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Long Odds for Authors Newly Published

31 August 2013

From The New York Times:

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” became the publishing sensation of the summer when word leaked that its first-time author, Robert Galbraith, was none other than J. K. Rowling, the mega-best-selling creator of Harry Potter.

. . . .

“It makes me sad,” Roxanne Coady, founder of R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., and the online retailer JustTheRightBook.com, told me last week from Maine, where she said she was sitting near a stack of unread new books. “Because not everyone turns out to be a J. K. Rowling. It reminds me how difficult it is for even good books to succeed.”

. . . .

Ms. Rowling’s last book, “The Casual Vacancy,” an adult comedy of manners published under her name and the first since the end of the Potter series, was met with high expectations and withering reviews from prominent critics. Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times, “the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is not only disappointing — it’s dull.” The Los Angeles Times faulted “Rowling’s inability to engage us, to invest us sufficiently in her characters.”

Still, with hardcover sales of just over 1.3 million copies, it was the No. 1 hardcover fiction title of 2012, according to Publishers Weekly’s annual ranking, outselling John Grisham, James Patterson and Danielle Steel.

. . . .

In any event, a publishing contract is hardly a guarantee of critical or commercial success. Much depends on how a new manuscript is treated by the publisher. Morgan Entrekin, the president and publisher of Grove Atlantic, is widely viewed as a master at introducing new literary talent to the marketplace. He published “Cold Mountain” by then first-time novelist Charles Frazier, which went on to win the National Book Award and sell over 11 million copies.

“There’s no question, if a publisher decides to get behind a book, to invest its publishing capital, to use its traction with the chains, with Amazon, fight for the promotion money to get the book into the front of stores, you can do a lot to bring attention to a worthy first novel,” he said.

. . . .

 “I invested tens of thousands of dollars and a lot of publishing capital over nine months because I believed in that book,” Mr. Entrekin said. “This is what publishers can do to add value. It’s not slapping on a name like J. K. Rowling.”

. . . .

Of course, most new books don’t get that kind of support. Suffice it to say that “The Cuckoo’s Calling” didn’t, even though Ms. Dewey told me it “was treated like any new novel by a first-time writer. Little, Brown sent out bound galleys and talked it up to retailers, as they do with all new titles. We aim for all of our books to reach the widest possible audience and make every effort to market and publicize each title in a way that connects it with that audience.”

I spoke to several book retailers, at both large chains and independent stores, and not one could recall seeing an advance reading copy, or hearing anything from the Little, Brown sales representatives.

“There was absolutely no buzz,” Ms. Coady said. “There was no direct correspondence from the editor or a publicist. We didn’t hear anything from the sales representatives. They’ll usually tell us that there are five to 10 books on their list that we want to make sure you read. They know our customers and what they like, so we trust them. This book wasn’t one of them. I don’t know if we bought any copies. Maybe one.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

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14 Comments to “Long Odds for Authors Newly Published”

  1. I’ll have to read this later, except to note that J.K. Rowling came out of nowhere, too.

    Gee, maybe you have to write a book people want to read, ya think?

  2. There is no better publicity than having your book at Amazon.
    Millions of people can see it.

  3. Reads like it is 1990.

  4. In other news, water is wet and the sun rises in the east.

  5. They know our customers and what they like, so we trust them.

    Let’s see, why don’t we try this going foreward: They don’t know our customers and what they like, so we can’t trust them.

  6. “Long Odds for Authors Newly Published”

    Breaking news from the dawn of publishing.

  7. Something seemed off here, other than stating the obvious. It has always been a “long shot” for a debut author’s book. As stated in the article, a first book rarely becomes a big seller like Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey.

    Then it dawned on me. This is looking at a book as a one-time-author book instead of seeing this one book as the potential beginning of a career of many books (see KKR’s last business Rush post). JK’s book by the one-time-author standard would be a failure. By the career author standard, however, like JK was looking at it, it was a “better than expected” showing for a debut book.

    Guess which view is the more realistic in evaluating the success of the book in question.

  8. Well, it’s always been long odds. So I guess, uh, whatever. Nothing new from the an author’s perspective.

  9. From what I understand, The Cuckoo’s Calling did very well for a debut book. It was only out for a few months before the news broke.

    From the rather wistful, discouraged tone of this article, I think Publishing wishes it had a better handle on the reader.

    It should remember that this is a new world for them. They have been selling to the literary elite, not the mass market. If it approached this as a new problem, rather than a problem that has no solution (i.e. this article), it might realize that other businesses have tools that help them reach the mass market.

    A few tools that come to mind are: advertising and market testing.

    • Oh, I should also add, this article has a secondary intent of fear-mongering.

      It is trying to scare authors based on erroneous information (Rowling’s book did quite well).

      Scared authors are easier to discourage, and then to manipulate and control.

  10. There was a time I very much hoped to one day work with Morgan and Grove. (All us Entrekins are related, if distantly.)

    That said, it makes it sound like the right investment is what’s so desperately needed, whereas the big breakout stories of the past few years are about a distinct *lack* of up-front investment. Locke, Hocking, Howey, James . . . the list goes on. And Galbraith had all that machinery behind him, but that book didn’t break out until we found it he was Rowling.

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