What Do The Most Highly Paid Authors Have In Common?

We write for many reasons. Money is not usually the top of the list but we would all like to be rewarded for our work and financial success is certainly a great goal.

James Patterson is the highest earning author

Forbes.com released their list of the highest paid authors earlier this year. The top 10 earners were: James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Ken Follett, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovitch, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, and JK Rowling

So what can we learn from them in terms of modeling success?

  • Write a lot of books. James Patterson has had 51 NY Times bestsellers and churns out almost 1 book a month now with a number of collaborators. While you may not like his writing style, he is certainly successful in understanding books are a product. Write to a formula, get them out there and people will buy them. Most of these writers are prolific with Meyer and Rowling as outliers (see the next point!)
  • Write a series. All of these writers have a series of books, some of them have multiple series with protagonists that people get to know and are keen to read the next installment about. Remember, it may take you a year to write a book, but it takes a real fan about 5 hours to read it. Then they want the next one! If you can hook people into your series, you will sell the rest of them to that reader and the books will keep selling.
  • Know your brand and write in a genre. Each of these names is synonymous with a genre. You know what you are getting when you pick up a Stephen King or a Danielle Steel. If they write in other genres, they use another name. These authors are brand names, instantly recognizable products. You need to decide what your brand is and where you fit on a bookshelf. Do you fit next to Patterson or Rowling or Sparks?
  • Understand it takes time. Most of the top 10 have been around for decades. Only Meyer and Sparks could be considered young authors, so it is encouraging to think that plugging away for years will eventually have some success. If James Patterson or Danielle Steel had given up after 2 books, would they be where they are now?
  • Write popular fiction. This may be controversial but if you want to make money, you need to write for the masses and avoid literary fiction. There is a clear difference between a best-selling author versus a best writing author. One makes money, the other wins literary acclaim and prizes. You need to be clear what you are aiming for. (That doesn’t mean bestsellers are not well written. Many of them are and we should all aim to write well. It just means they are not considered “literary” by the critics).
  • Create multiple streams of income. These authors do not just have physical books. Their ideas have been turned into other products including movies, merchandise, spin-off books, audio and digital products, games and even real world experiences (think Harry Potter world!). Yes, they are big names but you can create multiple streams of income for your books too.

What do you think about these top earners? Do you buy their books? How can you model their success?

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  1. says

    Hey! Thanks for passsing this information on to fellow writers. It encouraged me to continue writing and publishing. I’ve published two cookbooks and a small 38-page recipe book; my sales couldn’t be lower (ugh). This article makes sense about publishing one book per year and why. I’ve heard this theory, but wasn’t really sure about the reasoning behind it. I’m pumped to get going again.

    Best-selling author vs. a best writing author was exceptionally interesting…it made me think. I write cookbooks, but it can still be applied (I also have two murder mysteries floating around in my head) so this info will help me when I get to the fiction. I’ve been torn about using a pen name, but after reading this article I’ll go that route when the mysteries float to the top.

    Thanks again,
    Cynthia Briggs
    Pork Chops & Applesauce
    Sweet Apple Temptations

  2. says

    Hi Kat, Thanks so much for your long and considered post. I really appreciate it when people spend the time and energy to comment here and I certainly welcome the discourse.

    There are a few things in your post to respond to.
    1) I’m not a cynical person – more of an optimist and a learner. I love to learn from everyone and I learnt a lot from the Forbes list and wanted to share it. The essence of writing a good “link bait” article also stems from taking a position and writing to that, rather than being middle of the road, hence the position I took.

    2) I make no apologies for wanting to make money from my writing. But I agree with you that people shouldn’t write ‘genre fiction’ if they don’t enjoy it. These authors are genre writers, which you could say is formulaic as opposed to literary fiction writers which is what your writing teacher was encouraging.

