"What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." Shakespeare's famous words from Romeo and Juliet painted a picture of love and Juliet's ability to look past the name of Montague, her family's great enemy. Her love was for Romeo, no matter what his last name happened to be. In many cases, a rose by any other name makes perfect sense. Taking the phrase very literally, if we called a rose a dog, it would still smell sweet. In writing, if we change the name of a book or its author, the quality of the book remains unchanged, but an author by any other name doesn't necessarily smell as sweet.
Pseudonyms or "pen names" are not a new concept in literature. Authors have used pseudonyms for years to hide their true identity. Some use them to avoid confusion with a similar author name. Some use them to hide their gender. Some just want to be anonymous. Samuel Clemens wrote his works under the pseudonym Mark Twain. Jane Austen originally released "Sense and Sensibility" under the name A Lady. Stephen King wrote numerous novels under the name Richard Bachman. Now it appears that even J.K. Rowling has gotten in on the act as her most recent novel was released under the name Robert Galbraith.
J.K. Rowling's recent use of a pseudonym offers a unique view into the world of publishing that previously was unavailable. Today's technology and thirst for knowledge has answered the question, "Would a J.K. Rowling book by any other name be as successful?" The short answer is "no."
I'm sure everyone has already read the headlines about how the secret was exposed or the explosion of sales that followed. The interesting data for me lies in the Rowling's attempt to find a publisher as an unknown author and the book performance prior to unveiling the true author.
Shopping a Manuscript
It's unknown exactly how many agents, editors, or publishers received the manuscript for "The Cuckoo's Calling." We know that multiple copies went out and no one bit. Rowling eventually fell back to her established publisher to get the book on shelves. Only one brave soul that I could find, Kate Mills, the publishing director at Orion, has publicly commented on it. Her group rejected the manuscript, saying, "It was certainly well written, but it didn’t stand out." If J.K. Rowling, arguably one of the most successful authors of all time, is unable to get interest in her manuscript, what hope does that leave for aspiring writers? Had any one of those same people known it was J.K. Rowling, none would have rejected the opportunity to bring The Cuckoo's Calling to the public.
So, I can now say that I turned down JK Rowling. I did read and say no to Cuckoo's Calling. Anyone else going to confess?
— Kate Mills (@Kate7Mills) July 14, 2013
Looking at the sales performance of "The Cuckoo's Calling" can yield a few different conclusions. One could argue that it did surprisingly well for a debut novel from an unknown author, Robert Galbraith. Others would argue that it had mediocre sales considering the fact that these books were available online and in traditional bookstores for two and half months. Neilsen Bookscan reported only 499 copies sold in the UK and roughly 500 copies sold in the US before the true identity of the author was released. Julie Bosman of the NY Times reported that the book was "as good as dead." Julie goes on to write "Bookstores with unsold copies on hand were contemplating shipping them back to the publisher. Reviews, while generally positive, had tapered off."
While most Indie authors don't see those types of numbers in the first two and half months, they also don't have the resources of J.K. Rowling. Rowling utilized her established agent, Neil Blair and her established publisher, David Shelley at Little, Brown to release "The Cuckoo's Calling" to the world as Robert Galbraith. With unimaginable financial backing, "The Cuckoo's Calling" was able to reach more bookstore shelves than an Indie author could ever dream. Rowling's resources were able to get Publisher's Weekly to endorse the book. Copies were given out to book reviewers for free to generate "honest reviews." Two of Amazon's Top 500 reviewers actually reviewed the book before the true author was known. One review was available before the book was officially published on April 30, 2013.
After an unfortunate (or maybe not so unfortunate) series of events occurred, the Twittersphere became aware of the pseudonym and everything changed. There was an immediate rush to bookstores everywhere. All of the "first copies" were gobbled up, many to appear on eBay at ridiculous prices. An order for 300,000 additional books was placed by the publisher. The sales rank on Amazon went from #4,709 to #1 in a matter of hours. NovelRank.com began tracking the sales ranking on July 13th at 8:00PM. "The Cuckoo's Calling" was ranked #36,091 at that time and skyrocketed to #1 by 4:00PM the following day.
Book reviews are an interesting phenomenon. Unknown authors need positive book reviews to help potential buyers with their decision to purchase their book. Let's face it, readers don't want to make a financial risk (even a small one) on an unknown author who has horrible reviews. On the other hand, a famous author can publish their high school term papers and probably make the bestseller's list without any valid reviews. When evaluating the curious case of "The Cuckoo's Calling", I was interested in the honest reviews of Robert Galbraith's debut novel. Not surprising, the reviews were as infrequent and rated similar to a mediocre Indie author debut. The biggest difference is that Rowling had the financial backing to send an unknown quantity of books to reviewers. Several reviewers cite that they were given a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Seeing 2-star and 3-star reviews is not uncommon for J.K. Rowling, but many times reviewers will hold an established author to a higher standard in their evaluation of a book. Seeing 2-star and 3-star reviews as Robert Galbraith is quite telling about the actual quality and opinion of the few readers who evaluated this "up-and-coming author". I don't want to discount the positive reviews, as many of the 5 star reviews were very detailed and well written. Rowling is obviously talented and the book is deemed to be good by many. I was more interested in the common traits of her lower marks. The common complaints were that the story was "slow to develop" and there were "too many characters involved." My favorite comment was "The novel is so, so slow (and long) without much happening. Properly edited, it could have been a much better novel." Sounds like typical feedback for an unknown author trying to introduce his (or her) work to the world.
While everyone is entitled to their opinion and can interpret this data however they'd like, I think it offers some lessons for aspiring authors.
- Success isn't a guarantee. It requires hard work (and sometimes money). I honestly believe that Rowling was trying to do the right thing. She wanted an unbiased view of her work based on its merits alone and not just because of her name. Those dreams came crashing down after a single tweet let the cat out of the bag.
- Good work is often rejected. While only one resource has been brave enough to admit it, it is believed that many others rejected this bestseller as Robert Galbraith. Rowling obviously has more resources available than most and was able to edit and publish in eBook, hardcover, paperback, and audiobook formats without the typical pain seen by aspiring writers who just want someone to actually read their manuscript.
- Good marketing costs money. Undoubtedly, Rowling probably lost money in the sale of "The Cuckoo's Calling" as Robert Galbraith. Writing a book takes patience and time. Selling a book requires a financial and emotional investment that few can endure. Aspiring writers need to understand that word of mouth is important, but typically limited. True marketing efforts will likely be required to see success as an author. If you believe in your work, don't be afraid to invest in it.
- Thick skin is a requirement. Aspiring authors need this reminder regularly. Don't be discouraged by bad reviews. It's easy to feel defeated after months of hard work, only to get bashed by someone who didn't agree with the storyline. Some of the best authors in the world have received negative feedback on their work. It's inevitable. Accept it. Embrace it. Learn from it. Keep writing!
- A rose by another name doesn't always smell as sweet. Although Shakespeare may disagree, the numbers don't lie. It is clear that Rowling is talented. She was making the right moves as Robert Galbraith to eventually see success. We will never know if Robert Galbraith would have made the bestseller's list on his own, but certainly the author's name made this book sweeter.