The Authors Guild

Newsflash via the NYT: Things are Tough for New Novelists

If you don’t laugh at this, you’ll really have to cry. If you’re an aspiring novelist, you may find yourself weeping.

The New York Times has an article about the pseudo-anonymous novel The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling. If you’re not aware: Rowling wanted to see how publishing feels for the rest of us, so she used a pseudonym (Robert Galbraith)  to sell a mystery novel, which got only a few mediocre reviews and sold few copies. She planned to reveal herself as the true author but was sad that it got leaked so soon:

“I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because 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” (quoted in The Author’s Guild article on this same phenomenon).

I don’t know how to feel about this. The Queen dresses as a peasant and goes out to wander the city, and is surprised when her cover is blown. She intended to blow her own cover, but gosh, somebody beat her to it.  What’s that about? The theories in my head are not complementary, so I’ll let this aside for the moment after pointing out that Rowling stood to make no money from the novel, all the proceeds go to charity. The thing you need to know is, she wrote a mystery. It did not sell, and got mediocre reviews. Somebody leaked the fact that she was in fact the author, and sales are now through the roof. And positive reviews are pouring in. A lot of negative ones, too, but quite a few that glow on the page.

In my last post I talked about the fact that a first class novel, one with both critical and commercial success, is  rare. There are some wild cards:; an indifferent novel can dance at the top of the best-seller list  for weeks with the right marketing or name on the cover. And the NYT kindly provides an example of this exact thing happening, but starts by pointing out the painfully obvious::

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.

Thanks for clearing that up, NYT.  My own rather jaded version of this can be found here.

The example they provide is for the 2010 novel Matterhorn  by first-time novelist Karl Marlantes. A prominent editor with deep pockets  found one of the 300 printed copies of the book, and set out to make a star of it. This really was excellent news for Marlantes, but the odds of this happening were astronomical.

First time novelists should be realistic about the chances going in, of course. But it’s still frustrating to see concrete examples of how very stacked the deck is.  I believe that there are many hundreds of really excellent novels out there that their authors will have to fight for before they see the light of day. I hope they persevere.

Now I have to say one more thing about JK Rowling. Somebody made up a bio for her alter-ego Galbraith, which appeared on one of the publisher’s websites (this is also from The Authors Guild article):

Born in 1968, Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. After several years with the Royal Military Police, he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the  plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world.  Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym.

This sits wrong with me. Authors who claim authority that they don’t really possess are viewed askance by readers and critics both. Or am I’m being too critical?