Monday, 22 July 2013

You can't give up the day job yet, Robert Galbraith! (My musings on the whole JK Rowling circus)

I'm establishing from the very fore that this post is NOT a JK Rowling bash. I find the woman inspiring and I respect everything that she has done for reading and engaging young people in books. She is a talented world builder and a phenomenal character mummy; regardless of your own feelings about the strange and weird world of the traditional publishing world, it is her readers that secured her megalithic success, and readers are never wrong (well hardly ever wrong LOL)

However, this whole Robert Galbraith / JK Rowling thing has brought to the fore some issues that really can't be ignored. Now, we are never going to know the reality of this situation, all we can do is hypothesise - so let's do a bit of that.

Firstly, let us imagine being JK Rowling - a woman who has brought to life this incredible book series, a writer who has woken up in a fairytale of celebrity, accolade, film rights, franchise, conventions. A woman who has been put on a pedestal as the saviour of children's literature. I can only imagine the serrated double edged blade that cut across her conscience as she penned the last lines of the Potter series; such an amazing sense of accomplishment coupled with a crippling fear of never, ever going to be able to live up to the phenomena that you've created; never being able to write a book that met the fans' astronomical expectations.

Now to some, that would have resulted in a terrible paralysis and they'd never have written another word again - not JK, who bravely (and unless you are an writer you will never truly understand the pain - a bit like childbirth) picked up a pen and started to write 'A Casual Vacancy'. I understand the logic of her wanting to write something so entirely different from the fantasy world of the Potter series, indicative of her desperate desire to step out of the Potter fantasy herself. She wanted to test the world, but more importantly, she wanted to test her own ability, her own essential art. It is easy to see why. (And we all agree that it was never going to be for the money - not from her point anyway)

Somehow though, the whole 'A Casual Vacancy' challenge, project, quest (however you choose to define it) painfully flopped. The worst nightmare of a writer; the readers buying your book because of your carefully managed, circus ring-mastered legacy. 'A Casual Vacancy' received polite and respectful reviews in most cases, and it sold enough to keep the publishers rubbing their hands, but now just over a year on, WHSmith is littered with the appallingly designed hardbacks and they are slashed to a price that barely covers their printing and storage costs. More humiliatingly, it has recently been voted one of the 'most' unfinished books, with many readers giving up soon after they have begun.

But this isn't to say that 'A Casual Vacancy' isn't a good book, that it wasn't worthy of being published, that it didn't have a place - but then again, so do so many books that have been rejected by publishers because they are nothing extraordinary - they are books that are not going to weave the Potter magic.

We move on in the saga, and Rowling, despite smiling and despite 'A Casual Vacancy' adding another Number One Best Seller to her private bookshelf, must know that somehow, despite the financial success of 'A Casual Vacancy', that she still hasn't proved she can cut it after Potter (Not that she should feel that she should - but every writer deep down as a complex and delicate ego)

So what can she do to really test herself and the publishing world, which by now she is growing slightly weary of? She decides to take the romantic idea of the nom du plume. And again, I reiterate, this is not a criticism - it is exactly the action I would have taken if I had been in her shoes, just as Stephen King did when he was having his 'author' crisis. JK would escape the Potter fantasy by artfully constructing a new one; the Galbraith Fantasy, the mysterious crime writer with the silhouette profile (well it worked for Lemony Snickett) In this way, like James I, she could rough it down at the bottom of the publishing pile and experience what it was like to be a 'real' author. But like James the I she wasn't a fool - she was going to have back up, just in case it got a little too scary.

Her established publisher must have been rubbing their hands together in glee - what japes! JK Rowling under cover, forging her way as a respected and critically acclaimed author only to at some point in the distant future (slightly less-distant future from perspective of  the publishing company) to be revealed as the hidden King with a fan fare and a torrential media storm. Kerging! Kerging! Kerging! It was another Rowling fairy tale in the making.

Now this is where the tension lies. I believe that JK Rowling is a good human being (note human, not immortal) and I believe that she genuinely wanted to see if her writing could make it by its self. I understand that she had something to prove and she longed for freedom from the gilded cage but I also believe that the publishing world is mercenary and fickle. There is no doubt in my mind that this was a beautifully constructed marketing ploy - with or without Rowling's full understanding.

