Strolling through the departure lounge of an American airport last week, I found myself face-to-face with Patricia Cornwell. She was huge, with the icy blue gaze you’d expect of a novelist who spends her days dreaming up grisly murders. She was, I should add, plastered across a giant advertising screen, but while it notionally alerted readers to her latest thriller, Dust, it was really all about Cornwell the brand. Or rather, Cornwell “the world’s #1 bestselling crime writer” as the ad insisted in a pushy font.
The author as brand is not a new concept, and nor is it restricted to mass-market writers. As far back as 1887, Guy de Maupassant paid for a hot-air balloon to be sent up over Paris, emblazoned with the name of his new short story, Le Horla. In the 1930s, Colette created her own line of cosmetics for a Parisian store.
Forging brand recognition is an increasingly necessary part of being a writer – or a writer who is read, at any rate. For though it’s never been easier to get published – through print on demand, self-published e-books, or via story sites like Wattpad – it’s never been harder to get noticed. While readers have little loyalty to publishing imprints (Penguin is arguably the only one with real resonance beyond the bubble of the Frankfurt Book Fair), authors are a different matter.
In recent years, a tenacious few have managed to transform themselves into the kind of brands that would make business gurus light-headed with envy. They perform consistently well, with the likes of Janet Evanovich, Stephen King and Danielle Steel featuring in Forbes’ list of 10 top-earning authors for the past three years, and James Patterson making it to pole position in two of those. (His estimated earnings from 2010 to 2013 average out at just shy of $90m per annum).
Not even mortality hinders these authors, whose brands remain prolific long after they themselves have tapped out their final sentence. Robert Ludlum, the originator of the Bourne franchise, published more than 20 novels while he was alive; since his death in 2001, an additional five have appeared under his own name. Only one of those was actually written by him. The other four are merely ‘credited’ to him, meaning they were written by other writers, spun from partial manuscripts or outlines – the details are kept purposefully vague and the ghosts’ names never appear.
And then there are his Bourne and Covert-One series, both of which have been continued since his demise by co-authors named on the books’ jackets. Ludlum’s own name – trademarked, of course – is still the largest.
If the Ludlum estate’s operation recalls a cottage industry, then Patterson’s work is big business. Perhaps tellingly, the Florida-born literature graduate started out as an advertising executive. He published his first novel in 1976 and his books have since sold more than 260 million copies. It’s unusual for any one book deal to cover more than a couple of titles but Patterson has been known to sign contracts for up to 17 at a time.
If write fast and publish often is the key to establishing a lasting brand, then hiring staff is another secret to success. And that doesn’t just mean someone to keep you in coffee and toner cartridges, but someone to help with the grunt work of laying down all those words. Patterson works with a whole team of writers, acting more as brand manager than traditional author, producing outlines and then editing and sometimes redrafting his team’s work.
Nobody does it quite like Patterson but others try, including Evanovich, who made an estimated $24mn from her thrillers last year. (Write genre fiction might be another maxim.) Looking back over those Forbes lists, the authors who most consistently make the top 10 tend to produce thrillers (John Grisham and Ken Follett) or romance (Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts) or children’s books (JK Rowling and Rick Riordan).
Tricks of the trade
Studying their output yields some surprising tips. Diversify, for one. You’d think that having a brand to maintain would inhibit creativity. But once it’s been established, branching out can apparently enhance rather than dilute an author’s appeal. Stephenie Meyer and John Grisham both write for children as well as adults, while Rowling has headed off in the opposite direction. And Patterson? Not to be outdone, he’s written – or at least, co-written – science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, nonfiction, novels for young adults and even romance.
Once upon a time, being a man might have seemed an additional prerequisite, or failing that, adopting a gender-neutral nom de plume like JK Rowling. Women have finally been gaining ground, though. Suzanne Collins and Meyer prove that gender is, if not irrelevant, then certainly less a factor than it has been.
Like family firms of old, a number of authors decide to keep the business in the family. Even while he was still alive, many of Dick Francis’ racing novels were written by his son. Evanovich’s son is both her finance officer and her agent. He also helps her edit books while her daughter created her website and manages the co-author program.
Television also helps. Jamie Oliver and Fox News host Bill O’Reilly both made their names on the small screen before turning to books but George RR Martin’s gargantuan fan base has been only boosted by HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation. Film is an even bigger boon. King, Grisham and Rowling have all reaped the rewards. Patterson has naturally gone one further, forming a production company to finance his own movies, TV shows and video games.
For anyone who cares about diversity in the world of books, the rise and rise of the ’super brand’ author poses troubling questions. For their true fans, practices like co-authoring risk generating cookie-cutter reading experiences. But there’s solace to be had from the final trait that these writers share: however much they delight in dashing romantic notions of literary calling, citing sales figures in place of glowing reviews, they’re motivated by the same basic urge as the writer toiling unread in her garret. As Grisham told the Guardian in 2011: “My name became a brand and I'd love to say it was the plan from the start. But the only plan was to keep writing books. And I've stuck to that ever since.”