Blog

Why Did Rowling Make it Big With Harry Potter But Not With Her Pen Name?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

By now most people have heard that JK Rowling (author of the international bestselling Harry Potter series) wrote a crime novel The Cuckoo's Calling earlier this year and published it under a pseudonym Robert Galbraith. An article in the Guardian "JK Rowling publishes crime novel under false name" explains more and is worth a read.

When The Cuckoo's Calling first hit shelves (in April) nobody knew it was written by Rowling. Instead it came out under the guise of an unknown, supposedly debut author. The book got some positive reviews and sold a fairly small amount (1500 copies in Britain). Reviewers weren't buzzing about the book, nobody was talking about it on social media, and it didn't hit any best seller lists or move up too far on Amazon rankings.

It joined the millions of other books that wallow in the slough of obscurity. Under her pseudonym, Rowling became like all the other debut and even many seasoned writers out there, who are a piece of plankton in the ocean of books that are now available.

When word came out last weekend that Rowling was the real author of The Cuckoo's Calling, it shot to best-seller status almost immediately. It's now ranked number one on Amazon for both hardcover and ebook.

Many of us can speculate that with such early low sales on the book, that it was a no-brainer for the publisher or someone else with vested interest to leak the news that Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling. Why make pocket change on a book that could potentially draw in millions?

Many writers and readers, myself included, have found the whole situation a fascinating study of the state of the book industry.

Think about it for a minute. Due to the popularity of the Harry Potter series, Rowling is hailed as Britain's bestselling author of all times. She's a brand name in almost every household in the world. And she's gained untold wealth and fame.

Yet take that same famous writer with her incredible story-telling ability and skillful writing techniques, dress her in another name, and suddenly she's just an average Joe (or Robert!).

What does that tell you about the industry?

Well, it could say that success has a lot less to do with your stories and writing skill and more to do with WHO you are. If you're already famous, if you're already a brand name, then it doesn't really matter what you put out there, people will buy your books.

But how does one reach mega-bestselling status? Is it based mostly on luck? 

It's obviously not based on talent and hard work alone, because there are plenty of other authors out there who have as much talent and have worked equally hard as Rowling but who haven't come anywhere near her stardom status.

What I've noticed is that many of the mega-bestsellers are the forerunners of a new genre (i.e. Rowling with YA fantasy, Meyers with vampire, Collins with dystopian, etc). Sure, there were others already writing in those genres, but the uniqueness and story-telling abilities of the breakout books sparked a widespread interest and made the genre popular.

Those forerunners then opened the door for others. New authors sprang up overnight. But . . . most of those other new authors simply had to be content with riding the coattails of moderate success, none being able to compare with the breakout books.

Obviously Rowling under her Galbraith pseudonym with 1500 in sales wasn't making too much progress down the road toward bestseller status. Who knows, maybe after several books, maybe after establishing herself in the crime genre, and maybe after lots of marketing efforts, Galbraith might have begun to climb a little higher.

The reality, however, is that in today's over-crowded market it's tough for any author, no matter how good they are, to stand out. It takes a TON of work and often multiple books before an unknown author starts to earn a steady income as well as steady recognition. But even with TONS of work, plenty of great authors still languish in the bottom of the Amazon rankings.

The Rowling-Galbraith incident just goes to show the significance of having a brand name. Brand names sell.

Not many authors will achieve mega-bestselling status. But for those who hope to make even a small name for themselves and to rise above the masses, perhaps the key is to stop trying to copy what's already being written. And instead take a voyage of discovery into the unknown. Chart new waters. Be the one to set the trends instead of chasing them.

What are your thoughts regarding Rowling's bestselling status with the Harry Potter series but her paltry sales as Robert Galbraith? Writers, does it encourage you or discourage you?

Readers, why do you think we're so apt to buy brand name authors time and time again while equally well-written books by little-known authors languish?

