So, You Think You Need a Publisher…


One of the most common raps against self-publishing — put forward militantly by the publishing industry — is that any truly good writer will not only be discovered eventually by a reputable publisher (a “gatekeeper of literary quality”), but also benefit from the kind of sophisticated marketing efforts that only the publishing industry can provide. By contrast, for a self-publishing author, even a good one, to break through without such industry support (their argument goes) is well nigh impossible.

So, now comes the story of a new debut mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, by a previously unknown author named Robert Galbraith. It was released this April by Sphere, an imprint of the highly respected Little, Brown Book Group in Britain, and by Mulholland, an imprint of Big Five publisher Hachette, in America. The novel benefited from these major publishers’ promotions and from general bookstore distribution. It received a host of positive reviews in various trade publications. It attracted rave blurbs from well-known authors.

In short, The Cuckoo’s Calling got all the support from Big Publishing that any author could dream of.

Yet the book sold poorly — fewer than 1,500 copies combined in Britain and America since its April publication. Clearly, the book trade, with all its editors, cover artists, sales people, marketing savvy, and traditional distribution channels, managed to do very little for this well-reviewed novel by a brand-new author…

…except that the author was not brand-new. Nor was “his” name Robert Galbraith; that was a pen name.

This week, the author has been outed as none other than — are you ready?

J.K. Rowling.

Yes, the creator of the monster-mega-selling Harry Potter series — even while relying on her past publisher, editor, and sales staff — could not sell more than a few hundred books under another name. In fact, when first submitted to publishers under her pseudonym, her novel was turned down by the fiction editor at Orion Publishing, who said that while it was well-written, she didn’t think it would fare well in the traditional publishing marketplace.

And, of course, she was right: It didn’t — not until J.K. Rowling was revealed this week as its author. Now, overnight, the book has shot up to the #1 sales position on Amazon. Until her magical name was attached to it at last, though, the novel was well on its way to obscurity and the remainder tables.

So, here’s a question for you:

If Big Publishing can’t effectively market the work of J.K. Rowling when she disguises her identity, what does it have to offer most other first-time, “no-name” authors?

Another question:

Do you think any first-time, no-name author would get the kind of advance and contractual terms that J.K. Rowling did for this book?

This revealing incident casts a writer’s choice — either traditional or independent publishing — in a completely different light, don’t you think?

UPDATE: I don’t normally amend or embellish my own comments with input from other writers, but Kristine Kathyrn Rusch has just posted a brilliant analysis of the JK Rowling affair, one considerably more nuanced than my own, above. She comes to the same critical conclusion about Big Publishing, but from a different direction.

For one thing, she believes that “Robert Galbraith” was succeeding at the expected level of sales for a debut Brit mystery — not great, but not especially bad. Also, the publisher, she says, did not give the book special promotion. The book received standard publisher’s treatment for a midlist title, and got standard sales results. Now, I believe that this underscores my point: that this is about as much as a traditionally published author can expect these days from Big Publishing, and clearly — it ain’t much.

But Rusch makes a different point: that the blockbuster-obsessed publishing industry’s harsh response against Rowling for conducting this experiment is another example of its contempt for authors, and its refusal to take responsibility for its own shortcomings. It is an intriguing line of argument, and I urge you to read what she has to say.

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25 Responses to So, You Think You Need a Publisher…

  1. LisaGraceBooks says:

    Yes, it’s a crap shoot. The account that “outed” her was deleted shortly after, and other reports on the web say the book actually sold around 449 copies through booksellers and had a ranking around 166,000 at the time of the “outing.”
    It appears her publisher knew the book would sell if her name were attached, and they weren’t interested in seeing the rankings sink any lower. At this point with the advance reviews in and their marketing budget spent for this experiment, the only thing they had left was her name.
    This shows that quality books can falter if the right mavens aren’t reading them.

    • RobertBidinotto says:

      Yes, indeed, Lisa. I don’t know if it’s a matter of “the right mavens,” exactly — unless you include the gnomes at Amazon in that group. Certainly, they were responsible for making HUNTER take off the way it did. But even before they spotlighted it, I’d sold about 4,000 copies in the first five months — a sales clip that was certainly better than Rowling/Galbraith was on. In that period, the only “mavens” were Amazon customers, who gave it fabulous reviews, and various bloggers.