She has expressed a terrible sadness at the 'revelation' and I believe that emotion is genuine. Writers don't write for money and fame, they write to share a story, to push themselves to the outer most limits of their own potential, they write it to heal old wounds and to find a voice in a noise-full, often unlistening world: But that's not why publishers publish!

In the time that Rowling was published under the pseudonym, she sold (now I'm getting my 'stats' from the popular press here so take with a pinch of salt) around 2,000 copies since its release in April. Now for a previously unknown writer with no media presence that is respectable.  (The figure that is banded around for a typically mid stream traditionally published book is around 5-10,000 copies in its shelf life) Fortunately, because her book had been accepted by her own JK Rowling publisher she had managed to secure the attention of some very respected reviewers who gave it very positive reviews and she did have more of a financial backing and clout from the publishing house because of her relationship with them - yet despite this, the sales remained low; which of course they would do - that is the reality of 'real' authorship. It takes time to build a readership, it takes recommendations and hand selling and book clubs and book blogs etc, etc and without the celebrity status, that kind of snowballing success takes time - years JK, not months.

Now, this is where the conspiracy theorists can go crazy - for whatever reason, in whatever manner, JK Rowling's disguised jaunt around 'real' authoring got out! (And in good contemporary fashion by no other means than Twitter - god damn that oracle of truth!) Now I could spend another 1,000 word count on my thoughts on that, but I don't know and I'll never know. All I will say is that the publisher seemed incredibly well prepared with its full on marketing materials - "just in case". (It is also incredibly enlightening to me how quickly a print run can be upped and the logistics of storage and distribution can take place - in the matter of 24 hrs it would seem!)

To conclude this post though, I can't leave without saying that JK Rowling was perhaps constructing a fantasy in the same way that children create fantasies - with the full knowledge that mummy and daddy are in the next room should the dragon actually step over the line and fully threaten to eat them. Because the thing is, JK Rowling was NOT and unknown author - not to the publisher anyway - and they are the insurmountable barrier for most talented writers. Actually getting your book from your PC into the hands of a publisher is almost impossible and then to have it read a bit more impossible, and then to have it accepted is almost a holy grail. So Rowling bypassed that whole process with her jaunt into detective fiction (and yes, she did amazingly well to do it with her Potter series - she's already proved herself special) She already had a publisher waiting for her with open arms and she will have to come to terms with the fact that is probably not based on her talent (which she obviously has) but because SHE is a very marketable celebrity.

The biggest lesson that we can all take with us from this social experiment is, we have learned that even if you do have the 'love' and backing of a BIG traditional publisher, the book world is a funny beast. It doesn't guarantee you sales. BEING GOOD ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH! Even with a handful of beautifully influential reviews to splat all over the front of the book, it doesn't translate into liveable sales for an author. With sales of 600-1,000 books a month, on a royalty fee of 10-11%, a writer can still not afford to give up the day job. JK Rowling would not have been able to give up the day job on the sales of 'The Cuckoos Calling' and that is a paradoxical beacon of hope for us struggling indies.

NB / Bob Greene in his recent blog post 'A Better Story than JK Rowlings'  writes a fascinating  tale of the author, Chuck Ross' own experiment designed to test the authenticity and fickleness of the traditional publishing world by typing out the best-selling, award winning novel,  "Steps," by Jerzy Kosinski. which had won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1969, had received superlative reviews and was a big best-seller. You can read the rest of that damning story at the link.


  1. Great post. I agreed with every word you wrote, you put things in the right perspective, and though that is always tough to hear / read, it's the reality of the publishing world.
    Loved your bit about why authors write. Loved it.

    (Got here from Mumsnet)

  2. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment Orli D. A post written from the heart. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it over the last few days. The writing world is a funny old world and things are changing at such a pace that even the publishing experts and traditional houses don't really know where it's all going. Kindness x

  3. Yes. Not dissimilar to my own thoughts, though I guess I tried to find the bright side:

    1. Thanks for stopping by TCW and leaving your post details. Interesting stuff! And you are right, there are some positive outcomes that we can take away with us. :)