36 comments:

  1. I wonder if her identity hadn't been revealed and she'd gone on to write more books, if the books would have gained in popularity. I tend to think they would. It's tough for a debut novelist, and I think that sometimes it takes a few books for people to discover great writing. Do I think it would have been the next Harry Potter? No. Do I think Robert Galbraith could have eventually made a name for himself? Maybe.

    ReplyDelete
  2. There are so many angles to this story and lessons to be learned. I agree with everything you've said, Jody, and I agree with Julie. It is so hard to be a debut novelist. Brand and name recognition is so important to novelists building a career. It can take time, hard work, and/or luck.

    One side that I haven't seen anyone debate is the reviews that "Robert" received after the leak. There's a review on Amazon that blasts Ms. Rowling and the publisher for deceiving readers. This concerns me a little because the reviewer seems to say that because she is well-known author she wasn't entitled to use a pseudonym. After blasting the author and publisher for the deception, the reviewer goes on to say it's a pretty good book and well-written.

    This ONE-STAR REVIEW struck a nerve in me. So, we aren't reviewing books anymore based on the quality of the writing and story? I'm not okay with this. And it wasn't the only negative review that was based only on the fact that J.K. Rowling penned the novel and not Robert Galbraith.

    However, someone else points out that they initially reviewed the book based on the fact that it was from a debut author. Now that he/she knows that it was not from a debut author but one of the most famous authors today, the book could have been better. This says to me: newer authors need to keep improving, and readers are expecting their favorite authors to continue to improve.

    I watched a TED talk recently given by Elizabeth Gilbert where she talks about the pressure she felt after publishing EAT, PRAY, LOVE. A reader asked her if she worried that she would never write something as amazing as that bestseller. Her answer was "absolutely!"

    As successful and as wealthy as I imagine J.K. Rowling is, she still wants to write. And I, for one, can't imagine the pressure she must feel to write something as incredible as her best selling series that maybe she feels she'll never live up to again.

    Anyway, sorry for this long comment, but those are the thoughts I've had since this story broke. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree a lot with Heather. Maybe I'm crazy for asking myself this, but have you ever wondered what you would do if you wrote a wildly popular series that sold into the tens of millions (or hundred of millions like Harry Potter) of copies? Would you stop writing when that series was done?

    I certainly wouldn't. I love writing. I get up every morning and I write, even if the writing is crappy and I have to rewrite it the next day. So I've also wondered, how do people like Jo Rowling or Suzanne Collins stop writing after a wildly successful series. Because I wouldn't be able to do what they did, write for years and then just stop.

    And yet we already know that with these terribly popular series, more books by the same author tend not to sell as well. You can see that in Stephanie Meyer. Twilight was her amazing series that people salivated over. She's since written The Secret Life of Bree Tanner as well as The Host. Neither of them swept the market the way Twilight did. You can look at Jerry B. Jenkins and Left Behind and see the same thing.

    So anyway, to shorten my point (which I could probably write about for far too long), if author of a bestselling series wants to keep writing after that series is done, then good for him or her. That's certainly what I would do. But there would be the very messy certainty that no matter what you wrote and how good, it's not going to sweep the market as widely as that one amazing series did. So do you publish under a pen name and potentially sacrifice sales? It's got pros and cons.

    But another thing no one is talking about is The Casual Vacancy, and I think that's a big part of this story too. Jo Rowling DID try writing another book for the adult market, and it certainly sold based on her name alone. But it wasn't well received and got some not so kind reviews, both of the professional and non professional sort.

    So the woman decided to keep writing (or rather, start writing again) and wanted to be evaluated based in her writing rather than her name. Can I blame her for that, not hardly? I'd rather see a talented writer keep writing, even if she's got to contend with some pretty big letdowns from coming of the best selling book series ever in history.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for your thoughtful take on this, Jody. I think you are right on target. The story is affirming in a way. At least I can now say that for a brief time both my novels outsold J.K. Rowling!

