Did you hear the latest on J.K. Rowling, the forty-seven-year-old best-selling author of the Harry Potter series? She wrote a crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and did something sneaky.
She published it under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, and pretended to be “a former plainclothes military policeman who had left the Army in 2003 to work in the private security industry” (The Telegraph).
It’s perfectly logical why Rowling would use such deception. Imagine being such a successful author and trying to publish something after Harry Potter fame. Anything less successful would be a major letdown. She said, “Being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name” (The Telegraph).
Later, she added, “Being Robert Galbraith has been all about the work, which is my favorite part of being a writer . . . If sales were what mattered to me most, I would have written under my own name from the start, and with the greatest fanfare” (CBS News).
Measured like the Other Little People
But what’s interesting is this: the novel was “critically acclaimed,” but when readers judged it on its own merits before they knew Galbraith was really Rowling in disguise, it had less-than-great sales—fewer than five hundred copies, to be exact, according to The Telegraph. It was even rejected several times before a publisher picked it up. (Would any publisher have said no if Rowling’s name had been on the manuscript?)
One editor who rejected Calling said, “When the book came in, I thought it was perfectly good—it was certainly well written—but it didn’t stand out. Strange as it might seem, that’s not quite enough. Editors have to fall in love with debuts. It’s very hard to launch new authors and crime is a very crowded market” (The Telegraph, emphasis mine).
This doesn’t mean the novel is bad, of course. But it means it wasn’t the type from a first-time, unknown author that publishers typically chase after. Of course, once Galbraith was unmasked as Rowling, sales have taken off. But the question remains: is this because the novel is worthy of such great sales or because Rowling’s name is attached to it? The answer appears to be the latter.
The Power of Celebrity
What does this tell us? In our society, critically acclaimed books don’t necessarily sell, but big names certainly do. A new or unknown author can never compete with celebrity. Celebrity will win hands down.
If only one’s pseudonym could be J.K. Rowling. Slap that name on the cover of a book, even one that may not be the greatest thing since Hemingway, and sales will skyrocket. Guaranteed.
As Mark Lawson wrote in The Guardian, “[Rowling’s] experience with The Cuckoo’s Calling does seem to show that unknown first-time novelists are likely to get nice reviews but zero publicity and low sales: the novel was pottering along selling mere hundreds of copies until it started Pottering along” (emphasis mine).
To Rowling’s credit, she didn’t want this and was pretty irritated when her cover was blown; she wanted to write a novel without sales being her primary concern. That’s an honorable motive. I don’t write to be critical of her but to make a point and hopefully to encourage those of us who haven’t reached best-seller status.
When publishers looked at Rowling’s novel before they knew she was the author, they looked at her work very much the same way they look at ours. Removing celebrity status levels the playing field. For a little while at least, Rowling was like the rest of the little people—the relatively unknowns who work stinking hard on a manuscript only to experience less-than-best-selling sales.
A Higher Calling
So take heart, novelist friends. You may work hard on a novel and even find a publisher. But sales may be less than impressive. Don’t be discouraged. The same was true of Rowling. At least for a little while.
The bottom line is refusing to be discouraged and following God’s call on your life, whether sales are great or poor. It’s not letting the world’s definition of success define us. If God has given you something to say, go for it. There is a higher calling than celebrity status and best-selling sales. It’s knowing God, loving Him, obeying Him, and glorifying Him through your gifts with every fiber in your being. That’s the definition of true success.
Question: What do you think this story teaches us about publishing and first-time novelists? Share your thoughts.
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