News that J K Rowling penned the detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, sent that book straight to the top of the charts this week.
Until then it had been well received by critics but sold only modestly – I saw figures like 1500 copies in hard-cover. Now it’s getting a second print run of 300,000.
As I posted earlier in the week, writers get stereotyped all too often by what they’re known for – which is apparently meant to constitute all they can do. But, of course, authors can do much, much more. The problem is the way many are imprisoned by stereotype. Rowling’s not alone in seeking escape by anonymity; one media focus since the revelation has been on the number of other famous authors – like Stephen King – who have penned brilliant novels outside ‘their’ genre, under pseudonyms.
The other has been on the way her book has gone from zero to hero as soon as her name was attached to it. And yet the text hasn’t been changed – not one syllable.
To me this highlights another issue; discovery.
That’s got two facets.
One of the reasons why it’s harder for even mid-list authors to publish with the big houses is risk-aversion in hard times. Big names sell. They always have, but in the past publishers were prepared to take risks on unknown names – and support authors who hadn’t been widely known, but who wrote well.
Not any more.
The calculation is different for the self-publish paradigm, but the results are the same. Anybody can publish – and guess what, they are.
Which is wonderful. But there’s a lot of dross amid the gems. And the whole is swamped by ‘white noise’ – everybody using the same tools to promote their words.
I’ve heard it said that quality will float to the top, and it may. But I think a lot goes undiscovered except by a few delighted readers.
Most of the time, writers who get somewhere online do it because they are already famous offline. We go to the internet to find out more about them – not to discover them.
Nobody has yet figured out the mechanisms by which occasional books spike up to world attention through the web alone, sometimes from novice writers. Based on some of the ones I’ve seen, quality isn’t one of the criteria. My guess is that emotional response and the latest transient ‘coolness’ play a part. There is a paper being presented at an AAAI conference in Cambridge, Massachussets – today – that offers a mathematical analysis.
Still, it seems fairly clear to me that most authors need tools beyond just the web to become prominent there – like, being well known already. And that’s the hard part.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013