      But in retrospect, and in comparison with Rowling’s recent experience, it appears that I would have gained little sales traction from a starred review in Publishers Weekly or blurbs from big-name authors. Those industry-centric bells and whistles don’t really do the big job, which is to identify and narrowly focus a book’s marketing at its target audience. In that game, indie authors, who can focus on just one book and control its entire publishing and promotional process, have huge advantages over big publishers, who must scatter their attention, dollars, and efforts across many titles.

  2. Excellent take, Robert! I hadn’t thought about that angle. As an unknown author self publishing seemed the best road to take, and I’m happy I took it.

  3. R.M. Prioleau says:

    It’s the unfortunate truth. People are hesitant in trying new authors they never heard of, and a well-known author can write a very bad, poorly-edited book, and still sell millions just because of the name alone. I suppose it explains why JK didn’t disguise her name when she wrote The Casual Vacancy. But in JK’s case (especially), it can be a double-edged sword. People know JK for Harry Potter, and thus, every book she writes will be compared to HP in some way — even if it’s in an unrelated genre. So the question is, how does someone esteemed as JK separate her entities based on the types of books she writes and still be able to appease her fans?

    • RobertBidinotto says:

      That’s a great question.

      Readers get extremely proprietary about their favorite authors and their works, and they can unfairly feel betrayed by an author who stops meeting their expectations. That’s one reason that many authors have used pen names to publish different types of books, so as not to confuse or disappoint different target audiences.

      Since Rowling has an indelible “brand” as a fantasy author, I think she was prudent to try publishing under a pseudonym, because she clearly wants to experiment and write outside the fantasy genre. But, as you note, it is extremely hard for her enormous Harry Potter following to make the leap to other kinds of books and genres.

      I hope Rowling will continue to write whatever she wants to, perhaps developing pen names to keep her authorship secret when she wishes. Her long-term challenge will be to write under pseudonyms and not be discovered.

  4. MishaBurnett says:

    I keep thinking about the sales numbers for The Bachman Books before and after Steven King was outed as the author. Book promotion is such a self-fulfilling prophecy–publishers decide in advance what is worth promoting and what isn’t.

    • RobertBidinotto says:

      I don’t know those stats, Misha, but I imagine that they’re similar to what Rowling experienced with this new book. It all comes down to developing a good “brand”: a name/image/concept that sticks in your target audience’s brain as something unique. Once you’ve developed an appealing brand, you can stamp it on your work and guarantee that your target audience will be interested. Until then, though, you’re invisible in a vast sea of competitors.

      King and Rowling have developed brand names for what they do. The upside is that a certain percentage of readers will now buy anything they write. But that’s also the downside, because when they write things that thwart the expectations that those fans have come to expect from their “brand,” the readers will rebel in anger — and the authors may even lose a percentage of them for good.

      If Rowling wishes to experiment, I think it would be smart for her to continue to use pen names, develop each of them into its own “brand” for a certain kind of story, and try very hard to keep them secret. Eventually, those pen names will develop their own appropriate fan following. But stamping “Rowling” on a host of disparate books may cause her to lose a good portion of her fan base over time, because they’ll find that her name no longer reliably communicates to
      them the kind of story that they find interesting.

      • conradg says:

        The Bachman books didn’t sell at first, but after about three or four were published, they finally began to take off and even start to get on bestseller lists. That wider exposure made people start to wonder if King was the real writer, and soon he was forced to admit it. So while it’s an example of how instant success isn’t guaranteed, it does show that a good write will probably, over time, find their audience and gain success.

        • bidinotto says:

          Thanks for that information. I didn’t know how King’s “Richard Bachman” books had sold. But what you say seems to support the idea that good writers do, in fact, find their audiences over time.

        • RobertBidinotto says:

          Absolutely. Due to the constant turnover of titles in bookstores, traditional publishing is based on the “big launch” strategy, because their books need to make a splash in bookstores quickly. Within a few months, they’re shipped back or onto the remainder tables. However, “indie” books depend on the “long tail” — of building an audience over time, then repeating the long-term benefits in royalties, rather than an up-front advance.

          The new world of ebooks and online retailing thus favors the self-published author, and it works to the disadvantage of all traditionally published authors except the “big names,” who can negotiate huge advances and then not worry about royalties. That’s why more and more traditionally published authors are exploring the self-publishing alternative.

