Watch your back, James Patterson. Sleep with one eye open, Stephen King.
Men still top the list of the world’s highest-earning authors, but this year it’s the women on the list who’ve been making the boldest moves, led by a trio of genre phenoms: Suzanne Collins, E.L. James and J.K. Rowling.
With $20 million in earnings, almost all of it from sales of her “Hunger Games” books, Collins didn’t quite make the most recent edition of the FORBES Celebrity 100. But that was only because she had yet to see her full portion of the proceeds from the first “Hunger Games” film.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, the Lionsgate picture enjoyed the third-biggest opening weekend ever. To date, it has taken in more than $650 million worldwide.
Collins’s cut of that is believed to be upward of $5 million, not including the $1.5 million she was paid for the rights. That will rise still further with sales of the DVD, released this month. And the gusher is just getting going: The theatrical version of “Catching Fire,” the first of two sequels, is set for release in 2013.
The “Hunger Games” books sold more than 9 million copies in 2011, and sales got a fresh boost this year from the film’s release, but they’re not the trilogy of the year. That honor goes to the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series, which sold 20 million copies in their first four months in wide release.
At the height of “Fifty Shades” mania, the erotic novels were estimated to be generating as much as $1.3 million per week for their author, E.L. James. And that’s not counting the $5 million she received from Universal Pictures and Focus Films for the theatrical rights. Add it all up and James is assured of a place near the top of next year’s top authors list.
(Perhaps “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer deserves a cut of that? James’s books originated as works of “Twilight” fan fiction.)
Genre fiction and young adult are clearly where the money’s at. But one author who’s conquered those realms as thoroughly as they can be conquered is moving upstream, toward the more challenging waters of adult literary fiction. That would be J.K. Rowling, author of the “Harry Potter” series and the first woman author to become a billionaire.
In September, Little, Brown will publish “The Casual Vacancy,” Rowling’s first novel for adults. The reported $8 million advance Rowling received for the book was enough to vault her back onto the Celebrity 100, with $17 million in estimated earnings.
It also helped that she found a new way to monetize the “Potter” books, selling digital copies via a proprietary online bookstore, Pottermore. Unlike most authors, Rowling never signed over the digital rights to her books. Her timing in launching Pottermore was excellent, with e-book sales surpassing hardcover sales for the first time in 2012. Pottermore sold more than $4 million worth of books in its first month of operation.
Most of the names on this year’s top authors list are familiar ones, from Patterson on down. The thriller maestro, whose young-adult fantasy and sci-fi franchises also do brisk business, took in an astonishing $94 million this year. There’s Stephen King ($39 million), Janet Evanovich ($33 million), John Grisham ($26 million), Jeff Kinney ($25 million), Nora Roberts ($23 million) and Danielle Steel ($23 million).
One newcomer is George R.R. Martin. HBO’s critically adored (and much-pirated) adaptation of his “Game of Thrones” series has turned on a mainstream audience to a fantasy universe that nerds have been raving about for years. Martin sold more than 8 million copies of his “Game of Thrones” books in 2011, including the newest, “A Dance With Dragons,” which sold 750,000 copies in hardcover.
To generate our earnings estimates, we talk to authors, agents, publishers and other experts and review data including Nielsen BookScan sales figures.
Full list: The World’s Top-Earning Authors