    Susan Gabriel
    author of The Secret Sense of Wildflower
    (historical, southern, coming-of-age)
    starred review--Kirkus Reviews

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is an excellent post, Jody, and very thought-provoking. I really respect JK Rowling for wanting to seek unbiased opinion and writing a new book as an "unknown." I'm sure that even with the 1,500 copies sold, it must have been very liberating to her to be disguised. That's the thing about branding... it's both a gift (seeing as her book is now #1 and probably will be for a long while yet) and a curse, now that the wolves have smelled her out and are flinging 1-star reviews without even reading the synopsis on the book jacket. Agreed that the genre trailblazers seem to be the writers who are most successful. As a reader, I know I'm always looking for something fresh. It'll be interesting to apply this to being a writer!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Her publishers wouldn't be able to give her the publicity that they would normally give a new author since her picture couldn't be shown. That would immediately rule out book signings, video interviews, etc. I think lack of good publicity was part of the problem.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Re, what Heather said about reviews—this is a pet peeve of mine, when people give negative reviews over things that had nothing to do with the product (shipping problems are a main culprit in that). That, of course, is why you can't trust the star rating, you need to actually read reviews to see why people picked the ratings they did.

    Naomi, I could swear that I hallucinated the existence of The Casual Vacancy. Isn't it weird how absent it's been from the general conversation! That was my first thought after hearing about this—well of course she went with a pen name, it was the only way for the book to be truly judged on its own merits.

    This is a bit of discouraging news for the rest of us. Hard work isn't enough, luck plays a key role in it, too, that and simply being in the right place at the right time. But here's to hoping we can win just enough luck to get us there.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Jody! I honestly don't know what to make of this! I like to think I am buying a good quality book regardless of the Author's name. However,if the Author already has an acclaim to fame, naturally that also captivates my interest.
    I cannot understand why authors would want to to have half a dozen pseudonyms,if they are already, a "class act"! Is it a ploy to see how well the sales will go and having the back up of their already famed name,if things go awry?

    Why not just use their own names, as you and our other authors do on WoP?
    To me that is far more meaningful and gives a much closer identity/bond with the Author/Reader

    I understand it is a very competitive market, but ..The world is a big place with many readers and they'll keep buying!

    Word of mouth is a wonderful way of promoting books and I'll gladly keep spreading the word over here....That's for sure!

    Take care.:0)
    Rosie

    ReplyDelete
  9. I actually wrote about this exact thing on my blog today. I actually think its a good sign for new authors.

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, with Joy)

    ReplyDelete
  10. I also think it's important to consider how many copies the very first run of Philosopher's Stone sold. The HP buzz was something that built up and up - I'm not aware of it being a big, anticipated thing until around the time the third book came out. It wasn't an overnight success, it took time to build.

    ReplyDelete
  11. You know I think that the reason it got leaked was because of Casual Vacancy's total unlike Rowling-ness. One of the Harry Potter forums, there had been rumors before Casual Vacancy that she was writing a crime novel, then the disappointing (for me at least) Casual Vacancy came out.

    I honestly didn't even know about the new book. If someone had recommended it to me without me knowing it was Rowling, I'd read it and give it a try.

    ReplyDelete
  12. As the sort of person who, rather than trying something new, gets the same meal at a restaurant every time because I know I like it, I can understand why the book jumped so fast in popularity after it got leaked. I very very rarely purchase a new book based on the publisher's description - I get it at the library first, and then if I decide I love it after reading it once or twice, I will buy it. If the library doesn't get it, I probably won't read it, and even if it does, sometimes it takes several months of waffling before I take a chance on reading it.

    However, the exception is when an author I like puts out a new book - because I have enjoyed most (if not all) that author has previously written, I trust that I will like anything new that comes out too, and I will make an effort to own it as soon as possible, whether I can read it for free first or not. Sometimes it doesn't measure up to the older books, and sometimes it's even better; generally, though, it is on par with what they have written before. A new author does not have that reputation to command allegiance, and so people like me are slow to try them, though once we are won over, it's pretty much for life.

