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So, You Think You Need a Publisher…

16 July 2013

From author Robert Bidinotto:

One of the most common raps against self-publishing — put forward militantly by the publishing industry — is that any truly good writer will not only be discovered eventually by a reputable publisher (a “gatekeeper of literary quality”), but also benefit from the kind of sophisticated marketing efforts that only the publishing industry can provide. By contrast, for a self-publishing author, even a good one, to break through without such industry support (their argument goes) is well nigh impossible.

So, now comes the story of a new debut mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, by a previously unknown author named Robert Galbraith. It was released this April by Sphere, an imprint of the highly respected Little, Brown Book Group in Britain, and by Mulholland, an imprint of Big Five publisher Hachette, in America. The novel benefited from these major publishers’ promotions and from general bookstore distribution. It received a host of positive reviews in various trade publications. It attracted rave blurbs from well-known authors.

In short, The Cuckoo’s Calling got all the support from Big Publishing that any author could dream of.

Yet the book sold poorly — fewer than 1,500 copies combined in Britain and America since its April publication. Clearly, the book trade, with all its editors, cover artists, sales people, marketing savvy, and traditional distribution channels, managed to do very little for this well-reviewed novel by a brand-new author…

. . . .

Yes, the creator of the monster-mega-selling Harry Potter series — even while relying on her past publisher, editor, and sales staff — could not sell more than a few hundred books under another name. In fact, when first submitted to publishers under her pseudonym, her novel was turned down by the fiction editor at Orion Publishing, who said that while it was well-written, she didn’t think it would fare well in the traditional publishing marketplace.

And, of course, she was right: It didn’t – not until J.K. Rowling was revealed this week as its author. Now, overnight, the book has shot up to the #1 sales position on Amazon. Until her magical name was attached to it at last, though, the novel was well on its way to obscurity and the remainder tables.

So, here’s a question for you:

If Big Publishing can’t effectively market the work of J.K. Rowling when she disguises her identity, what does it have to offer most other first-time, “no-name” authors?

Link to the rest at Robert Bidinotto

Big Publishing

22 Comments to “So, You Think You Need a Publisher…”

  1. “If Big Publishing can’t effectively market the work of J.K. Rowling when she disguises her identity, what does it have to offer most other first-time, “no-name” authors?”


    So, what you’re sayin’ is…I’m gonner have to take me clothes orf?


    Away with the, “depends.”


  2. Did the book really go through the same publisher, editor, and sales staff as the Harry Potter books? And did they know who the author actually was? If so, that really is a scandal!

    • Not the same editors and publisher as the Harry Potter books, but the ones who did her other recent “adult” book.

    • What would be so scandalous about it, even assuming it were true?

      • Because it demonstrates how pointless it is to for an unknown author to submit a book to a traditional publisher, no matter how well written it may be. Couple that with the miserable royalty you are likely to get, and I think it is scandalous.

        However, that said, I’m not sure traditional publishers have got much choice but to put all their efforts into ‘sure-fire sells’. The industry is changing fast and, as someone once pointed out, when the motor car came along the buggy manufacturers went bust (i.e. they didn’t start making cars).

        • The really interesting question is how well it would have sold if she’d self-pubbed and done her own pseudonymous PR.

        • You misunderstand me: It’s entirely possible that it ended up at the same editor’s desk because it’s the kind of book that editor works on. There’s nothing scandalous about one person editing two books. If you mean it’s scandalous it ended up there because they knew all along it was hers, that would be entirely different.

          I still don’t think it would be scandalous: that implies that somebody was doing something wrong. There’s nothing wrong with allowing one of your authors to publish under a pen-name to see what happens, even if you plan to leak the truth later. That’s just marketing. And I haven’t seen any evidence that the editor did know, or that the plan was to leak it all along. Given that Rowling has all the money she will ever want or need, and her general attachment to her fans, I don’t see her doing this as some kind of insidious plot. She wanted to see if she could do it and if she did, what would happen.

          I for one am quite grateful she did it, as it demonstrates that even today the whole idea of publisher as educated gatekeeper is a load of rubbish.

  3. There is another lesson to be learned here. I got this from FutureBook, believe it or not. Now that this book is suddenly in demand, you can’t get the hardcover at bookstores. It’s sold out everywhere and Rowling, the publisher, and bookstores are losing out on sales. Guess what, ebook sales are doing great. People rarely notice the agility advantage that ebooks have over print.

    It’s not just when lightening strikes, either. Correcting a typo in a print book is, well, it sucks. Adding a new retail outlet. Changing the cover price. The list goes on and on.

  4. At the WSJ Speakeasy, a look at the literary analysis that led to Rowling’s outing:


    Further details at language log, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=5315

    The contenders were Ruth Rendell, PD James, and Val McDiarmid vs. Rowling.

  5. Great article. I’m assuming she outed herself to boost sales. If she’d remained anonymous the book would have wilted on the vine.

    • She didn’t out herself. At most, she acknowledged a fair cop. I suppose it’s possible she was behind the anonymous tip that started the investigation, but it really doesn’t seem like her style.

  6. “If Big Publishing can’t effectively market the work of J.K. Rowling when she disguises her identity, what does it have to offer most other first-time, “no-name” authors?”
    This reminds me of a scene in Cloud Atlas, where a thug, played by Tom Hanks, wrote a book “Knuckle Sandwich” which got bad reviews from a critic. The book didn’t sell well (it seem JK Rowling’s book didn’t sell well either in spite of the good reviews given by insiders.) The thug wanted to be famous now, not after his death and he took the matters in his own hands. He threw the critic off the balcony of a high-riser during a party. The book sold well afterwards.

  7. So the book sold 1500 copies in less than 4 months? Okay, not a blockbuster, but much better than many debut authors see. I would have been thrilled to have these sales in 4 months on my debut novel.

    • Actually, not 1500, apparently — which was the propaganda put out by the publisher. The stats were something like 449 copies in the UK, and a similar number in the States. Not much to show after three months or so and all that Big Publishing backing.

      Which was my point.

      In my case, without any publisher or industry backing, my debut thriller HUNTER sold about 3000 copies in its first three months. When Amazon spotlighted it after 5 months, it went on to sell 50,000 copies in 35 days. Which causes me to reiterate my question:

      What does Big Publishing bring to the table for a previously no-name author that he or she can’t generate by other means?

      • “What does Big Publishing bring to the table for a previously no-name author that he or she can’t generate by other means?”

        Validation? ☺

      • “What does Big Publishing bring to the table for a previously no-name author that he or she can’t generate by other means?”

        An established print distribution system and a bought-and-paid-for spot on the bestseller list are the only two things I can think of.

        Actually, the first is on its way out and the second is still available by different means. So maybe the answer really is….nothing.

        Oh wait! Membership to the Authors Guild!


        • Randall, you’re right. I forgot all about admission to the (gasp of awe) AUTHOR’S GUILD. And all the other author’s groups closed to authors who haven’t used traditional publishers. One of these days, in the near future, this exclusionary nonsense will be viewed as disdainfully as we now view clubs that refuse to admit otherwise qualified women and blacks.

  8. This reminds me of a similar experiment by another woman author: Doris Lessing submitted two books under a pseudonym to her publisher–which were rejected–but eventually published.

    I don’t remember anyone discussing the sales of the books, before or after Lessing revealed she had written them. I figure, however, if the sales had been a disaster as Rowling were, that fact would have been recorded. But then that was back in the early 1980s, when the publishing business worked an entirely different way.

  9. Love it! This post made me smiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiile! 🙂
    Interesting and too true.

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