Monday, July 15, 2013


by S. L. Duncan

This week, Robert Galbraith was revealed to be a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling, the true author of THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, a book that ‘debuted’ with Little Brown’s Mulholland Books on April 30th, 2013.

Until the unmasking, the book had sold a mere 1500 copies. Decidedly bad news for any book at a big publisher.

Apparently THE SUNDAY TIMES of LONDON, which must have reporters lining its halls, begging for stories to report, decided to investigate how a debut novel could have been so confidently written and broke the story. Starred, for instance, and quite gloriously, by Publisher’s Weekly, which insists of its ignorance about the whole ruse. A careful trail of not-so-loosely connected evidence sent our intrepid reporter bounding through London (did Dan Brown just roll his eyes?) back to Little, Brown, where it was discovered that the editor of THE CUCKOO’S CALLING was, coincidentally, the same editor of THE CAUSAL VACANCY, Rowling's other Little Brown novel. Of course, there are no coincidences, and this great mystery ended with the revelation of the Harry Potter scribe as the author beneath the cloak of invisibility.

Now, whether or not you believe this all seems a bit too good to be true, what does seem to be honest is how the book performed on the market without a big name to push sales. It is true the book received good reviews. And a star from PW always helps to sell books. Yet, at the end of the day, the book only sold 1500 copies. Or 499, if we’re going by Neilsen Bookscan.

After the revelation? THE CUCOO’S CALLING sits at#1 on nearly every book list out there.

What we’ve just been subjected to is an amazing experiment for the publishing industry. The Debut vs. The Name (where quality of the story and writing are equal). And it seems there is an amazing separation of the two. Take note, because if you are a debut author, this is the hill you’re climbing. You could write like J. K. Rowling – hell, you could be J. K. Rowling – and regardless of your talent, or the brilliance of your tale, you may be happy to get 1500 copies of your book out the door.

So without a name to rely on – and something tells me “Robert Galbraith” wasn’t exactly making the blog rounds – it falls back to us as the author to build a voice for our books on the market. Publishing, it seems, is a slow handshake. A molasses introduction to win readers over and gain their trust, until one day they can just look at your name and know yours is a book they’d like to read.

What does remain constant, debut or superstar (and everywhere in between), is the need for quality in the work. So write hard, friends, and pay attention to all the wonderful advice on this blog about what you can do to make your work stand out.

And if all else fails, legally change your name to Stephen King or something.*

*That’s probably bad advice.  

S. L. Duncan writes young adult fiction, including his debut, the first book in The Revelation Saga, due in 2014 from Medallion Press. You can find him blogging and on Twitter.


JeffO said...

It should be pointed out she was also rejected by several editors at other publishing houses before ending up with her 'regular' editor/publisher.

There are some people who seem pretty upset, feeling like they were 'duped' or 'played' by either/or Rowling/her publisher. I kind of feel like she's in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' position here.

brighton said...

I wonder if it made much of a difference the fact that she couldn't really promote the book in the same way a real debut author could have, since obviously that would have given the secret away, and if that had a big effect on why the sales were so small before the reveal?

I mean obviously sales will be much bigger with the reveal, but I think they would have been bigger before the reveal if she had been able to drink some polyjuice potion and go out as Robert Galbraith and do a typical marketing push.

Jemi Fraser said...

It must be so incredibly hard to try to follow up something that was SO huge. I like her attitude in doing this - gutsy. Brighton's got a great point too - that polyjuice would have helped :)

S. L. Duncan said...

I'm not sure promotion was limited any more than for most debut authors. Personal appearances are an increasingly rare thing, and Robert Galbraith could easily exist in the anonymous ether of the interweb with fake facebook accounts, twitter, etc. But those are definitely possibilities as to why "his" sales sucked. But it is fascinating what a name can do for a book.

anadventureaweek said...

I am fascinated with the whole "debut vs. name" argument as well. This entire story is really troubling for any writer looking for success in publishing, however I 100% give JK Rowling credit for throwing us a curveball and getting the world talking about it.

Debra McKellan said...

I'll try to ignore the "THERE'S NO HOPE FOR NEWBIES" moral of the story here. lol

Damyanti said...

Yes, it demonstrated what we already know. All other things being equal, name sells. We newbies forge ahead, regardless, because writing a good book is also in some ways, it's own reward.

Angela Ackerman said...

Interesting situation, isn't it? One has to wonder how much marketing push she got because of who she is, even though she wrote under a different name. Dd the publisher do only what they might for a debut, or more?

1500 is so surprising, but then I think most sales numbers are smaller than we think they are.


S. L. Duncan said...

I think that's a good point, Angela. I'd love to have a look at a few author's Neilsen Bookscan numbers.

Matt Sinclair said...

Perhaps another lesson is that 1500 books sold isn't too bad a figure for a "debut" author.

Christine Rains said...

I recently read this story, and I do wonder about what marketing she got because of who she is too. Darn it, I was going to change my name to Stephen King.

S. L. Duncan said...

I see your point, Matt. Debuts should not have very high expectations and hope for a pleasant surprise. Really, the degree of success of that number is relative to the number of books that were printed. So, if 2000 books were in stores, that 1500 isn't so bad. If his/her print was 20000, well, that's trouble.