J.K. Rowling vs. the Debut Author

CuckoosI am one of the thousands of people who have recently bought J.K. Rowling’s “new” mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling. When the book was simply an obscure, if well-reviewed, debut novel by a writer named Robert Galbraith, I had no interest — quite simply because I didn’t know about it. And even it I had, would I still have bought it? Perhaps. I love mystery novels — but there are hundreds of new mysteries released every year, and how would I know that this one would be worth not only my money but my time? As soon as I learned that Galbraith was a nom de plume for Rowling, however, I scooped it right up. Not only because I thought it might be well written but because, by that time, I was intrigued by the “scandal“. No-name author = no sales. Mega-huge author = bestseller list. (For the record, I really enjoyed the book. I hope Rowling writes other Cormoran Strike — what a Harry Potter-esque name for its troubled detective protagonist! — mysteries.)

This brings up one of the perplexing issues authors face in the publishing world right now: that of reviews and sales. It’s a circular, chicken-and-egg issue. You are a debut novelist. Do you have any chance of writing a best-seller? It actually may be out of your hands.

Consider this: You write a solid book that reviewers like. Those who actually review it, that is. There are almost no national papers reviewing books anymore. Reviewers such as Publisher’s Weekly are read mostly by those in the industry. And to snag a review in People or — gasp! — the New York Times Book Review is an almost impossible feat. So with fewer outlets reviewing, how will potential readers know about your book? They don’t. And so you sell very few copies in your first couple weeks on the market. Booksellers look at those numbers and decide not to restock copies and take your book out of its front-of-the store location (if it was there to begin with). And when it’s time to write your second book, your publisher looks at your sales numbers and offers a lower advance.

There are other issues at play other than reviews and publicity, of course. The e-book revolution has significantly changed the ways publishers publish, and I plan to discuss this often on this blog, but for a good overview as to how digital publishing affects debut authors, see this 2010 Wall Street Journal article. In short: “mid-list” authors — those who are not the marquee best-sellers but who nevertheless write books that, in the past, would have sold respectful numbers — are being squeezed out.

But back to the issue of publicity. Who gets the reviews? Big-name authors. Who gets the front-of-the-store placement? Those same authors, who bookstores know will sell — e.g., J.K. Rowling.  And if you’re not a big-name author who commands the attention of the publisher’s p.r. machine, the pressure to sell and seek reviews is left very much to the author him or herself, which is why many publishers also are very interested in a potential author’s social media “platform” — yes, even for fiction writers. In other words, how many people can an author herself convince to buy her book? Can she write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal? Can she exchange Tweets with other authors who will recommend her novel? Can she leverage her network to get on the Today Show?

So I do encourage all writers to make a place for themselves in the social media world and to forge connections that will help them find their readers. This piece is an interesting summary of what several agents look online for when evaluating a potential writer.

Lest  you get too discouraged, however, I am still an idealist (or try to be!). I really do fervently believe that if the writing is good, editors will recognize that. My friend Lacy, whose novel EARLY DECISION was just published is a case in point — she is truly the only one of my friends not on Facebook (gasp!) but, yet, her writing credentials and contacts were solid and her prose stunning.

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2 Comments

September 3, 2013 · 11:41 am

2 responses to “J.K. Rowling vs. the Debut Author

  1. It’s funny…twenty years ago, I took a class at Princeton on the publishing industry. A central proposition of the course was that the publishing industry was on the cusp of major changes that would arc toward democracy and meritocracy; a major metaphor of the course was the then-embryonic beer industry that was arcing toward microbrews, localness, quality. And yet, here we are. Mostly I find this amusing because we have these assumptions about the “natural” behavior of systems, most of which discount the influence of natural corporate self-interest. But perhaps the democratization is coming? Your thoughts?

  2. As an e-reader only (unless someone lends me a book or I get on at the library) I rely heavily on GoodReads and Amazon.com reviews. While those books in the 2.99 and below range (I pay more though for 2nd in a series if I like the first book) could stand some better editing it’s easy to shell out a few dollars for something well reviewed and in the genre I am interested in (currenty dystopian youth lit). I know that the authors rely heavily on amazon reviews to sell their books (at least that is what they say in their acknowledgements). However, I am terrible about leaving my own reviews! I guess the question is whether the prose or the plot is more important – and that would vary by reader. I was impressed with the prose of Ender’s Game for example and it felt relatable but yet high brow in its literary references/influences but I also loved the fast paced plot of The Born Trilogy which could have used a little more of editorial input to elevate it.

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