J.K. Rowling is the first author in the history of the world to earn a billion dollars. I do not disparage Rowling when I say that talent is not the explanation for her monetary success. Homer, Shakespeare and Tolkien all earned much less. Why? Consider Homer, he told great stories but he could earn no more in a night than say 50 people might pay for an evening’s entertainment. Shakespeare did a little better. The Globe theater could hold 3000 and unlike Homer, Shakespeare didn’t have to be at the theater to earn. Shakespeare’s words were leveraged.
Tolkien’s words were leveraged further. By selling books Tolkien could sell to hundreds of thousands, even millions of buyers in a year – more than have ever seen a Shakespeare play in 400 years. And books were cheaper to produce than actors which meant that Tolkien could earn a greater share of the revenues than did Shakespeare (Shakespeare incidentally also owned shares in the Globe.)
Rowling has the leverage of the book but also the movie, the video game, and the toy. And globalization, both economic and cultural, means that Rowling’s words, images, and products are translated, transmitted and transported everywhere – this is the real magic of Ha-li Bo-te.
Rowling’s success brings with it inequality. Time is limited and people want to read the same books that their friends are reading so book publishing has a winner-take all component. Thus, greater leverage brings greater inequality. The average writer’s income hasn’t gone up much in the past thirty years but today, for the first time ever, a handful of writers can be multi-millionaires and even billionaires. The top pulls away from the median.
The same forces that have generated greater inequality in writing – the leveraging of intellect, the declining importance of physical labor in the production of value, cultural and economic globalization – are at work throughout the economy. Thus, if you really want to understand inequality today you must first understand Harry Potter.