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J.K. Rowling vs. Unknown Authors vs. Robert Galbraith

July 23, 2013
It’s easy to forget that J.K. Rowling was an unknown author when she wrote this.

It’s easy to forget that J.K. Rowling was an unknown author when she wrote this.

Literary news doesn’t usually get covered by the mainstream media.  If one author cheats on his/her spouse, it doesn’t make news.  If an author has a wardrobe malfunction at an awards ceremony, nobody reports it.  To most people, the literary world is kind of (or very) boring.  Occasionally, an author will get caught plagiarizing.  Sometimes two authors get in a public spat (like Philip Roth and Elizabeth Gilbert over whether or not writing is torture).  But literary figures don’t normally catch the general public’s interest. 

When unknown author Robert Galbraith got outed as J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym last week, that made the news.  Outlets that usually ignore literary stuff reported the revelation.  It helps that everybody knows J.K. Rowling is the author of the Harry Potter books.  It also helps that she’s attractive.  But while it’s nice that a literary figure can make news, there might be a down side (but not for J.K. Rowling). 

There are a lot of unknown mystery authors (I don’t know how many, but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot) who have their own mystery series.  However, there is a limited number of potential mystery genre readers out there.  All those readers grabbing Galbraith/Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling will now read one fewer book by somebody else, and one of those fewer books could be a mystery novel by an unknown author.  If I were one of those unknown mystery authors, I might be kind of ticked off.

I’m not saying it’s not fair.  There’s no such thing as fair in the publishing business.  I’m just saying I’d be frustrated, especially if I didn’t think The Cuckoo’s Calling deserved so much attention (based on quality). 

This just shows how difficult it is for an unknown author to get book sales.  The Cuckoo’s Calling sold around 1500 copies before Galbraith/Rowling got outed.  That’s not bad for an unknown author, but an author can’t live off of that.  Even a J.K. Rowling book doesn’t sell unless everybody knows it’s a J.K. Rowling book. 

Some of these unknown authors were probably selling more books in their debut novels than Robert Galbraith.  If I were one of those unknown mystery authors who had outsold Robert Galbraith before he/she was outed, I’d be proud.  I’d brag about it.  I’d tell all my friends (and anybody who would pretend to listen) that I had outsold J.K. Rowling’s book before everybody found out it was J.K. Rowling’s book. 

That’s just me.  I’m an unknown, but I don’t write mysteries (not yet), and I didn’t outsell Robert Galbraith (not even with my non-mysteries) before he got outed.  


Other authors might try to see if they can get outed with their own pseudonyms.  Maybe Stephen King can write a romantic comedy under a different name and see if anybody catches him.  Maybe Tom Clancy can write a 100 page story horror/fantasy.  Maybe James Patterson can write a… a… never mind; that guy already tries to write in every genre.  Still, it would be interesting to see what they could do to get more media attention. 

But please, no wardrobe malfunctions.

  1. The flipside may be that readers who don’t normally bother with mystery novels read this one, like it and move onto others in the genre.

  2. Every writer should have to publish a book without their name on it. These can all go into a big library call the Grab Bag and people can judge the books on their merits and not on the author’s name. Not that anyone would agree to that, but I think it would be interesting.

    • vrvanderhyde permalink

      This is an interesting theory. Like you said, however, nobody would go for it. Authors want credit for their work. I think that’s why JK Rowling finally came out and said it was her book. Another thought: books could only post the author’s name in the back of the book. Read the whole thing and then get to the “About the Author” section.

    • I’d love it if the first wave of critics for each book didn’t know who the author was. Then at least one group of reviews would be honest. I don’t think a lot of professional reviews are honest when the reviewers know who the author is. But that wouldn’t happen either.

  3. Having worked in the book business for a number of years, most books written by an already famous author using a pen name are “outed”. My sense is that it’s intentional. It’s tough to break in as an author — publishers agree to give established author a chance to try something different, and if sales aren’t good, they “out” them, knowing that the sales will pick up … it’s a no brainer … the book company knows that if the pen name book doesn’t take off, revealing the author will increase the sales, and they’ll make money, which is what publishing is about — it has nothing to do with good, or bad, it has to do with what stands the biggest chance of making lots of money.

    • I was wondering if the whole thing was intentional, but then I was also wondering if I was being cynical for thinking that. The way you explain the situation, it makes logical sense if the outing was intentional. Now I don’t have to feel conspiratorial.

      • I have no proof to back that up … just my sense, from all the time in the bookstore … everyone who’s anyone that’s written a book under another name that hasn’t done well has been ‘outed’… so, no, I don’t think you need to feel conspiratorial.

  4. Imagine if J.K. Rowling had been outed as Robert Galbraith’s pseudonym–THAT would be news.

  5. inthedarkwithyou permalink

    I heard that the book was among the best-selling before anyone even knew that it’s JKR’s work…

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