The world of the writer has always been one of great inequalities: for every hundred slaving waiters who write furtively by night, there’s a best-selling author commanding seven figure advances on his or her next great work. With the advent of e-readers there was a flurry of panic that the digital age would threaten the written word, but recently it seems the excitement and fervour for writing has returned with some blockbuster books causing as much of a stir as multi-million dollar movies. The world of the writer continues to hold the same sense of romanticism and potential opportunity it always has – and even more, perhaps, with digital literary content growing exponentially. Certainly, mobile devices have changed the way we engage with the written word. Yet, in many ways the digital age has revolutionised the process of reading – and creating literature – as much as did the advent of the printing press.
The result of the fusion of online and offline reading is that writers are becoming less reclusive burrowers and more influential public figures, carrying on a dialogue with their readers. Many writers have healthy public speaking careers running in tandem with their careers in writing, maximising sales and profitability of their work. Indeed even academics, once generally considered the most inaccessible and – dare we say it – dullest of writers are now entering this sphere, with history heavyweights filming documentaries for the likes of the BBC to coincide with a book release. Book sales themselves may have become less profitable but, as such, writers are being pushed to be more creative and interactive. The digitalisation of literature has also made the world of authors more democratic – a novel need no longer endure the seemingly endless bureaucracy of the publishing house before it becomes accessible to the public. The infamous ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, now a worldwide phenomenon, was self-published online – likely too controversial to make it out of the pile on the editors’ desks.
Our top 5 list is an interesting look at the most renowned and influential writers of our time, the writers who’ve endured the literary turn of the tide and have defined an era. Their subject matter covers both fiction and non-fiction and their sales figures enter the million each. What’s more, each of those wordsmiths on the list knows how to expand their message and influence beyond the page and well into the real world. Blogging, public speaking, shorter form writing as well as a strong social media presence ensures that each author remains current, even if they don’t have a new book in the pipeline. Twitter gives fans a chance to see a broader and even more playful side to their favourite authors, even to chat with them directly, creating an intimacy that would never have been possible before. These days, Twitter has become a way of measuring a celebrity’s reach and popularity and – indeed – their influence. There’s more to life than Twitter, of course, and so while we give a nod to those who balance the power of the hashtag with their literary missions – we’ve arranged the five authors by popularity on Twitter – we should note that these aren’t necessarily the 5 most-followed authors on the social networking site. Rather, these are 5 of today’s authors who have had, arguably, the most significant impact on the literary and cultural landscape of their generation.
5. Malcolm Gladwell: 196,909 Followers
Canadian journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell is arguably out of place as the lowest ranked member of our list because – while his Twitter following might pale in comparison to the others on our list – his numerous books and articles have in many ways paved the way for non-fiction writing today. Gladwell began his career at the Washington Post, covering topics as diverse as health, business and technology but his big break came when he was hired as a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine in 1996. What followed for the author was a leap from long-form journalism- with a distinctive, playful style of discourse – to an author with a cult following. From his first book, ‘The Tipping Point’, to his recent publication, ‘David and Goliath’, every one of Gladwell’s books has hit The New York Times’ bestsellers list. His latest book – currently ranked number two in the non-fiction category- has been on the best-seller list since its release in October 2013. Gladwell has forged a second successful – and lucrative – career as a public speaker, lecturing at just about every high-flying conference from TED to the New Yorker magazine’s own annual festival. His speeches, on everything from underdogs to spaghetti sauce, have seen him become something of a viral phenomenon. With an estimated net worth of around $30 million, not to mention the $40,000 he gets for speaking engagements, it’s fair to say Gladwell is a highly sought after left-wing journalist. Which may beg the question, why so few followers on Twitter? Proportionally, his 196,000 followers are huge; Gladwell has tweeted only 52 times, clearly keeping his best material for his other arenas.
4. Salman Rushdie: 668,465 Followers
Salman Rushdie is one of those authors may people have read, but even more people have heard of. The Cambridge-educated, Indian-born writer has forged a career that, at its hight, has seen an accolade of literary praises and awards thrown his way. But at its darkest, Rushdie’s work has put his own life in danger. His first novel, ‘Grimus’, was published in 1975, but it was his second book – ‘Midnight’s Children’ – that truly established the author. The novel, like many of Rushdie’s works, draws on his own Indian heritage. It chronicles key events in the nation’s history through the eyes of a pickle-factory worker. The critical and commercial success the book received rendered Rushdie an influential public figure rather than a mere fiction writer and when his seminal novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ was published in 1988, the book caused almost unprecedented controversy. Muslims in his native India, as well as in Pakistan, protested to the publication claiming the book insulted their religion. In Iran the controversy went even further, with an Iranian religious leader issuing a fatwā ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie.
