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?
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?
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.