By now everyone has heard about J.K. Rowling’s latest book. In as much as that it wasn’t originally known to be written by her. For anyone who hasn’t seen this news piece yet, Rowling recently wrote and published a novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Only the top executives at the publishing agency knew who the author really was. The book got published. It received good reviews, but got very low sales.
That is of course until it was revealed who the real author was. At this point it rocketed to the top of sale charts everywhere as Rowling’s fans rushed to get her latest work because it was written by their favourite author. It’s been argued whether it was ever meant to be known that Galbraith was Rowling; whether it was just a marketing ploy. Personally I don’t think so. Rowling is such a big name she doesn’t need a gimmick like this to sell books. I’m inclined to believe her argument that it was simply to see whether her books would be successful without her name attached. According to Rowling; “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
But somehow this is even worse. I find this really quite insulting to unknown authors.
Part of being an aspiring writer is the quest to make a name for yourself. To do this we need to get published and earn enough money through it to live by. But we all know that even if we’ve written the best novel in the world there is a chance we won’t get published. Our futures lay in the hands of fate, and a slushpile reader. A thousand barriers stand in the way; are they in the right mood, are they looking for your genre at the moment, do they think it will sell, have they signed someone similar recently?
But when you’ve made it, please don’t rub it in the faces of all of us who haven’t. What Rowling’s stunt highlights is that even excellent writers won’t necessarily find success just through the quality of their work.
Reading about this I came across this article discussing the case of Chuck Ross. It highlights this whole concept nicely. In the 1970s Ross decided to test the industry. He wanted to know whether his getting turned down by publishers was simply down to the quality of his work, or other factors. Did quality work always make it through the system?
To test this idea, he retyped the entirety of the award winning novel Steps by Jerzy Kosinski, the best selling novel of 1969. He then changed the title and sent it in to agents and publishers. So did quality writing get instantly recognised?
The answer, of course, was no. Ross was turned down over and over again. Publishers and agents sent his rejection letters telling him that having read the novel that there was no chance of it making a commercial or critical success. Even the publishers that had originally published Steps turned him down. With a form letter.
Wannabe authors live with this. I’m not being sour about it, it’s a part of the industry. We might not like it but we keep writing, keep improving and hope that one day we will make it. If I didn’t want to write even if I never sell a book then I shouldn’t want to be a writer anyway. I know that getting a publishing deal going to take an amount of luck but once I find that luck I’m not going to want to rub it in anyone else’s face. That’s what Rowling has done. She’s reminding us that even successful, established authors can’t rely simply on the quality of their work.