Updated 19/07/13 - It has now been revealed that the tweeter was connected to a lawyer who was aware of the pseudonym. So even though it did look suspicious, the publishers are actually innocent in the unveiling. Which I do find rather heartening.
Unless you’ve been living with your head in a sound-proof box this week you’ll know that JK Rowling was revealed as the real author of a crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling. The book - depending on who you listen to - sold between 450 - 1500 copies. I’m inclined to believe the lower numbers given the distribution of the book in the UK. A number of well known authors including Mark Billingham and Val McDermid blurbed the novel* and it got a couple (but not that many) of good press reviews.
Then JK Rowling was revealed as the author. The publishers deny leaking this information, but I still have to wonder how anyone noticed the “similarity to Rowling” when the book sold so few copies. And yes, she did share a publisher and agent with her pseudonym, but again that isn’t an unusual situation for an agent to build up a good rapport with a publisher and sell more than a few of their clients to them. When this happened, of course, sales increased by a staggering amounts and bookstores that had ignored the book ordered in droves.
What does this tell us?
It tells us that debut authors have a tough time. It tells us that names and platforms shift books and while good writing may rise to the top, it takes time. A lot of time. Ian Rankin didn’t sell too well until the seventh or eighth book. James Lee Burke won critical acclaim and then got lost in the publishing deserts for years until he rose like a Pheonix from the ashes. Most debut authors don’t sell.
Because readers are often afraid to take the chance.
That’s the basic truth of it. Working in bookselling for years, I know how hard it is to move a debut author. James Oswald is one of the biggest exceptions I have ever seen, but even he had a great platform to lift off from (as well as having talent), and a marketing campaign that you would rarely see for a new author. Most of the time, you can tell everyone about a debut author until you’re blue in the face but readers are still wary. And its no surprise. With crime writers in particular, readers like to have long affairs with authors. They like to come to authors with big backlists that they can read from the beginning or authors that come with the seal of approval of multiple publications (must mean that they have staying power). They don’t like it when debut authors come along, steal their hearts and then vanish without a trace.
But all of this makes it tougher for debut authors. After all, all a debut author often has to go on is their words. The lucky few have a great platform, but most are just plying their trade. The book should speak for itself, but in the modern world. its the people who shout loudest get the most attention. There are several reasons I can think of that Galbraith didn’t get attention until he took off that Scooby Doo mask and revealed himself to be JK Rowling. the most important of which is that the book wasn’t really pushed that hard. Working in the trade, I was aware of its existence, but the buzz was quiet. Nothing pushed it above the crowd, least of all the frankly rather dull cover**. It was another police procedural in an already overcrowded market. And while Galbraith’s pseudonym may have had a background in this according to the blurb, that’s not unusual these days, Matt Hilton and Luke Delaney both spring to mind as former police officers, so its not that unusual a background for a crime writer to have, necessarily. Certainly its not guaranteed to get them instant attention. And as The Literary Critic herself (Lesley McDowell) pointed out, having an author who can’t do the publicity trail may also have an effect upon the book itself (was there even a fake Galbraith twitter feed or fb presence?)
The fact is that, even though it should be, good writing isn’t always the first thing people look for when buying a book. They want assurances about what they’re reading whether through testimonials they trust or an assurance of the author’s pedigree. To create a brand from a good writer takes time. Its no wonder that Galbraith’s sales were so apparently low (but as lots of people have said, not bad for an unknown debut in hb) even when the writing might have been brilliant. There wasn’t enough volume to convince reader’s to listen. And the same is true of so many debuts. The fact is that a debut shouldn’t be about selling millions in one go. It should be about entering the market and starting to build something. One book’s sales are not enough to judge an author’s worth. Even Rowling didn’t start shifting until book 3. And who can forget that Raymond Chandler didn’t really shift that well for three or four books (part of that being to do with the fact he was published in hardcover only for those books)?
I would love the publishers to have been able to leave Galbraith alone for a few books and see how he did, same as King did with his Bachman persona. It would have been an interesting experiment to see how difficult it really is for a debut author to make it, especially when everyone knows the sales potential of that author's talent already. But at the same time I’m happy for Rowling that people who have read the book have enjoyed it. And I hope she is still able to exploit this second persona. After all, there is little more fun in this world than writing gruesome violence and dark deeds, as we at Do Some Damage can attest.
In the meantime, can Mr Stephen King please step forward and announce that he’s really me? Oh, what do you mean that isn’t how this works?
*cynics claim they must have known the truth as all three share a publisher. Yeah, it looks odd, but frankly I can see why publishers would do interhouse blurbs/reviews and it doesn’t mean that a) McDermid/Billingham were just being nice or that b) they knew who they were blurbing. I’ve met both McDermid and Billingham on several occasions and my instincts tell me that they are essentially honest types, so let’s just leave that particular conspiracy to one side, shall we?
**And yes, perhaps I’m one to talk - - this is not about targetting Galbraith/Rowling, however
I have never understood why large publishers don;t spread the risk/reward around a little and sell debut authors at a lower price. It would help to get some potential readers over the hump (do I really want to spend $25 on some guy I never heard of?). Profits on the book might be lower, but their not making any money if the book doesn't sell at all, and they could be laying the groundwork for their next big author.
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