So, J.K. Rowling has been unmasked as the real author behind Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling and the tirade of abuse has begun. I find this disappointing, firstly because she is damned in the eyes of many whatever she does. If she publishes using her true identity she is trading off her name as the author of the Harry Potter series. If she uses a pen name and is then uncovered she is cynically attempting to boost sales. There will always be those looking for an angle to condemn and that in itself is a shame.
My real gripe with this situation is the insight that it offers into the condition of the publishing industry today and the difficulty of breaking into it. I have an interest to declare here. My books are self published on Amazon having had no joy sending manuscripts to agents and publishers for a while. I know, not much of an advert for my writing, but perhaps not the condemnation that you may expect either. More concerning, not the condemnation such rejections should be.
I am not trying to vent my bitter spleen here. I appreciate that agents and publishers are incredibly busy, are swamped with enquiries, have a genre or type of book that they look for and are sifting diamonds from a mine of coal. Yet I think that there is something valuable to be gleaned from this episode.
A number of scenarios present themselves if this incident is considered from the perspective of an aspiring author:
1. A Debut Author Made It!
Except that a new author didn’t make it. I have read that since publication in April 2013, The Cuckoo’s Calling sold around 1,500 copies and before its true pedigree was known it was hovering at 4,709 in the Amazon chart. By the end of the day of revelation, it was number 1. For those thinking that a debut author can still find a major publisher and editor willing to take a risk and invest in them, it is a bit of a comedown. Even worse is knowing that the work of J.K. Rowling and her publisher and editor can only fair reasonably well for a debut without her mighty and hard earned name behind it.
2. The Book Is Great But The Author Is Unknown!
What does this tell us? If the book is as good as the initial reviews suggest and is of the quality you may rightfully expect from J.K. Rowling and her team, then the fact that it didn’t storm the charts and gain attention shows just how hard it is to crack the industry. In this circumstance, the episode demonstrates that the only way to the top is with a big name, irrespective of the quality of your work. Even the best work struggles to make the faintest impact, so how does a debut author become the next J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown? The short answer is, I don’t know. If I was a publisher, I would be wanting to find these writers and perhaps the old ways are no longer fit for purpose. My suggestion (cynics, please take a sharp breath in); look at Amazon’s self-published authors and their sales. I know, that’s me right? But it is a serious suggestion with merit. In my case, since The Cuckoo’s Calling was published I have sold more copies of Loyalty than speculation suggests The Cuckoo’s Calling sold and, due to previous even higher sales, have sat within the top 2,000 in the chart for all of that time. No one is knocking on my door. It makes me wonder how my book might perform with some backing. I’m not trying to claim it would topple The Cuckoo’s Calling from its number 1 spot, but if I was an agent or a publisher, a quick look at the charts might offer me at least a reduction of the risk that presumably prevents me taking a chance on a new writer. If it is already selling and getting positive reviews without backing or support, that must make it worth a second look, mustn’t it? Amazon even kindly list the publisher on the book’s page, so it is easy to identify those lacking representation.
3. The Book Isn’t Great But The Author Is Known!
I haven’t read The Cuckoo’s Calling so I cannot comment on whether I think it is a good book or not, hence I am able to look at this from each perspective. If the book sat in its former chart position on merit, then its rocket to number 1 is equally disheartening. Not because I begrudge J.K. Rowling anything. She deserves every millimetre of her success. My entire family are Potter Potty. No, it is because if this were the case, then it only serves to prove that it is the author’s name that sells, not the quality of the book. This is an equally demoralizing state of affairs. You can get to number 1 with the right name irrespective of quality, begging the question asked earlier; what hope is there for unknown authors, however good their work is? I still don’t know!
As I write, I am aware that this sounds like an exercise in self-promotion but even if it is, the points considered above are still valid. Perhaps a part of the reason that it is so difficult to get noticed as an aspiring author seeking representation is because it is so easy to write something that you believe in and send it out to agents and publishers. I am sure that the slush pile is bigger than ever, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t riddled with talent screaming to be discovered. I am grateful for the opportunity that Amazon’s platform has given me. Perhaps it offers writers a way off the slush pile and offers agents and publishers a half-way house, mitigating some of their risk. Either way, the real winners are readers now able to make up their own minds.
Matthew Lewis is the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III and the novel of King Richard III’s life Loyalty. Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.