FINDING NEW VOICES
DEFINING NEW GENRES
That Robert Galbraith fellow has really set tongues wagging. Turns out the former soldier had the temerity to not only be a bestselling author masquerading as a publishing virgin, but a woman as well. Shock! Horror!! It’s bad enough the industry has to deal with failing bookshops, self-publishing, price fixing and all that digital nonsense without this kind of confusion.
Frankly the amount of attention this has received is slightly terrifying (is there really, truly nothing better to cover at the moment?) and it’s coughed up some astonishing responses, from the cynical (it was a very carefully plotted marketing strategy) to the downright potty (J.K.Rowling has let down the sisterhood by writing as a man!!!!). But there are important issues raised by this episode, and I’ve also been considering my own reaction since hearing the news.
As a publisher (yes, I do qualify, honest), my immediate reaction was cynical, and if I’m honest downright green-eyed jealousy at the sales hike from 500 or so copies since publication and then a leap of 507,000% in one day (WTF??!!!!!). You see it’s so much easier writing anonymously when you know you can reveal your bestselling author status at any point to raise a little interest. A genuine first time author doesn’t have that celebrity rocket to launch as part of their PR strategy. And frankly the book could be a load of twaddle, once the true authorship became known it would still sell. The way it all came out was a bit daft as well. Although I do always love those people who claim they were suspicious all along, particularly because of the author’s assured way of writing about women’s clothing. Yeah, right, clear giveaway.
But that’s the cynical view and frankly there’s far too much of that floating around our beloved industry at the moment. I prefer to focus on other aspects, both positive and negative. Let’s not forget, this was a very well-reviewed and critically lauded book. And as a publisher, particularly an indie publisher without the wealth and resources of the big corporates to throw at projects, it does show just how hard it is to sell books. Even the good ones. And also how hard it is to pick the potential bestsellers out in the first place – the truth is there are thousands of fabulous books not getting into print or being read. It turns out J.K .Rowling had touted The Cuckoo’s Calling to a few of the big players, without success, before publishing with her current editor. Kate Mills of Orion was one of those who rejected it, and she’s been thoroughly honest in her reasoning. Ms Mills said she thought the work was “perfectly decent, but quiet” and confessed she could not find a unique selling-point with which to market it. The publishing director added: “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.”
Kudos to Kate because there’s the diced lemon in a nutshell. Discoverability is now everything if a new publication is going to be a success and while good the novel didn’t have enough to make it stand out and warrant investment. And this has in fact been proved by the sales figures. What has sold the book in huge numbers is not great reviews, acclaim from critics and fellow crime writers, or a ground-breaking marketing campaign. One thing has made the book a success. Revealing the big name author. And one can’t help feeling that Kate Mills and others would have been fighting tooth and nail to publish the very same novel if they knew the author was J.K.Rowling – I know I would.
The thing is this is all moot. Because for all the media coverage of this ‘revelation’, the growth in sales, the cynicism around whether it was planned from the start, and the reaction of a publishing industry desperately looking for ways to survive and thrive, no-one has mentioned the most important player of all. The reader.
Readers are the ones who ultimately decide whether a book is going to be a success or not. Yes, you can try and manipulate and persuade and cajole and prod in the right buying direction, but at some point a reader presses a button (or ideally goes into a…wait for it….bookshop!!!) and spends their hard earned cash on their next read. As publishers and authors what we should be concerned about is not getting tied up in knots over marketing ploys, bemoaning the state of sales channels, panicking about the growth of ebooks, or blaming the growth of self-publishing for reducing quality. We should be focused on the reader and what the reader wants. In this case a LOT of readers wanted a new J.K.Rowling novel, whatever the form, and they got it (albeit by a convoluted path). More encouragingly what the 500 original readers wanted was a well-written, entertaining, thoughtful crime debut – and they were willing to pay for it. Those 500 readers give me a great deal of hope for the future of publishing. There are always going to be bestselling authors who will sell frightening numbers of books. But it always takes readers to turn them into a bestselling author in the first place. If J.K. had remained unmasked then The Cuckoo’s Calling would have continued selling. Not at 507,000% increase, but it would have crept from 500, to 1000 and onwards. Because there will always be discerning readers who take chances on new authors, new books and new genres. And there will always be publishers who are just as thrilled by that sense of discovery and excitement in new work. We are all readers. And readers are ALWAYS right.