When most people list influential figures in pop culture, they think of actors and musicians, as well as directors, politicians, athletes and other figures. Occasionally, however, authors are also able to transcend the literary world and become notable pop culture icons. Though few, if any, will receive tabloid stories, paparazzi photographers or instant recognition walking down the street in the way that other famous figures do, their work can pervade cultural discourse, shape trends and make millions of dollars.
With billions of combined book sales, hundreds of New York Times number one bestsellers, dozens of film adaptations, forays into other media like television and video games, and worldwide popularity, these ten authors have come to dominate not only the publishing world, but become name brands unto themselves. Some of them have even proven that their name alone will sell millions of copies of something even when they have no involvement in a project. Whether you like their work or not, it’s impossible to deny their fame, fortune and influence today.
10. Dan Brown
Though Dan Brown is far less prolific than many of the other writers on this list, having published just six novels and two humor books, his sales totals of well over 200 million copies make him an important pop culture figure. While his first three novels (Digital Fortress, Angels and Demons and Deception Point) did not sell well upon release, the immense popularity of his 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code made him an international sensation overnight. The Da Vinci Code has sold, depending on the source, somewhere between 80-100 million copies alone, and its success also made his earlier novels bestsellers as well.
He has since published two more books in his Robert Langdon series, The Lost Symbol in 2009 and Inferno in 2013, which topped the New York Times Bestseller list for 2013. The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons have both been made into movies, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, and a film adaptation of Inferno, again directed by Howard, is set for a December 18, 2015 release date.
9. Nora Roberts
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Dan Brown, Nora Roberts has published over 200 novels in her career, and was the first writer inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. Her novels have also combined to spend the equivalent of over three years on top of the New York Times Bestseller List since her first published novel in 1981. On top of her many romance novels, Roberts has also written the futuristic detective series In Death, under the pseudonym J.D. Robb, which have proven to be just as popular. With totals sales of well over 400 million of her combined bibliography, Roberts’ name has proven to be a recipe for publishing success.
8. Nicholas Sparks
In his eighteen books and their various film adaptations, Sparks has proven himself an industry unto himself, as he has become one of the best known purveyors of romantic drama. Most famous for his first novel, The Notebook, and the 2004 adaptation starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, Sparks has satisfied readers and sold over 89 million copies of his books. Though reviews of his books and their film versions are often criticized as formulaic, melodramatic and emotionally manipulative, they have proven immensely popular with readers and filmgoers alike. An adaptation of his 2011 novel The Best of Me will reportedly be released in October 2014, while his 2013 novel The Longest Ride is projected for a 2015 film.
7. Stephen King
Since releasing Carrie, his first novel, in 1974, King has established himself as arguably the most famous horror author of all time. Amongst his 56 novels and other short story collections and non-fiction works, however, he has proven himself to be a master of many genres. His Dark Tower series falls under a mix of fantasy and westerns, while other novels like 11/22/63 and The Running Man are science-fiction and others still fall under more conventional drama. His combined works have sold over 350 million copies and have been adapted into many famous films, including Carrie, The Shining, Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist.
6. Danielle Steel
Though her books have not been given the Hollywood film adaptations that others on this list have, Danielle Steel is the bestselling author alive, with over 800 million copies of her books sold. Steel’s status as a bestselling romance and drama writer is especially impressive because of her refusal to write sequels or series, using her name to boost sales instead. Approaching 100 total books published, Steel has captivated readers with her depictions of upper class familial drama, and her willingness to tackle darker themes than many other authors in her genres. Her novels have been translated into over 25 languages, and over 20 of them have been turned into made-for-TV movies.
5. J.K. Rowling
When news that The Cuckoo’s Calling, a mystery novel by Robert Galbraith, was actually written by Rowling under a pseudonym, sales skyrocketed, proving Rowling’s popularity once again. Starting as a struggling single mom, her Harry Potter series went on to sell over 400 million copies, spawn a multi-billion dollar film franchise and transform her into an international celebrity. Her follow-up adult novel The Casual Vacancy sold over a million copies, and the success of The Cuckoo’s Calling has led her to announce she will turn it into the first of a longer series. The Harry Potter movies were instrumental in launching the current YA-novel film adaptation craze responsible for Twilight, The Hunger Games and Divergent, as well as many less successful attempts, and the trend to split the final part of a film series into two parts.
