The Business Rusch: Blame The Writer
Over the weekend, The Sunday Times of London revealed that mega-bestseller J.K. Rowling published a mystery novel under the pen name Robert Galbraith. The entertainment media and the blogosphere has been having a field day with this—how could they have missed it? Why would this fabulously wealthy woman ever sell a book under a name not her own?
Perhaps to get rid of the incredible scrutiny?
The entertainment media politely pointed out that the book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, got excellent reviews, generally refraining from admitting that once Rowling had become famous, her Harry Potter books usually got savaged by “real” reviewers, as did the literary novel she wrote last year under her name. (Although Time Magazine, in an article published Tuesday, hinted at the way that Rowling’s reviews changed depending on which name was on the book.)
Unknown and “new,” Galbraith got a fair shot from the reviewing class, untainted by money and the belief that any writer who hit the bestseller list was awful, and the critics liked what they saw.
While the initial articles about the Big Reveal mostly turned on the modest sales of Galbraith’s book followed by the gigantic boost in sales once Rowling’s name was on the title, the articles in the publishing blogosphere turned sour almost immediately, doing what traditional publishing does best: Blaming the author combined with a complete misunderstanding of the very business that the publishers (or at least those running publishing blogs) profess to know so very well.
This part of the story began when editor Kate Mills of Orion Publishing admitted via Twitter that she had turned down Galbraith’s book, not knowing that the book had come from Rowling. Mills wanted other British editors to confess that they turned the book down because—obviously—they had.
The key for me in this little part of our fractured publishing fairy tale is this: Mills saw the book more than a year ago. How do I know this? It takes time to make book deals and then to publish the book. It takes a minimum of a year to negotiate that tortured labyrinth. So Mills read the book and remembered it.
Editors don’t remember books that fail. Editors don’t have time to read books that fail all the way to the end.
Mills read the book, remembered it, and actually considered it. When asked about her tweet, she gave the appropriate editorial response, and one I believe entirely. She said, “As an editor you’ve got to love what you publish. I didn’t love it…”
Exactly. I’ve said that hundreds of times, usually to my husband, after some writer who had just won an award with a story that I had turned down when I was editing for Pulphouse or F&SF, shook the award at me and said, “Regret not buying the story now?” I never did. Editors are hired for their taste, after all, and that story, whatever it was, wasn’t to my taste.
Just like Cuckoo’s Calling wasn’t to Mills’ taste. She will probably keep her job after this because the book was so super-secret; most editors who turned the book down are probably cowering in their cubicles right now, because their publishers might not be as understanding. Time Magazine was accurate to call Mills “brave” for her admission; in some places, it could cost her job.
The fact that the same imprint, Sphere, of Little Brown Book Group published the book in the UK doesn’t surprise me either. Even though the editors there did not know, any more than Mills did, that the book came from Rowling, they like Rowling’s work. They published The Casual Vacancy. Writerly voices are writerly voices are writerly voices. Reader/fans feel an affinity to a certain voice, even if they don’t recognize it.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Mills never read Harry Potter or started the books and decided they just weren’t for her.
Publishing is not an exact science. If it were, a pseudonymous JK Rowling book would do the exact same business as a book with Rowling’s name on it. Exactly the same.
Publishing learned that same lesson twenty-eight years ago, when a Washington DC bookseller named Steve Brown read an advanced reading copy of a book called Thinner. About two pages in, Brown thought that either the book, published under the name Richard Bachman, was written by Stephen King or “the world’s best imitator.” Brown did some research, tied the books to King, and then wrote King to ask.
The story broke that Richard Bachman, who had quietly publishing since 1977, was indeed mega-bestseller Stephen King. Bachman, who had had published four novels before Thinner, was actually King. Bachman’s sales rose by a factor of ten within the week, and then continued selling at King levels ever after.
Bachman was born in a different publishing era. No computer programs to compare the sentences, no quick and easy access, no anonymous tweets to a newspaper outing the author. Bachman had a chance to build a fan base, and he did: by the time the pre-King announcement had been made, the sales on Richard Bachman books had more than doubled, from an early print run of about 20,000 books to 40,000 books for Thinner. Bachman was slowly building a name, a reputation, and a midlist success.
He was doing what King wanted him to do: He was providing a safe place for King to experiment. In “The Importance of Being Bachman,” his 1996 introduction to The Bachman Books, King wrote:
The importance of being Bachman was always the importance of finding a good voice and a valid point of view that were a little different from my own. Not really different; I am not schizo enough to believe that. But I do believe that there are tricks all of us use to change our perspectives and our perceptions – to see ourselves new by dressing up in different clothes and doing our hair in different styles – and that such tricks can be very useful, a way of revitalizing and refreshing old strategies for living life, observing life, and creating art. …I love what I do too much to want to go stale if I can help it. Bachman has been one way in which I have tried to refresh my craft, and to keep from being too comfy and well-padded.
