James Patterson released 14 blockbuster novels last year while writing hardly a word. Whether you consider it genius or fakery, his writing franchise has made him a bogglingly wealthy man.

Patterson has taken top spot in the just-released Forbes fiction rich list, with an estimated income of $US94 million ($NZ118 million) last year. He outstrips the number-two ranked Stephen King, who settled for making ends meet on a mere $US39 million ($NZ48 million).

But Patterson is in little danger of getting RSI from all that frantic storytelling.

These days his job as the figurehead of James Patterson Inc chiefly involves coming up with the story ideas and farming out the writing to lesser-known authors. The New York Times has reported that he doesn't even use a computer, or even a typewriter - he writes notes in longhand on a legal pad and gets an assistant to type them up.


His defence is that he is driven by the challenge of imagining the stories, not the challenge of writing the words.

"Stories are somewhat easy to tell. Once you start worrying about the sentences, it gets a lot trickier, or harder, and the result isn't necessarily positive," he told the UK's Daily Telegraph.

Well, uh, yeah. Any self-respecting wannabe author will tell you that it's easy to come up with a brilliant idea. Far harder to turn it into a brilliant book. Even more difficult to sell it to a publisher.

Patterson has discovered a knack for the first and third part of the process. Why bother with the dull hard work in the middle?

His fondness for delegation has raised the ire of some of his former fans, who complain that the franchised books vary wildly in quality.

But, hey, people are still buying his books by the shelf-load. As long as they keep selling in the millions, he'll stick to his successful formula.

Patterson is not the first fiction writer to be franchised, or to delegate. Alexandre Dumas is said to have worked with a ghost writer for many of his books, including The Three Musketeers.

The publishers of Virginia Andrews and Robert Ludlum didn't even let death get in the way of a good story. Ludlum died 11 years ago. The latest novel in his Jason Bourne series, The Bourne Imperative, was released two months ago, with Ludlum's name emblazoned on the cover. In smaller print is the name of Ludlum's successor, Eric Van Lustbader. Lustbader has written seven Bourne books. Ludlum wrote three.

Janet Evanovich, who came third on the Forbes list, with an estimated $US22 million ($NZ29 million) last year, also ropes in a couple of jobbing authors to pad out her oeuvre.

"I had a lot of ideas in my head that I just didn't have time to put on paper," she once explained.

Next year, the Forbes list is expected to look a little different, with estimations hurling around about how much EL James has been earning from her alarmingly popular Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. At the height of sadomasochistic mania this year, she was estimated to be earning $US1.3 million ($NZ1.6 million) a week. And she's sold the film rights for about four times that figure.

Forbes says this will assure her a place near the top of next year's list.

Hunger Games writer Suzanne Collins has also had a boost to her income this year, with the release of the first movie in the trilogy driving new fans to bookstores worldwide.

And we're yet to see what impact JK Rowling's first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, will have on her pocket money. It's released worldwide on September 27.
Incidentally, you could argue that EL James is an unofficial Twilight franchisee. Fifty Shades of Grey originated as Twilight fan fiction, with Bella re-imagined as a virginal (but not for long) college graduate, and Edward as an aloof billionaire.

Twilight writer Stephenie Meyer made number 13 on the Forbes list, down from fifth last year and second in 2010. James Patterson topped the list in both years.

Forbes highest-earning authors ($US)
1. James Patterson: $94 million.
2. Stephen King: $39 million.
3. Janet Evanovich: $33 million.
4. John Grisham: $26 million.
5. Jeff Kinney, $25 million.
6. Bill O'Reilly: $24 million.
7. Nora Roberts: $23 million.
8. Danielle Steel: $23 million.
9. Suzanne Collins: $20 million.
10. Dean Koontz: $19 million.
11. JK Rowling: $17 million.
12. George RR Martin: $15 million.
13. Stephenie Meyer: $14 million.
14. Ken Follett: $14 million.
15. Rick Riordan: $13 million.