    I personally read psychology, religion and business books as well as thriller and sci-fi, so I am clearly in genre fiction. I have written one business book and have just finished a thriller. I enjoyed the latter so much that I am starting on the next one. So writing in genre fiction is a joy if you love that genre. Romance writers and readers would agree (go Danielle Steel!) Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman also write within their genres and have a devoted audience. They also write a lot of books, so some of the points apply to them.

    I love thrillers so I will write thrillers.
    I really hope you will write what you love, and if that is in the literary fiction area, then brilliant. There are enough readers and enough stories in the world for everyone. I love reading and writing of all kinds, as clearly you do too.
    So let’s live and let live across the boundaries of literary vs popular fiction!

    Thanks so much again for your comment, and I hope you return even if you disagree.

  3. says

    Hi Joanna. Sorry … a bit of a belated comment on this post. Most informative and interesting. I particularly found the point regarding the importance of publishing a series a great insight. Keep up the great work!

    Warm regards,


  4. says

    Making money at your writing is not a crime! Writing is very hard, time-consuming work, and if you put in all that effort, you want some return. I’m happy to see authors make money writing good books. I don’t read some of the authors in your list, but so what? Others do. If they can make it, it gives the rest of us hope because it’s a LOT of work. I’m reminded of the people who sign up for the aerobics classes I take. Some come to one or two classes and never come back. Aerobics is a lot harder than it looks. Just like writing.

  5. Carol says

    Joanna, you missed the most important thing that these authors have in common: great luck. There are hundreds of thousands of authors in the world, but only the tiniest minority will make big bucks, while the vast majority will never make any serious money even if they try to follow your advice. Talent, finding the right niche, etc are in the category of luck and no amount of advice will help a person to become lucky.

    • says

      Carol, have you ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers? It’s excellent and quite readable. he talks about “luck” as consisting of three things – hard work, talent and opportunity. It’s in the last item that a certain amount of luck enters in, but his book suggests ways of helping out that bit of luck.

      • says

        Thanks Sharon – and the bit about these authors writing a lot of books is important as well. They are not lucky in that sense as it takes years to do this. They more than put in their 10,000 hours.

    • says

      Hi Carol, It may look like luck is random, I use the acronym that LUCK is Labour Under Correct Knowledge and the equation that Luck occurs when Opportunity and Preparedness meet. My belief is that every living person has a special purpose and potential that only they can fill, some will and some won’t. We all have a niche that only we can excel in, when we follow our heart, put in the time and energy, we will be successful. Success is not only about the ‘big bucks’, that’s part of it, it’s also about joy in your heart and that’s not found by chasing the money. What we chase, tends to elude us, however we can be strategic. e.g. in Australia we have the Wiggles, a children’s band, they started out as a typical band, I’m going to say Rock, thou I’m willing to be wrong, in the same genre as almost every other band. They realised that it was really hard for them to stand out and be noticed, even thou they had more talent than many others. Their passion is music, they changed genre and are one of, if not the most popular and successful children’s bands in the country. Not only that, they get to play music to large audiences of screaming fans and women adore them. They get to do what they love and be paid well to do so because they were strategic! If someones greatest purpose and potential is to be an author, it’s not only about bestselling, it’s about the joy that brings them and their readers. Any person who lives life on their terms, doing what they want, when they want, with whom they want is successful and that takes less money than you might think! Enjoy the Journey!!! Debra :-)

  6. says

    Writing should arouse the sad and heal the mad. If it fails to do these, the time and energy invested is wild and its intention bad. It takes the refined to control the hard and bald. Money is a honey moon, but I suspect the taste of the ”honey” and don’t trust the ”moon”! It is delusive to believe in perfection in the world of duality. Anyway, writing is a mistake every man must make!

  7. says

    I found this article and the comments quite interesting. First of all, if a person can afford to spend hours and hours writing, without getting paid for it, that’s wonderful! But, there are those of us who must make a living. For that reason, writing is a business for some authors. Being stuck in a genre is different from gleefully immersing oneself in a genre. Because we are fickle with regard to genres, we don’t stick to just one. This may turn out to be a disadvantage. It’s too soon to tell as we have not yet released our first novel. All in all, I found the different viewpoints enlightening and took something away from each one. Thanks for this thought-provoking article.