Sound familiar? There are echoes of this in J.K. Rowling’s public statements about being outted as Robert Galbraith. She said:
I hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience! It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.
After the publicity died down, King said he had this reaction to his outing:
Bachman was never created as a short-term alias; he was supposed to be there for the long haul, and when my name came out in connection with his, I was surprised, upset, and pissed off.
Clearly Galbraith wasn’t conceived as a short-term alias either; Rowling had sold another book under that name, and she was planning to slowly build a series. I’m sure her reaction to the outing was similar to King’s, no matter what she says in public.
Her experiment was working; she was getting good reviews and the book was selling exactly the way a hardcover mystery novel with a bad cover sells in England. Little Brown UK told The Bookseller.com that The Cuckoo’s Calling (which was released in April) sold 1,400 print copies and 800 ebooks domestically, plus 2,000 export copies and 3,800 audio downloads. That’s a good run for a first British mystery. Time’s article claims that the book sold 500 copies in the US according to Bookscan (which only tracks about 50% of sales). Galbraith was on the right kind of growth track for a classic mystery novel.
Before she knew who Galbraith was, bestselling mystery writer Val McDermid blurbed the book, saying, “The Cuckoo’s Calling reminds me why I fell in love with crime fiction in the first place.”
After she found out who wrote it, McDermid laughed. She had no idea. She had liked the book so much that she had invited Galbraith to speak on a panel, only to be told he was unavailable.
Writers—readers—don’t do that if they don’t like the book.
The book’s quality is in dispute in only one place. Traditional publishing. Before the publishing industry started arguing on Tuesday whether or not Rowling did this as a stunt to generate publicity on the book (really? Seriously? Are you people that insane?), it was defending Kate Mills, the editor who had passed on the novel.
At least one other UK editor, Kate Mills at Orion — another part of Hachette UK — was offered the manuscript and turned it down. She said, “I thought it was well-written but quiet. It didn’t stand out for me and new crime novels are hard to launch right now.” And to an extent her instincts were right, given the poor sales.
(Those of you who don’t subscribe to Publisher’s Lunch might want to look at former agent Nathan Bransford’s blog where he makes similar statements. He wrote (among other things), “Some of [the book’s lack of commercial success] may have had to do with the fact that it was by most accounts, a quiet novel.”)
So let’s parse this analysis, shall we?
First, the British mystery tradition—which Galbraith’s book falls into—is quiet. Agatha Christie’s novels are quiet. Dorothy L. Sayers novels are quiet. Multiple New York Times bestseller, P.D. James—who has had a mystery writing career with books published worldwide—writes quiet novels.
“Quiet” does not equal “poor sales.”
Secondly, as I said above, the sales are spot-on for a debut UK crime novel. Not great, not bad. But not J.K. Rowling numbers either because—clue stick, Cader!—the book wasn’t published under her name. It deliberately went under the radar, and that anonymous tweet short-circuited the book’s trajectory. Would Galbraith’s books have grown? We don’t know. Now the secret is out, and the experiment is over.
Mills was right to pass on this book; she didn’t like it, so she couldn’t nurture its growth. That’s the defense the industry should have given her, if, indeed, she needs a defense at all.
But what’s striking to me—and what I’m seeing on many publishing blogs I read—is that they all blame the author. If she had written a “bigger” book, if she had published it under J.K. Rowling, this book would be a success.
Traditional publishing is now claiming that the editors who rejected the book were right, and the author—in her insistence on anonymity and in writing a “quiet” book—is the one who ruined the sales of this novel.
Welcome to traditional publishing in the 21st century.
Their job isn’t to nurture books. It’s not to publish books that readers want to read. Their job is to publish blockbusters, and any book that isn’t a blockbuster is the fault of the author, not the fault of the acquiring editor or the fault of the sales force or the fault of the publishing company itself.
Have any of you looked at the cover of The Cuckoo’s Calling? Tell me what genre that is supposed to represent. Women’s fiction? YA? Before some of you jump on me by telling me this is a British book, realize this: I buy British mysteries in hardcover and I know what a good mystery book cover looks like from the UK.
This isn’t it.
Would Galbraith have sold another 5000 copies with a better cover? I doubt it, because the publisher did a standard print run for a debut mystery. The publisher did not promote the book beyond sending it to the publishing trade magazines for review, and it didn’t expect the book to find a level until the second book was published next year.
By not hyping this book, the publisher planned to show growth in the series, so that they could then buy the next two or three or whatever.
That’s how it’s done.
The bad cover was a mistake, but a survivable one.
