J K Rowling and the writer’s dilemna – discovery

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.

monkey_readingAs 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

16 thoughts on “J K Rowling and the writer’s dilemna – discovery

  1. There’s truth in the belief that the best work floats to the top, but in today’s self-publishing climate that which is surfacing isn’t doing so in a still pond where it’s readily visible. Instead, it’s rising amidst a swiftly flowing stream. To those searching for good work it’s visible for a brief moment in time and then it’s gone. I haven’t yet figured-out how to stay afloat after publication, but I’m working on it. In the meantime, I continue editing.


    1. That’s it definitely – I hadn’t thought of things in those terms, and you’re right. The web is transient. And I can’t think of a way around it either – other than, as you say, persistence.


  2. Rowling is a behemoth who will achieve mega-sales no matter what she writes (Casual Vacancy anyone?) and any writer trying to attain her status is in cuckoo land. The Galbraith controversy proves that the publishing world has constricted massively in the current financial climate and made it even more difficult for brilliant authors to get their shot at reaching the masses – through traditional channels. The Rowling book is damaging for readers because it reveals how limited their choice of authors has become; and is damaging for writers because a legion of them will turn to self-publishing in an effort to get their stories ‘out there’. Anyone seeking fresh voices and fresh stories will turn to ebooks, which is great news for Amazon et al.


    1. Mainstream publishers have definitely become risk-averse – they are even ditching their mid-list writers these days. Amazon and the rest give a fabulous alternative, though there are two problems with it. One is is being found amidst everybody else doing the same thing. The other is that it’s good for only certain types of books; big-format non-fiction picture books, for instance – which I’ve written from time to time – simply don’t work as e-books. Neither has an answer just at the moment.


      1. Looks like the legal eagles let the Galbraith out of the bag. https://www.thebookseller.com/news/law-firm-admits-leaking-galbraith-identity.html
        I agree that mainstream publishers still have the advantage when it comes to ‘big-format non-fiction picture books’ but I’m sure they are losing a lot of sleep when it comes to the exodus to ebooks. They’ll be left squabbling over a handful of A-list writers while the next generation of novelists upload instead of submit their manuscripts…


  3. This sounds like the chicken or the egg. Do something to become famous and then write or write and then do something famous to get noticed. More support for not writing to become rich and famous.


    1. Yeah – the best writers don’t write for the fame…though I must admit the ‘rich’ aspect sounds pretty good! 🙂 It’s actually a balancing act – personally I hate the notion of being known at all – I hate being recognised by strangers (it’s happened, even to me – and I do NOT have much of a profile as a writer). And yet these days ‘Anonymous’ doesn’t sell books. Alas….


  4. I’m not surprised JK Rowling used a pen name for this other book of hers. Some people read “The Casual Vacancy”, and heavily criticized it because it was nothing like Harry Potter. I have story ideas that are not related to my current genre, and I might have to use a pen name for those books if my wide range of genres confuses readers. Authors are like singers and musicians – we almost have to stay within the genre we started in, and if we radically do something different, it doesn’t always work out well.


  5. Reblogged this on Sleepy Book Dragon and commented:
    Off the back of the recent revelation regarding JK Rowling, this article looks at why it can be hard for established authors to write in other genres and why it can be hard for writers in general to get published in these hard times.


  6. Persistence is key. You continue to write for the love of the act, and hope that someone notices your material. Word of mouth spreads the news. Keep putting out works. Keep working. Keep submitting.


    1. I think most writers write for the love of it, and not for the fame. In fact, writing to become famous is entirely the wrong motive for writing. But even persistence doesn’t always pay off; I’ve been writing and publishing books for 30 years now, many of them with Penguin and Random House, and the results are entirely variable. I find I’m ‘known’ as a writer in New Zealand, but I am not famous (and don’t want to be) – and being ‘known’ doesn’t translate into guaranteed sales at all..

      I’ve got a post coming up on this – tomorrow, in fact.


      1. You know, I have my PhD in Physics. I have a good career, but I would rather make a living at writing. I do not want to be famous. I do not want that kind of attention, but I wouldn’t mind supplanting my current income with a writing income, that way I could stay home with the kids and see them during the day.
        So if you’ve made a living out of writing, that’s awesome. That’s my dream.


  7. This is a great post and it raises some trenchant issues. Like Christopher Lee Deards, I hold a PhD in an area unrelated to writing, but I’ve had a variable career and a little income from my writing would’ve been helpful in some of the leaner years. I’ve had only minimal success (I write under the protection of a nom de plume) getting short pieces published, although they are thoughtful, and, I hope, well crafted. A few years back I joined a local writer’s group that brought in guest speakers from the publishing world. What they revealed is fascinating: a number of best-selling authors no longer write their own books. They come up with the ideas and ghost-writers fill in the blanks. This might seem like an urban legend, but I do work in publishing (academic publishing, but still…) and risk aversion is precisely the correct term. Even well established publishers (mine has been in business for over a century) are quickly shying away from anything outside the formula. The internet may be the only place left where those of us who write from pure conviction might stand even a chance of being noticed.


  8. As usual, a thoughtful post and thought-provoking comments, and I am appreciative of both. When all is said and done, one writes because one loves it, as you and others indicate. As for fame, it is more important to some but a little fortune is welcomed by us all, I suspect. In many ways, this is a great time to be a writer for self-publishing gives every writer a shot at “making it” yet to be discovered in such a sea may still be a stroke of luck. However, as this post points out, discovery may mean being pigeonholed as one kind of writer so much so that once again, one tries to be just another writer. Great post, Matthew.


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