Books are not the most common path to riches.
But some talented or lucky individuals have managed to eke out fortunes from their writings. Most notably, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, went from poverty to being one of Britain’s richest billionaires after the boy wizard’s story struck a chord with readers.
For years, Forbes has been tracking the richest authors in the world. And looking through past lists, it’s easy to gleam a few rules to how authors strike it rich.
Some publish prodigiously, like Stephen King or James Patterson.
Some stick to a particular genre and get very good at giving their readers exactly what they want, like famed romance author Danielle Steele.
Some see their books popularised through the box office, earning you royalties and improved sales in the process, like Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins or Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown.
But last year, someone came along who broke all the rules.
E.L. James, which is the pen-name of Erika Leonard, is the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, a self-published trilogy of erotic fiction. Forbes reckons she made $US95 million from her books in the year to June, making her the most highly-paid author in the world, ahead of the usual names who dominate the list like Stephen King, Danielle Steel and Dan Brown.
Leonard’s extraordinary success, and the riches that followed it, is a first for the author of a self-published book. Fifty Shades, which was at times criticised for being poorly written and clearly lacked a professional editor, has sold over 70 million copies worldwide.
The other two books in the trilogy were quickly published in 2012, and soon, the book rights were picked up by major publishing houses.
As a result of the Fifty Shades fever, there’s been a boom in self-published erotic literature. Even Harrison Young, a director at the Commonwealth Bank and former chairman of NBN Co, has got in on the act. His book, Partners, was published in May.
The ride’s not over for Leonard, who before her success as an author worked as a television executive. There’s a Fifty Shades movie in the works, expected to be out next year. Even if the story doesn’t adapt well to the big screen, the book’s popularity means it’ll likely find a ready audience at the box office regardless.
She’s also leveraged her success into an album of classical music released by EMI, which was number 4 on Billboard’s classical 100 chart in October 2012.
With money like this to be made, the Fifty Shades saga is far from over.