Mark Terry

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Money in Writing Fiction?

October 4, 2008
Some of you have probably read this article in Forbes about the top 10 writers of fiction. I went on a bit of a rant about it on Erica Orloff's blog, but here, as a guy who writes about business and writes market research reports, are some thoughts I have about this.

1. JK Rowling made more money in 2007 than #2-#9 combined.
This is a fairly important point. I've commented before that fiction writing income does not resemble a bell-shaped curve with a few on the left making no money, a few on the right making a ton, and a huge amount in the middle making the bulk of the money. In fact, the damned thing looks like a swooping curve that's almost flat at the bottom them goes almost vertical on one end. A relatively few writers make a fortune and the rest make almost nothing.

2. If the article were a market research report, there would be a lot more "granularity" as we say. That is, things would be broken down in a way so there was more meaning to it. For instance, JK Rowling made $300 million. (It's not 100% clear to me that these income levels actual refer to one year's work, and where did the article's author get the data, anyway?) How much of that was from a book advance? (Did she get a book advance in 2007? For what book?) Was it for royalties? Was it for foreign sales? Video games? The movie rights or residuals? Were there royalties from the previous books in there? Residuals for every time a Harry Potter novels appears on ABC Family (about every weekend)? Merchandising? My son had a Harry Pottery Lego-set at one time, complete with Hogwarts Express. Bernie Botts Every Flavor Beans? Does she get a penny per box or what?

3. In fact, several of the authors probably make more money off their subsidiary rights than their books. Tom Clancy doesn't even seem to write books any more. He sold video game rights for $100 million though. Paperback novels come out with his name on them, but he's not writing them and it's questionable whether he's involved at all.

4. It's pretty open knowledge now that James Patterson doesn't really write his books any more, at least not all of them. He claims he's the "big idea guy" and the other writer does the writing. Which is to say, uh... never mind. And I suppose every time "Kiss The Girls" or "Along Came A Spider" is shown on TNT he gets some money, too. And didn't he have a TV show going briefly? I don't think I'm being offensive--and I doubt Patterson would give a shit one way or the other--when I say Patterson's no longer a writer, he's a brand name.

5. Janet Evanovich as well, has at least one "series" that has her name on it, but doesn't seem to write. In one interview she says she's the "editor" although what that means I have no idea. Does she read them and make suggestions? Act as copy editor? As an acquisitions editor? Shepherd the book through the publishing process? Or cash the check for having her name on the cover? Hmmm...

6. An interesting mix of authors, heavy on mystery and thrillers. I'm just sayin'...

7. I find Stephen King's name here interesting. He's not making $40 million per book, but his books seem to regularly be optioned and made into films. As far as I know he's not involved in video gaming (was there a Mist video game? I don't remember) or "brand publishing" which is my newly coined phrase for name brand authors who claim to have some involvement in books with their names on the cover that they don't write. My guess is, with his enormous backlist and movies, there's always money coming in. "Shawshank Redemption" hasn't been on the rotation for a while, but it's only a matter of time before it pops up.

8. I've noticed before, when you get a chance to look at actual numbers sold of bestselling books, how hard the drop is from the #1 and the # 2 and #5 and #10 books. Doesn't anyone find it interesting that Ken Follett's on there with $20 million when JK Rowling's #1 with $300 million? Don't you see an odd discrepancy when there's that much disparity between the top and bottom of the top 10? Just imagine how far we drop when you hit #11! Or #1000!

Anyway, food for thought.

Mark Terry

16 Comments:

Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Very sobering, not that I was drunk with optimism to begin with. But particularly sobering, as you point out, is that a lot -- maybe most -- of the money is not even earned from the books themselves but from spinoffs. Books that aren't big enough to be turned into a more marketable product are virtually worthless. Which is not a reason not to write books, but rather a reason not to fret about the money side too much.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

This is why I don't understand why people throw the term around: "writing career" when they're writing fiction. Almost no one is making career level money doing it.

Most of those who are making a living at it, are writing several books a year, but if they break down what they are making for all the hours they're putting in and all the work they're doing, is it still "career" level? Who knows. I know the people even in THAT camp are few and far between.

So I just do my own thing and screw the noise, hype, glamour, and "career."

One thing though, I would never have my name on a book I didn't write. I don't understand people who become brands instead of authors. Isn't writing something that's inside you? Doesn't it have to come out? How can someone just stop?

I guess some people have talent, but no soul for it in the long run.

4:32 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Fascinating! That's an excellent point. People have remarked with surprise that Nora Roberts isn't on the list, and this might be why. She has had three made-for-TV movies, but her books just don't translate well to screen.

5:57 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Eric
--"drunk with optimism." Love that. And you may have a point. Write for the joy of it, for the pleasure of it, simply because, goddamnit, YOU CAN! and leave it at that.

Zoe
--the not writing the book with your name on it thing, to me, all comes down to money. What puzzles me most about it is that although I can understand MY doing it, since I'm by no means well-off, I don't get people who are already millionaires doing it. But maybe if I had their money I'd understand it. I dunno.

Spy
--there were several writers that I was surprised didn't make the list. Nora Roberts was one. Robert B. Parker was another, give the movie and TV shows out there based on his books, plus 3 or 4 books a year. Mitch Albom is typically the #1 seller when his book is on the list, but apparently 5 million to 10 million copies of a book sold aren't enough to get you on these lists, you've got to have subsidiary income coming in from movies, video games and merchandising.

Maybe what I need is a Derek Stillwater action figure, complete with removable neuroses.

7:47 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

With higher incomes come more expensive lifestyles. It's against human nature to go backwards. That's why they keep taking the money.

I don't know. I love to write and probably would anyway. But if my name became important enough to "associate with projects" for which I did little work and took in a bundle, well, I'm no saint. I'd take the money and run laughing all the way to the bank. And the fact is, people do stop writing for a myriad of reasons. I myself took a 15 year hiatus.

Maybe these books need to come with warning labels. (not actually written by author named. may harm brain cells. subject to approval...)

7:14 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Hey Mark, I totally get what you're saying. I think though for some people the tendency is to live outside of one's means no matter how much they are making.

People get very confused on wants vs. needs. People get "accustomed" to a certain way of life and certain "things."

I've heard that famous movie stars spend insane amounts of money on things that they think they NEED to keep getting work. Because they have to live a certain lifestyle to continue public obsession with them. That's so surreal to me I honestly don't understand people who can be happy that way.

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