In an article about literary “tastemakers” — a word that, like most marketing-speak, makes me flinchy and argumentative — Forbes examines the 2005 domestic sales figures for fiction writers like Philip Roth ($2.5 million), Jonathan Safran Foer ($2.9 million), Zadie Smith ($1.4 million), Don DeLillo ($368,558), J.M. Coetzee ($902,955), Dave Eggers ($2.1 million), and Elmore Leonard ($2.3 million) alongside those of powerhouses like Stephen King ($15 million) and J.K. Rowling ($254.2 million). Joan Didion ($1.2 million), who has a new memoir out, is also included.
It’s clear that Forbes is really talking about bestselling authors, not literary giants, so let’s leave aside the question of merit for the moment.
Of course these figures are far from representative. Most writers I know hold down full-time, unrelated jobs and struggle to find time to write; Pulitzer prize winner Edward P. Jones was homeless once; National Book Award nominee Mary Gaitskill lives part-time in a dorm room. But the numbers do provide more evidence that, persistent death knells notwithstanding, there’s a steady market for fiction.
And the success of veterans like Roth and Didion suggests that publishers are unwise to give up on writers or ask them to assume aliases when one novel tanks.