J K Rowling’s book ruse is a cautionary tale for unknown writers

The Cuckoo’s Calling became an instant bestseller once the Rowling brand
emerged – a sad indictment of publishing

The Guardian, Monday 15 July 2013

When JK Rowling published a crime novel under a pseudonym earlier this year, she didn’t have to worry about sales. The book did quite well for a piece of fiction by an unknown author; it got some good reviews and sold 1,500 copies, which is more than respectable for a first novel. But there was always the possibility of revealing the ruse or having it exposed by someone else, which is what happened at the weekend when the Sunday Times named her as the author. The transformation in the fortunes of The Cuckoo’s Calling was immediate, with the book soaring from number 4,709 to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.

In that sense, what Rowling has done, however admirable her intentions, was less risky than it first appeared. She took a gamble when she wrote as Robert Galbraith, instead of under her own name, but she admits that the chances of keeping the secret were “incredibly remote”. The book had the same editor and publisher as her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, and it wouldn’t have been hard to predict the likely impact once the secret was out.

Most first novelists don’t have the option of doing something that will have such a dramatic effect on sales, and they’re already painfully aware that the situation for unknown authors is dire. Publishers have seldom been so reluctant not just to take a risk on new writers, but to back up publication with the resources which go into promoting successful authors. Indeed, while I don’t doubt Rowling’s motives for one moment, it’s instructive that the revelation of her authorship has quickly become a story about a well-known writer doing something quirky and eccentric – rather than a telling tale about the state of publishing. Whether she likes it or not, she is in that category of stratospherically famous authors who have become brands; Dan Brown is another obvious example. This is a recent development and its impact on other writers is disastrous, creating a situation in which huge publicity budgets are placed behind a handful of authors, skewing bestseller lists.

I have a declaration to make here: much as I would love to see my novels and non-fiction advertised on posters on the London Underground, I have only ever had one paid-for advert in my writing career, and that was in a trade magazine. Most authors are in the same position, but very few readers think about the vast discrepancy in promotional budgets when they look at the bestseller lists. It’s also interesting to compare the effects of Rowling’s experiment with an almost identical one staged by Doris Lessing three decades ago. These days Lessing is a winner of the Nobel prize for literature, but she was already highly regarded in the early 1980s when she sent out a couple of novels under a pseudonym.

Unlike Rowling, who decided to disguise herself as a man even though crime fiction is supposedly a level playing field in gender terms, Lessing chose a female alter ego. Her novel The Golden Notebook had sold almost 900,000 copies in hardback and won one of the top literary prizes in France, but the efforts of “Jane Somers” were not so well received. The first book was rejected by Lessing’s long-time publisher, who decided it wasn’t “commercially viable”, and it was eventually published by Michael Joseph. The novel got few reviews and Lessing said her point had been proved. “I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that ‘nothing succeeds like success’”, she explained in 1984.

Interestingly, the revelation of Lessing’s hoax did not propel her Jane Somers novels into the bestseller charts. It caused ripples in literary circles, but nothing like the furore over Rowling’s ruse. But then Lessing has never been a celebrity, unlike Rowling, who has had to suffer the kind of intense media scrutiny usually reserved for pop stars and supermodels. That’s one of the disadvantages of the author-as-celebrity phenomenon, as Rowling explained in her testimony to the Leveson inquiry.

But there’s another downside, which is the negative impact on thousands of writers the public has never heard of or, more importantly, had the opportunity to read. In that sense, it could even be argued that Rowling’s well-intended hoax has backfired, turning into yet another story about fame in the modern world.



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