    Granted, I think some books become wildly popular because it is popular to like them, and Twilight and Harry Potter seem to be some of those. Does everyone like them because they are cleverly written, with a great plot and fascinating characters? Or is there just a portion who genuinely love them for the writing, and the rest because it's the fad? So as time goes by, the fad will die out, but the people who really like the author's works will keep supporting them.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I think it definitely wouldn't have drawn such criticism if she weren't already so famous.

    But I think you're right, this whole thing really highlights just how hard it is for a new author to even make a living from writing.

    I'm fairly certain my first book hasn't sold anywhere close to what Cuckoo did before Rowling was revealed as the author.

    ReplyDelete
  14. The NYT said, "Speculation was rampant in the publishing world that the revelation was part of a big publicity ploy to help sell books — so much so that Ms. Rowling’s spokeswoman, Nicky Stonehill, was compelled to release a tightly worded statement denying it."

    Still, with just 1500 copies of The Casual Vacancy sold, followed by only 441 copies of The Cuckoo's Calling selling in the UK and approximately 500 in the USA, it appears Ms Rowling's "liberating" experiment didn't produce a very satisfying result. After the Twitter leak of her as the author, the publisher was rushing to produce 300,000 copies, so, despite the media statement, I couldn't help feeling skeptical... until I gave it more thought.

    A writer writes, and even if her financial future was secure, I expect Rowling wanted to continue writing. Her reputation as a successful author would be at risk if a second adult book had lacklustre sales so it makes sense to me that a pseudonym offered not only freedom for her, but also protection. I applaud her for writing what she wants to write even if it isn't her best marketing move. And in the end, she's proving the truth of the axiom that there is no such thing as bad publicity.


    ReplyDelete
  15. Hey everyone! WOW!! I'm just loving reading all of your comments today! You all have such great points about the whole situation. Thank you for sharing. This discussion is so interesting!

    ReplyDelete
  16. When I started writing my first book four years ago I already knew my writing/manuscript wasn't part of the norm. But it was the only why I could write my story and love it. It's the only way the words pour out of me. But it's also sometimes what gets me down. It's different than how most people write... so what's it going to take for an editor to take a chance on me? It did get me two agent contracts within a matter of days after submitting my proposal requests after the 2011 ACFW conference... but still, it's been a long waiting game since then. It's so easy for any of us in the limbo between agent and book contract to feel as if we've simply been tricked into thinking we can write a story well enough, and yes, even "different" enough to make editors and readers LOVE them.

    ReplyDelete
  17. to Naomi: I believe The Host was published before the Twilight series. I may be wrong, though, and I found it a far far better book that all of the Twilight's put together.

    Great post, Jody and the comments, too. Lots to ponder.

    I was sorely disappointed by Casual Vacancy. I couldn't even get past the second chapter due to the amounts of foul language that I felt was gratuitously thrown in in order to make the point that "this is NOT a Harry Potter novel." I read King, John Jakes, etc. I'm not a prude where language is concerned in a book so long as it isn't over the top. I also have 2 brother in laws who fly the F-Bomb every other word. I'm not a stranger! :-) Casual Vacancy turned me off immediately because it was exactly that: gratuitous. Even more so, I haven't touched a Potter book since. Something about her feels less than genuine, now.

    I read the Kindle preview of Cuckoo's Calling. It starts off okay, and admittedly, I may not be interested in continuing it if I didn't know it was her. I'd like to see some of that Potter magic return. I hope this teaches me to keep the "magic" in my books for as long or how ever many different ones I produce.

    Thanks for the good discussion!

    Barbara, indie author of The Lakeville Series (dhbarbara.com)

    ReplyDelete
  18. Well, I don't the "Brand Name" argument is accurate in the context of this and doesn't negate the issues writers outside the "Bestsellers" club face.

