dependent on Amazon though they certainly can’t be faulted for focusing their efforts on the books that bring in the most bang for the buck, that is to say, the top writers on the Forbes list. For another, reviewers tend to focus on books from large presses that everyone is talking about. That’s simple economics: what brings readers to your publication or website: reviews of books nobody’s ever heard of or reviews of books everybody’s talking about? Not a hard question to answer.
Most readers don’t have enough time to read everything they want to read. I sure don’t. So we all make choices: what books are the most likely to be worth an investment of our time? I read books from many authors on the top of the book selling lists because I like their books and they aren’t likely to disappoint me. But still, I don’t think it’s that hard to add a few self-published or small-press authors to my reading list for the year. Many of them surprise me: wow, these books are great. When I feel that way, I try to post positive reviews and tell my friends about them. I know those authors face the same barriers that I do when it comes to people finding out about their books.
Goodness knows, my opinion isn’t going to send an author’s book into the the James Patterson/Jo Rowling stratosphere of book sales. Yet, if we talk about the self-published and small-press books we like, more people will purchase them and keep those authors busy writing and finding readers who enjoy their work.