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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?



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