    As the commenter before me said, "The Casual Vacancy" didn't engage her, and that was under her "Brand Name"
    Which just goes to show brand name ALONE can't guarantee loyal readers. It only makes them buy it at best.

    But authors want our books to be READ and liked by some, not just bought because of our name, it feels hollow, NO pun intended to HP.

    HP was not just a money-maker to either Rowling or her various publishers the world over, kids, teens and adults the world over LOVED it. They weren't just "buying" it, they READ and LOVED it, for the characters, story, and most brand names are built on love and quality, and in the book world, love comes from the author, coupled with quality came from that same writer's hard work.

    Few books succeed without both.

    That's something I feel we're in danger of forgetting in wake of this news. Particularly the writers among us

    To be Continued...

    ReplyDelete
  19. I still think she's got courage and grit to write on, because real authors don't stop writing after having a "Hit" unless they really have nothing more to say. Or die before they can continue.

    I think writers especially are forgetting one key thing in the wake of all this. HP was a phenomenon. Something no one (Even JK herself at the start) could see would that series of books would be the core-shaker in the industry, and for readers the world over for the last decade or so.

    You can't control how or when something becomes a phenomenon. All you can do is work hard and make the most of what you can give and what you are given.

    Envy aside, I think the real problem is that there's been so many phenomenons in the past several decades that it's falsely leading the thinking of the industry to believe that if an author (Brand name or NOT) can't sell millions in a week to three months, it's a lost cause, but this is the SAME industry telling newbie authors like me to take our time, study craft, and

    Easy to say, until we sign a contract, and suddenly the switch is flipped from "TAkes what it takes" to "You're on my time table now."

    I'm joking a bit, really (If my editor reads this, please know I don't count your publisher in doing that to authors), but I feel there is truth to that sometimes, even if that's not the message meant to be sent for some.

    Edith Wharton had a slow burn (Sales wise) before she took off. I say this not as a petty rant but as fact. At the very least to keep my own panic levels down to tolerable levels.

    It takes the same courage and grit to keep writing BEYOND the books that made you a "brand" because as far as I'm concerned, JK Rowling as just as courageous as the phenomenal boy wizard she created.

    The only difference is the "Voldemort" she battles isn't one lone man.

    To me, all brand name status and luck give you is a chance to be noticed, but it's up to you and the work you believe in to keep that attention.

    You don't need a phenomenon to believe in your story.

    JK did that BEFORE HP sold.

    She's doing it now.

    The only difference is that she doesn't have the phenomenon to ride on.

    She's essentially starting over again, it's just in the form of books that for whatever reason aren't engaging enough readers, as opposed to someone like me with no previous sales prior to my forthcoming MG debut, those books are trunked, some rightly so, others need skills I as a writer don't have yet, but it doesn't mean I'll never have them, trust me, those are the HARDEST books to trunk.

    To be continued....(Again)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Rowling's not the only writer to go through this. Kate DiCamillo had a similar low period between Because of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, and she got through it okay.

    Sure, not as extreme as JK's experience to those of us authors and readers looking from outside, but who's to say that the intensity of not having your next book in you is not mutually painful to them both?

    I would not dare make that assumption, especially because I know how hurt I'd feel as an author myself, and the road to my first book sale was hard, long and I had my share of doubts, hard as I tried to stay positive.

    I haven't read either book so I can't judge that. But as authors, we should remember that writing after a phenomenon is not easy to do, if a newbie, non-brand name author like me can say that in all seriousness and sincerity, what say you authors further long the path than myself?

    Hope I didn't too intense again, Jody, but I say this because I care and can see this from both sides, the readers and writers like us who have to work hard to get where we are as writers, in that sense you and I aren't that different.

    The only differences are you and I write for different genres and readerships, and you've been at this longer (In terms of mortality and time spent) but otherwise here we both are, staying the course.

    I can't imagine having millions of readers yet, but I CAN imagine more than 1 or 5. Seriously.

    Take care,
    Taurean (Taury)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just wanted to say that i loved your 3 part post, Taury!

