There’s nothing like reading the Forbes list of best-selling authors if you want to feel like you’ve wasted your life. As a writer, I’m used to being delighted by relatively small sums of money. But even my heftiest advances look like pure, dry-roasted peanuts when compared with the lowest-placed author on the Forbes top 10 (Stephen King, who typed his way to $20m last year).
He, meanwhile, must be looking at the authors above him on the 2012 earnings list, and wondering if he should turn his hand to a little light erotica, since E L James trounced him, earning an enormous $95m. Perhaps Fifty Shades of Green would be more accurate now. Still, she only just ended the year a nose (or whichever body part you prefer) ahead of James Patterson ($91m), which I find oddly reassuring. Almost as many of us like thrillers as enjoy light BDSM, which speaks highly of the reading public.
But I’ve spent this year doing more reading than writing: mostly literary fiction, for the Man Booker Prize, though we had plenty of genre fiction too. I’ve read thrillers, romances, sci-fi and spy novels, alongside the more ostensibly literary offerings. Not so much erotica, but perhaps the publishers heard I wasn’t a fan. This year’s longlist includes a couple of thrillers, one historical and one contemporary, which I hope prove here’s no disdain for a twisting plot on our judging panel.
But the great responsibility of judging this prize is the reputation it has for changing the life of the winner for ever. Plenty of people have told me that winning the Booker Prize is tantamount to becoming a millionaire. Not because of the prize money itself, which is a mere £50,000. Suzanne Collins (third in the Forbes list with $55m) can probably use that to line her cat’s litter tray. But the book sales, both in the domestic market and internationally, the increased advance on the next novel, the new-found interest in an author’s back catalogue: it all adds up. And though we’re reading the books for their literary merit alone, it’s hard not to be distracted occasionally by the prospect of awarding that life change to one writer over another.
Now, frankly, I realise I’ve been worrying over nothing. The literary lions of our time could produce mesmerising novels every year for the rest of their lives, and Danielle Steel (fifth place, $25m) could still trounce them all. Hilary Mantel could write a novel about Thomas Cromwell every 20 minutes and she’d still not come close to Dan Brown (ninth with $22m). So while I’m feeling a bit less successful as a writer, I’m happy to be feeling a lot less pressure as a reader. Maybe that’ll change when I get round to doing my accounts.