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JK Rowling, Robert Galbraith, and the State of Publishing

Josh leaned on the living room threshold while I wrote, pointing out what he thought was hopeful news from learning that JK Rowling and Robert Galbraith were one and the same.  “See, even bestselling authors — writers of beloved books like Harry Potter — only end up selling 1,500 copies of their books when they keep their name off the cover.”  Instead of making me feel good — even JK Rowling can’t sell a lot of books when people don’t know that it’s JK Rowling — it made me depressed.  Because I don’t have a household name to slap on the cover.  I just have my name.  And it’s a name I share with a “model” who may or may not also make soft core porn.

It is really really hard to sell books.  It’s never-wracking to put your work out there for critique, but the marketing side is also exhausting and frustrating.  I have to be honest: asking authors to market their work is like asking a painter to cook you a meal.  It’s not that a painter can’t cook, but making a souffle is not in a painter’s repertoire.  Painting a souffle would make more sense.   And so marketing — which requires people to be social and assertive — goes against the traits commonly held by writers such as shyness and a love of solitude.  It’s not that I can’t market a book, but it’s not something I do particularly well.

And most writers probably have ridiculously unrealistic expectations for their work anyway.

I get why JK Rowling probably published under the name Robert Galbraith.  I suspect that there is a lot of exhaustion that comes from the publicity that goes into something that is immediately poised to be a bestseller.  She may have wanted to see how her work was received when her name wasn’t on the cover; people and critics alike approach a JK Rowling book with a different eye than they do an unknown author.  I don’t even begrudge the woman needing additional accolades, or gathering proof that she could write a great book all over again.  Even the most successful people need their ego stoked from time to time.  Having glorious achievement after glorious achievement doesn’t remove the need to still have achievements in the future.

But still, the whole exercise filled me with a sense of dread.  Even good books don’t sell very well.  Bestsellers tend to be by the same people over and over again, or by the breakout freak occurrences that you can never plan for.

And the other millions of books languish somewhere between flop and fine.

1,500 books sold is nothing to sneeze at.  Really, you would be dumbfounded if you knew some author’s numbers.  As in, they’re much lower than you suspect based on the press and display at Barnes and Noble.

My brother had a great post on his blog about the whole JK Rowling reveal.  I think he’s onto something that perhaps the hope comes from a redefinition of success in the future.  That we stop thinking a certain number is a “bestseller” and use other metrics to determine what was well-received.  And yeah, it sort of does help (a bit) to know that editors took a pass on JK Rowling’s book when her name wasn’t attached to the project.  I’m sure plenty of well-received, bestselling books wouldn’t sell again if everyone’s memory was wiped and their books were submitted again.  It’s literally the luck of the draw in addition to talent.  Really good books get overlooked every single day.

The Time magazine article on the topic even pointed out a famous publishing experiment:

In 1979 a would-be writer named Chuck Ross conducted an infamous experiment in which he retyped the entire of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Steps, which had won the National Book Award in 1969, and submitted it to 14 publishers and 13 literary agents under the name Erik Demos. Every single one rejected it—even Random House, which had published Steps in the first place. Kosinski’s name changed everything.

There is also the side that I haven’t seen tackled yet which is that many of us — myself included — would have never found Cuckoo’s Calling because we don’t enjoy crime novels.  If I don’t end up reading this, it will be because it’s not a genre I spend a lot of time exploring.  And if I do end up reading, it will be because of JK Rowling’s name.  Attaching her name to a novel I would have never touched otherwise simply because I think I don’t enjoy crime fiction may open my world to other crime writers.

Her success, in other words, may mean the success of others.

At least, that is how I am choosing to console myself as I go back to typing my next novel, visions of book sale figures dancing in my head.


1 Kasey { 07.22.13 at 9:05 am }

I just finished Measure of Love and I have to say even if its not a best seller jumping off shelves -it touched me. It made me value my marriage more. It took me away from my daily struggles as I read it for a few days. So even if you aren’t selling as many as you dream of you are touching lives one line at a time.

2 Amy { 07.22.13 at 9:30 am }

It is funny by funny, I mean “odd” that most assume that once you publish a book and then another one and it makes it on a bookshelf that you have made a windfall of money and have your feet in the sand somewhere, with a fancy umbrella drink. I guess the same group that assume all you do is say, “I have a blog” and thousands read and the cash rolls in. I really enjoy your books Mel, you are so talented and are a great story teller!

3 Chickenpig { 07.22.13 at 10:52 am }

It is always good to go out of your comfort zone and read something you wouldn’t normally. I don’t read youth fiction normally, but The Fault in Our Stars was beyond amazing. I’m reading a detective crime novel now because my MIL gave it to us and it is gripping and wonderfully written. I would have never started reading it at all if my son wasn’t playing a game on my Kindle and I wasn’t bored stiff. (“Broken Harbor” by Tana French). I am not surprised that Rowling wouldn’t dip her toes in the detective genre, I don’t think the Brits can resist.

