The Long Odds for New Authors

Reblogged from the New York Times

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” became the publishing sensation of the summer when word leaked that its first-time author, Robert Galbraith, was none other than J. K. Rowling, the mega-best-selling creator ofHarry Potter.

Mystery solved? Maybe not. It’s no surprise that “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” a detective story set in a London populated by supermodels and rock stars, shot to the top of best-seller lists once the identity of the author was revealed. But if the book is as good as critics are now saying it is, why didn’t it sell more copies before, especially since the rise of online publishing has supposedly made it easier than ever for first-time authors?

“It makes me sad,” Roxanne Coady, founder of R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., and the online retailerJustTheRightBook.com, told me last week from Maine, where she said she was sitting near a stack of unread new books. “Because not everyone turns out to be a J. K. Rowling. It reminds me how difficult it is for even good books to succeed.”

It’s not entirely clear why Ms. Rowling decided she wanted “to fly under the radar,” as she put it on the Robert Galbraith Web site, other than to say that “being Robert Galbraith has been all about the work, which is my favorite part of being a writer.” Writing under a pseudonym obviously ruled out any tedious book signings or publicity appearances, but Ms. Rowling doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to.

And it wasn’t about money, since Ms. Rowling is donating all royalties to charity. “If sales were what mattered to me most, I would have written under my own name, and with the greatest fanfare,” she said. (A spokeswoman in London for Ms. Rowling responded to my questions by directing me to the Galbraith Web site, and said Ms. Rowling would have no further comment.)

Ms. Rowling’s last book, “The Casual Vacancy,” an adult comedy of manners published under her name and the first since the end of the Potter series, was met with high expectations and withering reviews from prominent critics. Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times, “the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is not only disappointing — it’s dull.” The Los Angeles Times faulted “Rowling’s inability to engage us, to invest us sufficiently in her characters.”

Still, with hardcover sales of just over 1.3 million copies, it was the No. 1 hardcover fiction title of 2012, according to Publishers Weekly’s annual ranking, outselling John Grisham, James Patterson and Danielle Steel.

Ms. Rowling may well have felt that the reaction, both critical and commercial, was distorted by her fame, and hence decided on a pseudonym for “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” It’s not clear exactly who was in on the secret: her agent, of course, and at least someone at Little, Brown & Company, her publisher, including her editor, who also edited “The Casual Vacancy.” (“The Cuckoo’s Calling” was published by Mulholland Books, a Little, Brown imprint.) “Few people within the publishing house knew the true identity of Robert at the time,” Nicole Dewey, a Little, Brown spokeswoman, told me, declining to be more specific about who knew.

But that already distorted the experiment to some extent. Given how difficult it is for first-time fiction authors, especially in a crowded genre like mystery, to find both an agent and publisher, it’s not clear “The Cuckoo’s Calling” would have made it off the slush piles. At least one other publisher, Orion Books, which like Little, Brown, is a subsidiary of the Hachette Book Group, rejected the manuscript. An editor there told The Telegraph in London that the book “didn’t stand out.”

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. Morgan Entrekin, the president and publisher of Grove Atlantic, is widely viewed as a master at introducing new literary talent to the marketplace. He published “Cold Mountain” by then first-time novelist Charles Frazier, which went on to win the National Book Award and sell over 11 million copies.

“There’s no question, if a publisher decides to get behind a book, to invest its publishing capital, to use its traction with the chains, with Amazon, fight for the promotion money to get the book into the front of stores, you can do a lot to bring attention to a worthy first novel,” he said.

Mr. Entrekin cited “Matterhorn,” by first-time novelist Karl Marlantes, which he published in 2010. The author “worked on the book for over 20 years and couldn’t find a publisher,” Mr. Entrekin said. Then, as the book was about to be published in a tiny first edition, Mr. Entrekin got a copy from a buyer at Barnes & Noble, loved it, and bought out the first printing.

He re-edited it, cut 300 pages, got advance quotes from prominent authors, introduced the author to booksellers and hosted a media lunch in Manhattan. Amazon.com gave the book a glowing review, chose it as a best book of the month, and got an exclusive review from Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down.” “ ‘Matterhorn’ is a great novel,” his review began. It sold over 400,000 copies.

Read the rest of this post on the New York Times.

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