US author takes Rowling's rich-list crown

Patterson's £45m puts him top of the Forbes highest-earning authors list, but he admits to not writing his books

An American author at the centre of a controversy over whether or not he writes his own books has knocked British stalwart J K Rowling off the top of a list of the world's highest-paid authors.

Two years ago, Rowling, the publishing phenomenon behind the books-to-theme park Harry Potter franchise, was revealed to have earned a staggering £150m between 2007 and 2008, putting her in the hallowed number-one spot – and placing her closest rival, James Patterson, second.

But Patterson trumped the British author in the year to 1 June 2010, topping the list, which is compiled by the American business magazine Forbes, for the first time. The tables turned after Patterson scooped £45m in book sales, helping him to see off competition from Britain's newest highest-paid author, the master of suspense Ken Follett. Sales of £13m propelled Follett to fifth place on the Forbes list.

Despite not releasing a major book since the final instalment in her boy-wizard series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, hit the shelves three years ago, selling more than 44 million copies, Rowling retains a place in the top 10. She pocketed £10m from sales last year as newer, younger fans discovered her books.

Together, the 10 highest-paid writers earned a collective £174m, confounding expectations that publishing had had a tough year, given the rise of e-books, which outsold their hardcover rivals on the US website Amazon.com in the second quarter of this year for the first time.

Patterson is a contentious victor. The American is no stranger to criticism and has admitted that he doesn't even write his own books. Although his name is splashed on the covers of the eight titles, which include thrillers and children's and young adults' books, that he churns out each year, he relies on a team of five to help him bash out the plots. Not that this minor detail has dented his popularity. Forbes said one in every 17 books bought in the US is written – or co-written – by Patterson, a former advertising chief executive who outsold even Stephenie Meyer of the teen vampire series sensation, Twilight. Meyer's £26m placed her second in the best-selling literary hall of fame.

Patterson's best-known and best-selling character is Alex Cross, an African-American psychologist who first appeared in the thriller Along Came a Spider in 1993, and was later played by Morgan Freeman in a film by the same name in 2001. He has also gained loyal devotees for his Michael Bennett, Women's Murder Club, Maximum Ride, Daniel X and Witch and Wizard series. In all, Patterson is estimated to have written as many as 65 novels. Quantity does not equal quality, however, as critics are quick to point out. The horror writer Stephen King has branded Patterson a "terrible writer" of "dopey thrillers".

Patterson himself has something of a contradictory approach to his own work. He defended his short and to-the-point style of writing, saying sentences "shouldn't get in the way of a good story", but once warned fans off one of his books, Season of the Machete, calling it an "absolutely horrifying book" that fans "probably shouldn't read".

King put in a more than respectable showing, earning £22m, which made him the world's third-highest-paid author. The veteran romance novelist Danielle Steel came fourth, taking home £20m in the past year, according to Forbes, including a reported £0.7m embezzlement settlement from a former assistant. King's arch rival, Dean Koontz, was sixth, with £11.5m; the mystery writer Janet Evanovich followed him with £10.3m. They were, in turn, narrowly tailed by The Firm's John Grisham, who netted £9.6m, and Nicholas Sparks, who wrote The Notebook and took home a cool £9m.

Patterson has earned his publisher, Hachette, £322m over the past two years, and Meyer, King, Koontz and Steel will face an uphill struggle to knock him off top spot. He signed a 17-book deal with Hachette in September, worth a reported £96.5m, and last year 14 million of his books sold across the world, in 38 languages. Not bad for the man who sold just 10,000 copies of his debut novel in 1976, and who doesn't even own a computer – he writes his ideas down in longhand, before giving them to his assistant to type. "Thousands of people don't like what I do," he told The New York Times in January. "Fortunately, millions do."

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