The book did exactly what it was supposed to do. It came out within the contained British mystery field. It generated some buzz. It got in-genre readers and a few others, and theoretically, the next book would have sold double, and the next book would have sold even more, and Galbraith would slowly have become a reliable mystery name.
That was the same trajectory that Richard Bachman was on before his cover was blown in 1985. And for Bachman—and for King—and for readers—it was working.
Bachman and Galbraith are midlist authors, following midlist career paths. King and Rowling are blockbuster novelists because their novels hit the zeitgeist and became the next big thing.
What Michael Cader and Nathan Bransford and all of those industry insiders forget, if they even know, is this:
Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, sold to Doubleday at a beginning writer advance. Only a few thousand copies of that hardcover were printed, and King’s work took off with the paperback, because publishers had just realized that The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty had sold millions of copies—a surprise—and publishers were looking for the next Blatty. Instead, they stumbled on King.
This sort of thing happens all the time: Scott Turow wrote Presumed Innocent and it became a blockbuster, and publishers, searching for “something just like Turow” happened upon a working midlist writer named John Grisham who used to sell copies of his first novel out of the back of his car because bookstores didn’t want it.
JK Rowling’s first advance? Modest. She wrote a small fantasy novel that caught on with kids and became a phenomenon. She was not born JK ROWLING, BESTSELLING AUTHOR, when she finished that first book. The Harry Potter series grew, just like Galbraith’s series might have grown, like all the other bestsellers that were waiting, as midlist books, for something to tip them into the stratosphere.
Traditional publishing has become such a blame-the-writer game. The royalty statements aren’t accurate? Blame the writer for asking. Negotiate a contract? Blame the writer for insisting on good treatment. The book sold to expectations, but expectations changed? Blame the writer for writing a “quiet” book…
…or for not promoting enough or for not telling the editors her real name or for not providing a platform. Or, or, or…
Gee, traditional publishing folks, could it be that your expectations are off? Could it be a problem in your current business practices? You guys all wonder why independent publishing is taking off, why readers are reading self-published books in as great of numbers as they are reading books published by the Big Five.
Have you ever considered that it’s because you forgot how to build books, how to support authors, what readers really look for?
JK Rowling hasn’t forgotten. She just wants to be left alone and write.
Which, interestingly enough, was exactly what Stephen King wanted as he was writing the Bachman books. What kind of literature would we see now if King had the room to experiment without all the hype? What’s going to happen to Galbraith now that Rowling has to feel all those expectations—and now that she knows the books will be savaged in the reviews because she wrote another “quiet” book in a literary tradition she obviously loves?
You want to see the contempt traditional publishing holds for the people who it has built its business on? Read the industry comments about the Rowling/Galbraith incident. Not the comments from readers—who are happily lapping up the book—or the comments from the newspaper writers who are simply quoting press releases. Read what the industry bloggers are saying, think about the kind of cynicism it takes to believe that Rowling would do this as a publicity stunt, and realize that these people are the gatekeepers. People who have no idea about their industry’s history, no idea about what readers want, no respect for the writers who provide the content on which these vast publishing empires are built.
Remember that these gatekeepers just attacked JK Rowling for her choice of publication method, for her “quiet” book, and for her “publicity stunt.” JK Rowling, who has made billions for the industry.
What she is going through now is but one example of what all of us who have been in traditional book publishing for the last ten years have experienced. That contempt, that lack of respect, that blame, when something goes “wrong” by traditional publishing’s definition.
It’s a toxic environment in traditional publishing right now, and it will only get worse as the mergers continue. Welcome to the Blockbuster World. If you can’t provide an instant hit, we don’t want you. Even if you are JK Rowling, but prefer to be called Robert Galbraith. You’re a brand, not a writer. And you’d better be successful, no matter what traditional publishing throws at you, otherwise, it will toss you under that proverbial bus. Like it’s doing with JK Rowling right now.
I’m in the middle of teaching the advanced master class along with several other speakers, all geared at showing writers how to survive in this new world of publishing. I won’t have a lot of time to respond to comments this week, but I will read them all.
And remember, this blog is an example of the new world of publishing. Ten years ago, I would have said everything I just mentioned to all of the professional writers at that master class, but I wouldn’t have written about it in public, because I would have been billed a “troublemaker.” Maybe I am a troublemaker, but I can survive on my own now—and this blog is part of that.
The blog must pay for itself. So, if the spirit moves you, please leave a tip on the way out.
Note: A few folks have pointed out that the original British cover is better (and honestly, my fault for not double-checking in the middle of this workshop). Here it is, and it is a proper British mystery cover, which explains the debut novel’s good British sales. (And yes, those of you who have come over from indie and are thinking only indie thoughts and making indie-oriented comments, those are good debut sales numbers for the UK, as I said above.)