The Trials of a Debut Author

Ann and I have been watching the hullaballoo surrounding J.K. Rowling’s surprise mystery debut The Cuckoo’s Calling with great interest. Debut authors ourselves at the very same time as ‘Mr. Galbraith’s’ release, we know very well how hard it is for a new author to make a name for themselves. Mr. Galbraith’s journey from a small print run and near obscurity to Ms. Rowling’s stardom and selling power is a stunning example of how publishing is often not about the product, but the name behind it.

This is not a slight against The Cuckoo’s Calling. The book received very favourable early reviews, and yet this book and its unknown author still couldn’t find traction in the market. It sold to only very modest numbers in the U.K. and North America in the first three months following its release.

Of course, all that changed the moment Robert Galbraith’s real identity was leaked, revealing that the author was actually Ms. Rowling. Suddenly a 300,000 copy print run was ordered for a book that sold less than 10,000 copies in all formats combined before the secret broke. Had the book itself changed? Not at all, simply the name behind it. But that made all the difference in the world.

Series tend to gather steam as they grow. When Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb, published the very first ‘In Death’ book, it wasn’t a huge event. She was an unknown author writing a combination of science fiction, police procedural, and romantic suspense. But as additional series instalments were published, more and more fans came on board. I discovered the series (currently standing at 36 books) when there were only several books out and have been an avid reader ever since. But it wasn’t until the release of the twelfth book that it was revealed that J.D. Robb was actually blockbuster author Nora Roberts. Her pseudonym was created because Roberts’ prolific writing made it difficult for Putnam to keep up with her content production, meshed with Roberts’ own desire to take her writing in a different direction. Thus, J.D. Robb was born.

One can’t blame Ms. Rowling for trying to make a fresh start. When she first began the Harry Potter series, she was a complete unknown. In fact, it wasn’t until the fourth book in the series—Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—was released that the phenomenon of Harry Potter really caught on worldwide. From that point on, the expectations and the hysteria around each new release grew exponentially. When the Potter series finally ended, the expectations around Ms. Rowling’s next book were impossible to satisfy, and, inevitably, The Casual Vacancy was met with mixed reviews. I can certainly understand why Ms. Rowling wanted to start from scratch, being able to write simply for the joy of it once again and not under the pressure of unrealistic expectations. Her intention was to publish at least several books in the series, building a fan base for Mr. Galbraith before she went public with the truth about her pseudonym. For the brief span of a few months, she achieved that goal. But the cat is out of the bag for good now, at least as far as Robert Galbraith is concerned.

The reality of the publishing world is that if you don’t write in one of the current ‘hot’ genres or categories, it can be very hard to make a splash, excellent product or not. As an unknown, it can be hard to get authors to blurb your book, and unless you are with a large house, the majority of your publicity is left to you—Mr. Galbraith was not with a small house, and still it appears he only had limited support. This series of events also shines a light on how even an excellent book struggles to find an audience in amongst the multitude of releases around it. It’s simply the truth of the business.

Ann and I are practical about building a career. We’re in it for the long haul, not for the flash-in-the-pan, so we’re satisfied to build our series with regular releases as we build our fan base. It’s certainly a realistic lesson for all debut authors about the challenges ahead of them, but forewarned is forearmed, and good things come to those who wait.