    • says

      Thanks Wodke – I am taking this writing life as a serious means to make an income so these questions are important to me. I have chosen to write a series because of this group of people, although my genre is based on my personal preference. I think serious writers must consider money in the equation as well. Thanks,

  8. says

    I agree with Kat. While writing cookie cutter fiction is a wise business move, there are other factors, as others have said, in having success and making money. You have to know your market. You can try and write a series of vampire books right now, formulaic but different in voice and character and you will get REJECTED every time. Why? Because you are going to have to go up against the myriad of other “big name” authors who are writing vampire books. Publishers are not going to be able to convince Barnes & Noble to move Stephanie Meyer off the shelf to put your book there, nor are they going to be able to ask Amazon to highlight your book when the next Meyer book hits. Trends are something to remember. Coming up with something fresh and exciting is a novel idea as well. I write accessible literary fiction. There are successful writers who have done that and are able to do that for a living. I hate the whole literary/genre, money/no money debate because it’s silly. If you write a great book, you will have other opportunities to write great books and make money. People know a phony when they see one.

  9. Daniel says


    I read a lot of novels. I could be a New York Times best seller for $3,000. It’s always the money thing. I have read many of James Patterson novels. Now, I’m not being negative, in my opinion, which everyone has, I have been disappointed several times. His novels don’t have to be good; just as long as his name is on the book os all that matters.

    You have a great site. I’m also into prophecy. I’m born again and have been since leaving active duty in the U.S. Army. If you’re really into it, then you know HE’S right around the corner.

    I would sure like to add a chapter or so to your book. My two novels are FOXES BEAUTIFUL CUNNING DEADLY and Armed Forces in Harm”s Way. They’re both on my website, which I have finally got. My granddaughter created it for me. Would you be interested in a hook up?

    I have been writing Romantic Thrillers. I put my time in uniform to work for me. My novels area very intriguing. The U.S. Marines in Foxes are so exceptional in their fictional training with Navy Seebeas building a hide out for them in Yemen after they kill an insurgent or two.

    • says

      Hi Daniel, I’m glad you like the site. I should say that my next NOVEL is called Prophecy, it is fiction and I’m not born again. However, I respect people of faith and my books have a lot of religious and spiritual overtones. But they are action-adventure thrillers, not books of Christian faith.
      I think your books sound interesting though – romance set in the US Marines is a great idea. All the best, Joanna

  10. says

    I think Joanna makes a good point. Also, remember that the post title contains “Highly Paid Authors”. I don’t think she is suggesting this is an action plan for all authors, but it probably is for those who want to make a lot of money from their writing.

    Money may not be a factor in all authors’ decision-making, but it is good to see the commonalities among bestselling authors—for those who do want to try to rake in the big bucks. Personally, I love literary fiction, but I appreciate it is unlikely to ever be a huge cash cow. I will also probably write genre novels under a pen name, not to make money, but because I like those, too. I read cross-genre, so why not write cross-genre.

    I think Patterson is probably a bad example, because he runs an author mill, but it is true that writing a lot, and writing a series in a recognised genre helps maintain a brand.

    • says

      Thanks Karin – and although Patterson is a bad writing example (I hate his books too!) , he is a very good money example. Primarily because of how many books he puts out there, but I wonder whether he has diminishing returns with so many. I’d rather take Stephen King as an example, as he puts in the hours every day, writing, writing, and he doesn’t stop. I like many of his books too.

      Writing cross-genre with different pen names is also a great idea – many authors do this and I personally intend to do it at some point with some other genres.

  11. says

    I love this post because it really rouses some great discussion points. I think those are the things the authors have in common but clearly am not saying everyone should go this route because money isn’t the only thing you want out of your writing. But if it is a consideration then we do need to pay attention to those actually making money.

