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Nicholas Lezard: It's no consolation to me, but some people are buying books

You know that advert for a writing course whose headline is "why not be a writer?" I always murmur the words "for the following reasons" after seeing it, and then run through some of them before moving on. Such as: poor rates of pay, the unhealthy lifestyle and the sheer tedium of writing, the only consolation, and scant consolation it is, being that one is incapable of earning a living in any other fashion.

There is also the lurking fear that in an age when anyone with access to the internet is happy to write yards and yards of stuff for free, editors will decide that the whole business of paying people to write is terribly quaint when you can get anyone to churn out any old garbage simply by inviting them to comment in a box at the end of the piece. Surely at some point they will dispense with the original piece?

Which is why the annual publication of Forbes magazine's ten top-earning authors is such a bittersweet event. On the one hand there are the enormous sums of money involved, which make writers who earn less, ie. all of them on earth bar ten, feel as though they are at the wrong end of Gore Vidal's adage about it not being just that he must succeed, but that others must fail.

Head of the list is someone called James Patterson, pictured, who earned $84m last year, streets ahead of Danielle Steel, the number two, who only managed $35m. Then again Patterson writes 10 books a year – he has help – whereas Steel only knocks out three a year (1993 was a poor year. Involved in an unpleasant lawsuit, she only managed one).

On the other hand, these enormous sums do seem to suggest that there are still people out there buying books. I must admit I have never read a word of these authors. I have a hunch that they will not be interesting the Nobel committee in the near or distant future, which is, again, one of those scant consolations available to the envious hack (although I'm going to be even less likely to be interesting the Nobel committee than them). I've read one or two Stephen Kings, number three, but then everyone else has, which begs the question of why he isn't number one. Is it because he only manages two books a year? That's still an unenviable workload.

So hats off, then, to JK Rowling , who earned only $5m, which doesn't even get her in the top 10, but then she didn't write anything. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how to do it.