The author was forced into hiding with the protection of the British government. Recently things have calmed down for the author, who has re-emerged into public life with great success. Rushdie is an honorary professor of a number of the top universities in the world, – among them the prestigious MIT – and continues to write. Although once a prolific tweeter, Rushdie has recently signed off from the Twittersphere, saying “Book to finish, etc. See you when it’s done in a year or so. It has been fun, even when it hasn’t.” That phrase could probably sum up the author’s entire career.
3. J.K. Rowling: 2.78 Million Followers
It seems fairly safe best to assume you all know who J.K. Rowling is, but just in case you don’t, here’s a brief synopsis: the writer was born Joanne Rowling 1965 and was brought up in England and Wales. After a degree in French and Classics, a stint working in London and some time teaching English in Portugal, Rowling returned to Britain where she settled, with her daughter, in Edinburgh. And that’s where the first of the Harry Potter books were written.
After numerous rejections, Rowling sold the book to a publisher for the serious bargain of $4,000. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, (or Sorcerer’s Stone if you’re in the US) was subsequently published in 1997: the novel quickly gathered momentum, meaning that by the time the second book was published the following year, it shot straight to the top of best-seller lists. The rest is a bit of a fairytale. The books became the most popular in the world today, and Rowling generated millions in revenue from book sales as well as from a plethora of Potter-branded merchandise; but the real jewel in the crown was the films. Released in November 2001, Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone was the highest-grossing movie of the year, raking in around $93.5 million in those two months alone. Since completing the series, Rowling has remained in the literary world, with her first novel for adults, ‘The Casual Vacancy’, published in 2012. More recently the author published the crime novel, ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. If the books, films and 2.78 million Twitter followers weren’t enough to convince you of Rowling’s success, maybe the following statistic is: Rowling’s pseudonym Robert Galbraith has almost 10,000 followers on Twitter. Not bad for someone who doesn’t exist.
2. Stephen Fry: 6.5 Million Followers
Stephen Fry may not be particularly well known in North America, but in his native United Kingdom he is an institution. Not only is he a prolific tweeter (you don’t get six and a half million fans by doing nothing) but he’s also an actor, director, TV presenter and, of course, an author. He has interviewed everyone from Malcolm Gladwell (hello again!) to Lady Gaga and his quick wit and careful social commentaries are seen as the epitome of British culture at its very best. This Renaissance man began his television career as a comedic sidekick to his Cambridge University pal Hugh Laurie in the show A Bit of Fry and Laurie. That’s the same Laurie of ‘House’ fame.
Fry has published poetry, a series of autobiographies, and some poignant and candid accounts of his struggles with bipolar disorder. The writer is an active campaigner on mental health issues, as well as being a vocal proponent of international gay rights. His popular quiz show ‘Q.I’ has become an international phenomenon. Fry’s talents seemingly know no boundaries. Among some curveball projects, Fry has collaborated on the Little Big Planet video game for which he provides the voice-over. Fry’s bubbling Twitter feed reflects these many facets of the man’s life and is a must-see for any public figure struggling to come to terms with social media. With a Twitter, tumblr, website and an unending array of video content online, this modern world author understands that books are but the beginning of his empire.
1. Paulo Coelho: 8.8 Million Followers
Looking a bit like Mike from Breaking Bad, you may be forgiven for underestimating Coelho’s credentials as a writer. Success as a writer was slow to come to the Brazilian-born author, and held down careers in journalism and the theatre before he was inspired by his first novel. Coelho’s first books sold modestly and even his most famous novel, ‘The Alchemist’, was a slow burner in terms of sales. In spite of this, Coelho’s text gathered momentum, going on to sell over 40 million copies worldwide as well as being translated into 71 different languages.
Now,17 years after publication, The Alchemist is still in the New York Times’ top ten bestsellers list. The author’s background in journalism and the media may account for his extensive following on Twitter, as well as his regularly updated blog – a success which ironically appears to be rare for the average author. With opinions on current affairs, life, and even sports as well as succinctly tweeted life philosophies, Coelho brings the curling charm and spiritualism of his writing to the 160 character medium. One of his latest offerings states the following: “Life is like sex: if you want to enjoy, don’t rush.” A philosophy we may all aspire to live up to.