The Cuckoo’s Egg

I wrote this article last month for Tracy Riva’s blog and am reposting it here by permission.

As anyone remotely connected to the world of books now knows, J. K. Rowling is the real author of hit crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. At least, it became a hit once her secret leaked out, when the book jumped from number 4,709 to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.

This goes to show that a blockbuster author’s name sells books. No news there. Any indie author who is disgruntled that Dan Brown could publish a book containing lists of pizza ingredients and still make a fortune should walk away from their computer right now, order a pizza, and spend the half-hour delivery wait time pondering their existence. If they reach enlightenment by realizing that publishing is a business ruled by profit like any other by the time the doorbell rings, they can enjoy their pizza with pleasure. If they are still frustrated at the injustice of Life As An Undiscovered Writer, they should ask the delivery guy if his boss is hiring.

J.K. Rowling dressed as a man dressed as a woman. Are you following?

J.K. Rowling dressed as a man dressed as a woman. Are you following?

There doesn’t seem much doubt as to the sincerity of Rowling’s initial motives or that The Cuckoo’s Calling is a very good read. However, the success of the first novel by “Robert Galbraith” is in no way proof that an unknown author can easily get their first book into print as long as the writing is good enough. Here’s why: The Cuckoo’s Calling was submitted to J.K. Rowling’s publisher by her agent. And that is the critical step that typically proves to be an insurmountable stumbling block for the vast majority of unpublished authors. In fact, it’s two steps: finding an agent, then the agent finding a publisher.

When I wrote my (still unpublished) first novel in the 1990s, I submitted it to over 80 agents in the US and a handful in the UK. The World Wide Web was still a dream in some internet spider’s mind, so I had to do it the old-fashioned way with paper and very expensive postage and lots of waiting and 80-something boilerplate rejection slips and one “We like it, but maybe your next novel” response.

Now, I’m not whining about the rejection itself (my novel wasn’t quite good enough; I can see that now), but the fact remains that finding a publisher without a literary agent or fame in some other walk of life was, and still is, impossible. And finding an agent is next-to-impossible because each agent can only handle a finite number of clients, therefore spots on the roster don’t come up very often.

This is simply the way it is with traditional publishing, and it explains the phenomenal popularity of going the indie route. It’s not that the gatekeepers have it in for starving artists – although if your book isn’t commercially viable, you’re barking up the wrong tree anyway – the numbers just don’t add up. Like most arts and entertainment industries, traditional publishing is akin to an hourglass continually being overfilled with sand at the top and only a trickle falling through to the nirvana of publication at the bottom.

So the real lesson to be learned from the whole Cuckoo’s Calling saga is not that the book became a bestseller as a result of Ms. Rowling’s authorship being revealed, but that, prior to this unmasking, the book had made it into print then onto the desks of mainstream reviewers through the efforts of its agent and publisher who promoted it because it was written by their client J. K. Rowling. Clearly the novel had to be good enough to receive its initial positive reviews and sell 8,500 copies, but the pseudonymous Robert Galbraith skipped the most difficult part of the publishing process. The question is, would an unknown middle-aged female writer in, say, Canada have been able to find a publisher for the exact same manuscript written under a male pseudonym? It’s doubtful. J. K. Rowling is an accomplished, professional author who has honed her writing craft for many years. But there are probably thousands of indie authors out there who have done the same and been unable to reach the sunny side of the hourglass.

In the days since her alter-ego was demolished, Rowling has explained her motives behind the creation of Galbraith at some length. I actually admire her for writing a novel and then declining to use her Potter-fueled brand to sell it. Ironically though, given her new book’s title, she has simply laid a cuckoo’s egg in the traditional publishing industry’s nest. Fortunately, agent-less authors like myself now have alternative ways to find readers for their work. We’re a big flock. And we’ll teach our own chicks to fly.

Photo credit: Daniel Ogren / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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