How To Make Millions Writing Books

Yes, it is possible!

shirtless John Green

GalleyCat came out with its list of this year’s highest-paid writers, and I think we can all learn a little something from it.

1. James Patterson $95 million
2. Jeff Kinney $19.5 million
3. J.K. Rowling $19 million
4. John Grisham $18 million
5. Stephen King $15 million
5. Danielle Steel $15 million
5. Nora Roberts $15 million
8. E.L. James $14 million
9. Veronica Roth $10 million
9. John Green $10 million
9. Paula Hawkins $10 million
12. George R.R. Martin $9.5 million
12. Dan Brown $9.5 million
12. Rick Riordan $9.5 million

There are some evident patterns here. Most of these authors are male or go by gender-obscuring handles (EL, JK). Several of these authors write series for younger audiences. Others write in genres. But the pattern I’m most struck by is the one visible in the names themselves. I’m not an expert on cause-and-effect or anything, but it can’t be a coincidence that six out of these 14 authors have the letter J as either a first or last initial. That’s almost half. Plus, Nora Roberts also writes under the pen names J.D. Robb and Jill March, so part of her financial success comes from books she writes with her J mask on. Indeed, what may be even more striking is that the first four in the list all have first names that start with J. If you throw in the letter G, which, let’s be honest, is basically a low-rent J, the numbers become overwhelming.

Do we associate that J (or G) with literary proficiency? Is that perhaps part of the secret sauce responsible for the phenomenal careers of John Grisham and John Green?

But I’m not just here to ask questions, I’m here to answer them, or at least to speculate wildly in the direction of an answer. Ready? The letter J works so well for writers because it is cooler than other letters, and it is cooler because it is younger.

Quora tells us that “the letter J was first distinguished from ‘I’ by the Frenchman Pierre Ramus in the 16th century, but did not become common in Modern English until the 17th century, so that early 17th century works such as the first edition of the King James Version of the Bible (1611) continued to print the name [Jesus] with an I.”

Remember that scene in The Last Crusade where Indiana Jones almost messes up spelling out the name Jehovah for this very reason?

In the Latin alphabet, “Jehovah” begins with an “I.” J as a letter is only about 400 years old. That’s why you may be subconsciously drawn to people named Jake or Jack. They seem edgier, more modern, because their names actually are edgier and more modern. Fifteen years ago already, a writing teacher told me not to give a sexy or bad-boy character a J name, because it was such a cliche. Like, of course we want Rory to sleep with — er, end up with — Jess*. If his name were Hubert, would we feel so strongly about him?

I thought not

The magic holds true for talk show hosts, too. Perhaps you’ve noticed that it seems almost mandatory for men on late-night — Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, James Corden, John Oliver, and, if you want to reach further back, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno — to have names that start with J.

Could it just be that J is a popular letter across all fields? It doesn’t seem so. Yes, the #1 “most successful” name in American business is John.

John is by far the most popular executive name in the U.S.
There were 4,698 executives named John in the U.S. in 2014. This March, the New York Times published a slightly distressing article titled, “Fewer Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John.”

That might also help explain why we buy books by men named John: we subconsciously associate the name with authority.

But the other 24 “most successful” names include only a light sprinkling of Js. Some J names, like Jimmy, are among the least successful (our current TV landscape is an anomaly I guess??), and Justins are full of regrets.

Overall, then, commercial literary success seems distinct from business world success.

In conclusion, tell, even beg your child not to be a writer, but if your child insists on proceeding with their foolhardy decision, make sure they know that the best thing they can do for their career is to go by a name that starts with J, and/or write genre fiction series for young readers. You’re welcome.