      Delete
    2. Glad you got where I was going, Barbara. Sometimes I feel like I'm spouting off in a language only I understand. (LOL)

      I wish I could be more brief since I do tend to editorialize in my comments a lot. But if you prefer bite-sized Taury, he'll be on Twitter(@Taurean_Watkins)

      Delete
  21. While it is a little depressing to think that quality writing by an experienced writing generated only modest sales, I agree it's hardly something we aspiring authors should lose sleep over. All we can do is produce books we love, the kind of books we hope other people will fall in love with. Commercial success may or may not happen, but we can only influence that so much. If we write the books of our heart, that is the biggest achievement.

    ReplyDelete
  22. It's easier to buy the well-known authors' books since they're the ones that get all the press; they're the ones with big displays in the bookstores (whereas the obscure authors are lucky if they have one book on the shelf); they're the ones the other well-known authors are talking about. But I do like to read books by the lesser-known authors, because I think they're like a lot of the theater actors in Chicago: they're not famous but they're so talented that they're inspiring.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Though I can understand it because without a literal voice it can be difficult to tell writing apart unless it is completely unique, it's a sad sign that this wasn't recognised as Rowling's writing at all. I can only suppose that the name stopped that happening or that The Casual Vacancy was a different enough style to HP (though I've heard otherwise).

    With a brand name you know what you're getting, to some extent at least, and if you've liked their work before you're likely to like the newest. I'd say it's both encouraging and discouraging but regardless it's an interesting episode.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Astute observation, Jody, relative to the mega-sellers often being those who "create" a new genre. I put that in quotes because as you mentioned, often they're not truly the first, others currently publishing in but just not hitting that nail that propels the genre out of obscurity and into million dollar success. I mean, YA fantasy, which is how you categorize the Harry Potter series, has been around forever. A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea...these were not children's books. Nor is Harry Potter, in my opinion, although it was cleverly marketed to appeal to children without lessening the appeal to adults.

    I say kudos to Ms. Rowling for using a pseudonym. Look what happened with the first novel she published post-Harry Potter. It had sales yes, but it got widely panned and sales quickly fell away. Knowing that she was going to use a pseudonym probably freed her up creatively to write a better book. The only question I have is whether the leak was truly unintentional or whether, because sales were low but reviews were good--unlike that other novel--they figured it was the right time to let the cat out of the bag.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Your one line 'stop trying to copy what's already being written' pretty much sums it up, Jody.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Writers know that. Readers know that.

      Sometimes though, I don't think the rest of the world knows that.

      In some respects, that's half the problem, IMHO.

      I hope if nothing else Jody's post is a reminder of that, Tracy.

      Delete
  26. According to publisher Jonny Geller, the book had sold 245 copies before the news broke.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ouch. Well, that's even worse than the original statistic that came out for the 1500.

      Delete
  27. Part of your comments (paraphrasing) advise that writers should not copy the leading trends but 'tell your truth in a different way' and try to create a new break-out trend. That would be great if the publishers would respond to the 'new and different' type of book we present instead of rejecting on the basis that it's not presently popular. How do we get the publisher to see beyond the 'trend' and go with something different that just might be a break-out trend?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the STORY itself has a lot to do with it. For example, Twilight became the breakout vampire novel because the story is fascinating. Same with Hunger Games. If we try something new, the story has to be riveting. But then again, some of it has to do with the readership being ready for a new trend. That's not necessarily something publishers can predict. But I'm sure they do take many chances and have many flops for every big book that finally makes it.

      Delete
  28. What’s Happening i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I have found It positively useful and it has aided me out loads. I hope to contribute & assist different customers like its aided me. venus factor login

    ReplyDelete
  29. A good principle when having renovations performed on your home is that whatever you invest, half of it will count towards the complete value of your home. We Buy Any House

    ReplyDelete
  30. It just comes to show you that a lot of becoming a bestseller boils down to luck.

    ReplyDelete

© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!