Why do some authors hit it big?

Forbes published the annual top-earning authors list last week, and it got me thinking. (Always a dangerous thing...) But most of the authors on the list write books which I a) cannot stand, b) have no interest in. Oddly, the only people on the list whose works I have read and enjoyed are J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins. (Yes, I admit that the only thing I've read by Stephen King has been his book titled On Writing. I've not read George R.R. Martin, and I don't really enjoy James Patterson.)

List from highest earning is: E.L. James, James Patterson, Suzanne Collins, Bill O'Reilly, Danielle Steel, Jeff Kinney, Janet Evanovich, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, David Baldacci, Rick Riordan, J.K. Rowling, and George R.R. Martin.

Regardless of my feelings on these authors, each of them has hit the big league. So what is it that makes their work appeal to the masses? These are the multi-million dollar question every writer (and many a reader) asks. And I don't think there's any real answer. But based on my knowledge of these authors, I've thought of these reasons.

A best-seller must have: 

1. A good story.

Maybe this is obvious, but the most successful books tend to be well-plotted books that are easy to read--not necessarily the most well-written. The average reader doesn't like to work as they read, and they don't care about pretty prose. They read for escape and pleasure, which equals quick reads and easy to follow sentences. Literary fiction (my personal favorite genre), takes a bit more effort from a reader. Their plots tend to be slower and more drawn out, with more personal reflection of the character and reader required. I guess the majority of people don't like that. Instead of being concerned with the quality of writing, readers are only concerned with the plot itself.

Don't get me wrong, a good plot is essential to a good book. I just wish that some authors put more stock in writing well, instead of just churning out poorly written, but well-plotted stories. It would only help sales... of course, I guess the authors on this list don't need extra sales at this point.

2. A familiar plot structure.

It's generally accepted that there is a limited number of plots. Several of the authors on the Forbes list are writers of romance books. The romance genre is the #1 selling genre of books. Personally, it's not a genre I enjoy. However, there are millions upon millions of readers that do enjoy it. Why is this? Well, it tends to be a happily-ever-after ending, its plot revolves around love (which encourages happy feelings in the reader), there's a general familiarity about them (boy meets girl, conflict occurs to keep boy and girl apart, boy and girl end up together). Why does someone essentially reread the same plot over and over again? Because they enjoy that plot structure, its familiarity, its comfort. It's easy to read and understand, and they are usually rewarded with a "happy" ending.

Other genres represented on the list are thrillers (for the sake of argument Stephen King is included in this, along with Koontz, Brown, Patterson, Grisham, Evanovich, and Baldacci), fantasy (Martin, Riordan) and young adult (Collins, Kinney, Riordan, and Rowling). Thrillers, despite their many twists and turns, may be said to follow a general well-known structure, but I think fantasy and young adult have more variety in their plots. The fantasy and young adult genre success stories tend to be unique ideas with everyday characters (think Katniss Everdeen or Harry Potter).  However, the main similarity I see in all these non-romance genres is usually a theme of good triumphing over evil. And who doesn't like to see the underdog (good) triumph?

3. Write genre fiction.

Interestingly, only one non-fiction author is on the list, that being Bill O'Reilly. And having read his Killing Lincoln, I can only say that it was hardly written like non-fiction. It appears clear to me that most people read to escape real life. (But again, non-fiction tends to be written in a more complex manner, thus appealing to fewer readers.)

4. Be prolific.

Most of the authors in this list are prolific writers, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steele...some of them publish three or more novels a year! Others, like George R.R. Martin, are known to take a great deal of time on their novels. However, Martin didn't hit the list until recently, when his HBO series, Game of Thrones, took off.

5. Write a successful series.

Who says kids don't read anymore? J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series), Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games series), Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson series), Jeff Kinney (Diaries of a Wimpy Kid) are all authors of wildly successful children or young adult book series. Several of these are series that not only children or young adults enjoy, but adults.

Not only kids like series though--look at Janet Evanovitch and her successful series. O'Reilly's recent assassination books, Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, etc., could be considered a series in the similar subjects and styles. Patterson has several successful series going at all times, with several popular characters. Dan Brown has his Robert Langdon series... you get the idea. If you get a good character and don't kill him off in your first book, take him on to a second.

6. Have a lot of luck.

The main thing all these authors have in common is luck. From Rowling to King to James, each author had their share of luck (and perseverance) in getting their work published and noticed.

To be honest, there are a million different reasons that one author hits it big while another flounders on the bottom of the list. I find myself constantly in the minority, steering clear of the best-sellers and striking out off the path to discover those lesser-known books and their authors. I find those to be the most rewarding, the most enriching reads.

7. Get your book made into a movie.

It seems that nearly all the authors on this list have their books or series made into movies. Obviously, although there is money in books, there is more money if you get a movie made out of your book.

What about you? What is your favorite genre? Why? What keeps you reading that genre?

For the article from Forbes, click here.