10th August 2012
Forbes has just published its list of Highest Earning Authors, and who says there's no money to be made in publishing? If, as the German's say, "Geld regiert die Welt," or Money Rules the World, then write on! Mystery writer James Patterson earned a staggering ninety-four million last year, followed, one suspects (though she's too new to make this list) by author of The Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James (I see her sales are actually sagging, so maybe it will turn out to be one of those strange fads that takes people over for a while until they come to their senses, like Crocs.) It's a piece of good marketing to give her such a distinguished name, sort of like J. Alfred Prufrock, and TS Eliot let us know how vacuous these kinds of names can be. JK Rowling doesn't actually have a "K" in her name, but her publisher thought it would give her more credibility. She hardly needs that these days, though she didn't make the top ten on the money list. Who cares? She got eight million advance for her upcoming adult novel. Jeff Kinney who writes those "Wimpy Kid," books that adults love to hate, earned a whopping twenty-five million. Nicholas Sparks whose books leave your fingers drippy and sticky, earned sixteen million.
Let's put our money on the table. I earned a whopping fifteen thousand for my upcoming novel, and they aren't giving it to me all at once either. I got six thousand upon the sale, which sank to five thousand once my agent got his cut. I blew the rest on a trip to Steinbeck country, which I consider money well spent. I'll get another six thousand once my currently silent editor and I finish the editing process. Then I get the last installment on the date of publication. Small change, I guess. If I had got fifteen million, I would be shopping for a house with panoramic views and river access.
But, anyway, fashion in our stimulus-happy culture has always been richly rewarded. I look at the list of millionaire authors, and I wonder how many of them will be read in fifty years. There seems to be very little correlation between those authors pulling in the lucre and the writing life and what that is all about.
Truth is, I wouldn't know what to do with ninety-four million dollars. And the the other truth is, the business of writing has as much to do with dollar signs as Hostess Twinkies have to do with nutrition. We don't write for money, because art is not a commodity. I like the term "priceless," which this culture only applies to works of visual art, but at least it got that much right. This isn't Hollywood. You can't pay writers or artists for their performances. The "performance" happens in the silent corners, in the lonely place out of which a writer does his or her stuff. Strictly speaking, you can't reward someone for being a misanthrope in that way. I think that if some law barred us from ever earning a penny for our efforts, we would still go through the motions like a runner in sleep, still jerking those legs, because we don't know how not to. And that is where the artisitc life resides, like Luther, in not being able to do otherwise. Money has nothing to do with it. The act of creation is priceless.