Rowling and Warner Brothers have also announced that her Harry Potter spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be turned into a film trilogy. While Potter is at the heart of her success, its appeal and financial success is so immense that it places her above more prolific or better-selling authors on this list.
4. John Grisham
Grisham‘s name is synonymous with legal thrillers in a way few authors could ever be with a particular genre. On top of 26 novels, Grisham also has a short story collection and a legal series targeted at the 9-12 age group entitled Theodore Boone, after its main protagonist. Five of his novels are set in different genres, mainly sports dramas, but his legal thrillers continue to excite readers. He has sold over 275 million total copies of his books and had several of his books turned into films, including six alone from 1993 to 1997. Drawing A-list actors like Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Matt Damon and Dustin Hoffman, the vast majority drew relatively strong reviews and box office showings.
3. James Patterson
Best known for his mystery/thriller series starring Alex Cross, which has been adapted into three films – Kiss The Girls (1997) and Along Came a Spider (2001) with Morgan Freeman and Alex Cross (2012) starring Tyler Perry – Patterson has become a dominant force in the publishing world. Patterson’s Cross series is at over 20 books, while his Women’s Murder Club series has reached 12 and his newer Michael Bennett series sits at six installments. Patterson has also published a dozen stand-alone adult novels and an eight book sci-fi teen series called Maximum Ride, and co-authored adult novels and two series aimed at older kids or teenagers: Daniel X and Witch and Wizard.
Dominating sales in all age groups, Patterson has sold over 300 million copies of his books and in recent years his US book sales have been greater than Dan Brown, Stephen King and John Grisham combined. He holds the New York Times record for the most bestsellers and, from 2006-2010, one out of every 17 books novels sold in the US was written by Patterson. Patterson is arguably the most successful author writing today, and his name has become an instant recipe to sell books. As a result, since 2010, between his various series and age groups, Patterson has written or co-authored a staggering 50 books.Despite an increasing trend for him to co-write his books with others, in order to produce more titles with his name on it in a given year, demand for his work shows no sign of slowing and fans eagerly await new installments in each of his series.
2. Robert Ludlum
Best known for the Bourne trilogy that launched the film adaptations starring Matt Damon, Ludlum’s thrillers combine for somewhere between 300-500 million total books sold. Though he died in 2001 at the age of 73, Ludlum has posthumously become a publishing brand, as his name has been used to sell many millions of books with which he had no involvement. Ludlum published 22 of his own books during his lifetime, and had another five he had written published after his death. Ludlum was also listed as a co-author for the first six books in the Covert One series, despite passing away just before the release of the second book in the series. The rest of the six were reportedly based upon his ideas, and four more books have since been written in the series by other authors, and more are set to come. There are also three sequels published or scheduled to his posthumous 2002 novel The Janson Directive, and most importantly eight sequels to Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy written by Eric van Lustbader, with a ninth set for 2014. With a likelihood that, within a few years, Ludlum’s name will be on more books published that he had no involvement with than those that he actually wrote himself, Ludlum’s name has become a brand unto itself, responsible for a publishing phenomenon that will continue to produce Ludlum-esque thrillers for many years to come.
1. Tom Clancy
Clancy has published over 100 million copies of his militaristic spy/action thriller novels, most of which centre around Jack Ryan, his family and friends. Four of the Jack Ryan books (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears) were adapted into movies, and a fifth movie from an original script, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, was released in early 2014, just months after Clancy’s death late in 2013. Clancy’s brand, however, extends in other directions as well. After taking a hiatus from his Ryan series in 2003, Clancy worked with other authors to produce five new novels from 2010 until his death. Clancy is also responsible for spawning several series which use his name but were never authored by Clancy himself, including Tom Clancy’s Op-Center, Tom Clancy’s Net Force, Tom Clancy’s Net Force Explorers, Tom Clancy’s Power Plays, and the Ghost Recon, Splinter Cell and EndWar universes. These series include over 50 novels between them.
Clancy is also responsible for dozens of video games, most notably the Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six series. With every indication that Clancy’s name will be used to sell books, movies and video games for many years to come, it is clear that Clancy has transcended authorship to become an important media and pop culture brand, defining the term for other authors to follow.
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