I don’t think I would have read your books if I hadn’t known you because I’m not a chick lit kind of person, either. And I hate to cook, so the whole cooking foodie blogger book writing thing leaves me cold. But I LOVED Life From Scratch and Measure of Love…so there you go. What I think is that you need to write a book not based so much on reality and step out of your genre 🙂

4 deathstar { 07.22.13 at 12:01 pm }

I also read Life from Scratch (which is a huge accomplishment for me consdering I think I’ve read 3 books in 2 years) and I if you added a sassy black character for me to portray in a movie, I’d love it even more. As a matter of fact, I think it would make a wonderful Hallmark movie. Market that! I was just saying to hubs the other day that I don’t think James Patterson is REALLY writing all those books that keep showing up in Costco every other day. There’s always another author under his name and I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a team of writers putting this stuff out and they just slap his name on the top and he just looks them over. Does that really happen? And also, I envy your talent, I’d love to be able to write a book and actually get it published. That’s an enormous accomplishment by the way. You do know that, right? I’m not sure why your agent is not marketing your work so that it actually SELLS. One well placed interview on a food network show? Just an idea. Send a copy to Rachael Ray. Hey, maybe I should be your agent!

5 Brid { 07.22.13 at 2:16 pm }

I like the gender-bending thing going on here, too. I haven’t read the Galbraith book you’re talking about (nor had I even heard about it), but I always find it interesting if I am mistaken or unaware of the author’s (or a character’s sex). Do we read or process things differently if we think we are reading a woman or a man? As much as I hate to admit it, I think I sometimes do. There was a character in a Greene book – I can’t remember which one because I always make that fatal mistake of reading everything of an author’s work in a clump – that I thought was a woman. I was shocked when I discovered later that that character was a man. I also always like to trick my know-it-all first-years with an excerpt from a George Eliot text… just to make a point.

6 Christa { 07.22.13 at 2:33 pm }

I’m one of those horrible book readers that doesn’t buy a book unless I know the author or unless it’s gone viral. I didn’t even read my first Harry Potter book until after the Half Blood Prince came out in theatres and I simply HAD to know what happened to Snape. Still, I don’t think I will buy this new J.K. Rowling book. Just doesn’t seem to be my taste.

7 a { 07.22.13 at 3:34 pm }

I read a lot. I’ve been getting most of my recommendations online, these days. I’ll try reading anything, although, now, when I get bored, I skim to the end and call it a day. I also like to browse at the library. So, that reminds me – I need to donate my copy of your book to the library. I think they’ll put it on the new book shelf, which equals more browsers picking it up!

Maybe you need to revisit your idea of success. First, it’s a major deal to get them to even look at your book idea. Second, you have published 3 books with a contract (I assume) for a 4th. Maybe you’re not making millions like J K Rowling, but you’re doing pretty well. It’s good to want more – as long as it doesn’t overshadow the knowledge of what you’ve already achieved.

8 persnickety { 07.22.13 at 6:32 pm }

DearAuthor.com did have a bit of a discussion on the last point, but when I went back to link it, that particular page has been lost (it’s the Friday 19th news post, maybe others will have better luck).

It’s possible I would have read it eventually- my mum reads a lot of crime novels, and passes them on, and if it was on a discount deal I would probably have considered getting it on kindle, but not immediately.

It does show how hard it actually is to sell books.

9 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.22.13 at 6:47 pm }

“somewhere between flop and fine.”

Love that line.

I have no way to tell how my book is selling, but when people ask how it’s doing I am pleased to say it’s well-received. I was thinking the other day about if an author had to choose between the two, what would most people prefer?

I’d take well-received.

(But I’d rather have both, of course.)

10 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 07.23.13 at 9:01 am }

Every time I read your take on publishing it makes me not want to go there. (Assuming I could muster the skill.) Yet the things I want to do seem depressing in all the same ways. Getting ahead is so much about publicity.

11 loribeth { 07.23.13 at 5:02 pm }

It’s natural to stick to reading the kinds of books & authors (& blogs, for that matter) we already know & stay in our cozy little niches. And yet it’s always fun to step outside the comfort zone & discover a new author or blog or topic of interest. Which is why I love the book club & am so glad it’s back. 😉 As Chickenpig said, it’s been years since I read any YA fiction, but I loved “The Fault in Our Stars.”

My sister loves reading mysteries & I had just assumed she had read the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich (which I have yet to read myself) — they just sounded like they were right up her alley & I was surprised that she hadn’t read any of them. One day she called me up laughing & said, “Curse you!” She had picked up the first novel & now she’s hooked. 😉

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