  12. says

    Hey Joanna, this is really a great article. I basically write on business & social issues here in our national daily newspapers. I want to be business writer with a biasness towards society. any idea please?

  13. Carmal Allworth says

    Sometimes it is this simple. In life it is all in who you know. She or he can move you forward or hold you back. I have sold many books and do not live in Hollywood…. But I keep striving on, it is a great rewarding feeling to say. I did it, I am an Author and I love it. How many can actually say that and is that reward enough, I wonder, is the completion of our books ever enough, will the hunger always be there?

    • says

      Hi Carmal, it’s funny you say that – I think the hunger will always be there. It is perhaps the writer’s curse to never be satisfied. There’s always another book!

  14. says

    Hi All,

    Love Caramal’s point, She’s right, who you know is important, so is who you are (the person that lives in your body) and ‘who knows you’. In fact I believe ‘who knows you’ is so important that like our books (I have as yet only published one) we want to put ourselves in front of lots of people who come to know us and who want to see us succeed on a grander scale, some of them will even give us a helping hand. Part of being in the money is being prepared to have a public profile and and become a public figure.

    Also writers like Rowling put in their time and no doubt put up with a lot of crap from others who couldn’t see that their dedication to their writing was justified. These writers decided to place a greater value on their writing for long term gain, rather than do what was ‘expected’ by family, friends and the community. Good on them! We are responsible for for the results we produce in our lives. Listen to the voice within and do what’s right for you! Debra :-)

    • Carmal Allworth says

      Thank you Debra,
      I try to listen to the voice with in, I think thats what made me start writing. Then I read about the movie ‘The Help’, all accomplished because the publisher is a screen writer, who knew the Author and they were raised in the same small town. So he made her book into a movie. That is very nice, could it get any better, an entire story within the story, but I don’t have that connection. So I will trudge along and I guess I will fill my own self rewards in writing. Not to sure about public profile, but finacial rewards, wow- wouldn’t that be awesome….. Carmal

  15. says

    Hi, I emailed you before. Thanks for the advice. I am now writing a book about me and my friends favorite game. I am hoping that it will be a great product. I can’t wait to finish it! Thanks again for the great advice. It was very helpful!

  16. Dennis Hester says

    Hi Joanna,
    Thanks for the insightful post into “big authors.”
    What magazines would you recommend to pitch “short stories and novella’s” to?
    Thank you very much.
    Keep up the good work in providing insight and inspiration.


    • Joanna Penn says

      Sorry Dennis, I don’t pitch short stories or novellas – I just self-publish. Try Writer’s Digest or other info about pitching.


  1. […] for the long haul, by agent Rachelle Gardner. Then, some thought-provoking observations on what the most highly-paid authors have in common, by The Creative Penn (Joanna Penn). Not that we’re in this for the money or anything. […]

  2. […] Don’t listen to anyone who says that one type of writing is better than another. This is what killed my young dreams of being a writer! There is a snobbery in the book world that says literary fiction is the best kind, that winning prizes is more important than sales and that genre fiction is somehow less than other types of books. You need to decide a) what you like to read and b) what you like to write. If you like vampire romance, then go ahead, write some yourself. Stephanie Meyer did that with Twilight. If you like war books, or space ships, or explosions, or love stories – or of course, if you like literary fiction books – then write what you enjoy. If you want to earn money from your books, check out what the most highly paid authors have in commo… […]

  3. […] Don’t listen to anyone who says that one type of writing is better than another. This is what killed my young dreams of being a writer! There is a snobbery in the book world that says literary fiction is the best kind, that winning prizes is more important than sales and that genre fiction is somehow less than other types of books. You need to decide a) what you like to read and b) what you like to write. If you like vampire romance, then go ahead, write some yourself. Stephanie Meyer did that with Twilight. If you like war books, or space ships, or explosions, or love stories – or of course, if you like literary fiction books – then write what you enjoy. If you want to earn money from your books, check out what the most highly paid authors have in commo… […]

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