  5. Pingback: So, You Think You Need a Publisher… | The Passive Voice | Writers, Writing, Self-Publishing, Disruptive Innovation and the Universe

  6. spencernovels says:

    Great post. This highlights a sad fact of our culture: Fame sells. No fame = moderate to poor sales (not just books, but also movies, TV, art, etc.). Quality takes a backseat to celebrity status. Hence a book contract for Snooki.

    • RobertBidinotto says:

      Sure, fame sells. But for an unknown author, the question is: What is fame and how does one generate it?

      That’s where the principles of effective branding come in: of developing a memorable identity based on some catchy, sticky, distinctive concept that causes you or your work to stand out from the crowd.

      If a writer can build a distinctive, memorable brand for himself and/or his work (say, by building a unique fictional “world,” or by creating a memorable series character), then he is likely to be successful in attracting a significant target audience. But if he doesn’t — or if his established brand later becomes fuzzy and confusing, by defying his fans’ expectations — then he risks losing that audience.

  7. Julia Barrett says:

    Great post. Great post. Great post. Shall I repeat that? I assume she outed herself because of poor sales.

  8. April L. Hamilton says:

    She went totally indie with Pottermore; her mistake was returning to BigPub in the first place.

    • RobertBidinotto says:

      When you’re as rich as Rowling, I couldn’t fault her at all for sticking with “BigPub.” It gives her a vast distribution into all sorts of bookstores and big-box stores that an indie can’t get (yet)…even though she could make more money per sale by self-publishing. But I don’t think money is a high priority for her anymore.

  9. Randy Ingermanson says:

    JKR is a terrific writer, so this little experiment shows that luck is an important factor in publishing. Luck ran against her this time.

    The other clear result of this experiment is that the author’s name is worth much more than the publisher’s for marketing a book.

    It seems that the only advantage a traditional publisher gives an author these days is paper distribution. And the value of that is declining every month as e-books erode p-book market share. The world is wide open to indie authors right now.

    • RobertBidinotto says:

      I agree with everything you said, Randy. Especially the points that the author’s name means more than the publisher’s (Does anyone go searching for books because they’re issued by Simon & Schuster or St. Martin’s Press?), and that paper distribution is their only big advantage.

      Also, let me take this opportunity once again to recommend to writers your superb website, Randy–and also your great book, Writing Fiction for Dummies, which I think is the most comprehensive guide to fiction-writing available. Both your website and the book are gold mines of information on fiction-writing, and I hope writers visiting here will check them out.

  10. Elise M Stone says:

    I think one of the things that’s been alluded to but not specifically stated is patience or, perhaps, impatience in this case. As conradg said, it took Richard Bachman three or four books to start selling enough books to reach the bestseller lists.

    My guess is that her publisher outed her, because under traditional publishing’s produce model, the book was probably due to be pulled from bookstore shelves because of lack of sales. Knowing that her name alone would turn that around, it was leaked.

    And that’s another reason to indie publish. Even if your first book doesn’t climb the Amazon charts, you can write more books and wait for them to find their audience.

  11. Henry Paul Howard says:

    I have written a book about my battle with food & drug addictions…It is selp-published and although it is available on Amazon and for the Kindle, I have not made much money…I sell autographed copies from my home and have made a small fortune (Hey! I’m a Hundred-aire!)…

  12. Michael J. Sullivan says:

    here’s some bookscan numbers on that book. It’s first week’s release (usually the big week for a traditonal book) was 87. The following week 76. Each week up until the discovery. 19 – 75 books. Now keep in mind that bookscan only reports about 65% – 75% of US PRINT sales and not ebooks. For comparison….last week it sold 65,968.

    • RobertBidinotto says:

      Thanks for those numbers, Michael.

      Rowling and her publisher have been claiming much better sales figures than that for the period prior to her identity being revealed. However, several media outlets claimed they weren’t that high. I tend to believe what you and they report — that sales of the book were extremely limited until Rowling’s name was exposed.

      If true, it suggests that even a Rowling-quality book didn’t benefit much from a publisher’s imprint and marketing efforts. That news should be sobering for those aspiring and midlist authors who are considering traditional publishing. It seems to me that the only writers who are sure to benefit from an affiliation with a publisher are already-successful authors like you, Michael: bestselling indie authors who aim to expand their audiences by getting their books into traditional print-book outlets, like brick-and-mortar stores.

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