Gabrielle Chavela’s author photo

JK Rowling Holds a Mirror Up to Publishing

Books are selling better than ever. So why are publishers so scared?

When Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was outed as Robert Galbraith, the pseudonymous author of the crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, my first thought was of the novel I just published, Part of Your World by Gabrielle Chavela, also a pseudonym. The two books have similar histories but came into being for nearly opposite reasons, and comparing their two paths sheds some fresh light on the state of publishing.

First, let me say that it is unlikely Robert Galbraith’s novel would have found a publishing deal at all on his own merits, not because the work isn’t solid—by all accounts it is—but because the editorial marketplace is spooked at the moment about acquiring anything new, and deals for first time authors are hard to come by, especially those who employ a pseudonym. The book was rejected when submitted to publishers without Rowling’s name attached, and it is significant to note that Little, Brown, which did publish it, was in on the ruse (I am not critical of such a stunt, by the way, but rather admire it).

Chavela’s book didn’t find a publisher on its own merits, either, and it only landed in my lap by chance. Chavela and I share the same agent, and she had not been able to place what we both agreed is a powerful novel. “Publishers want a live author whose reputation will help launch and support a book, and attract readers— they used to rely also on publicity, when there were many more bookstores where readings took place, and more journalists who did features and reviews for newspapers, magazines, and TV. There are fewer opportunities for these kinds of publicity now.” Since I am a micro-publisher with no budget for PR, this didn’t matter to me. I could take the risk.

Just as no one who worked on The Cuckoo’s Calling at Little, Brown, besides the book’s editor, knew the secret, no one at Dymaxicon knows Gabrielle’s real name. In Gabrielle’s case, the reason for concealing her true identity is a more sobering one: the novel is a roman a clef that concerns the overthrow of Jean Bertrand Aristide’s government in Haiti, and includes insights that would put the author in a compromising position were her true identity to be known.

In Rowling’s case, the ruse was always intended to be temporary, a PR tactic, but also a literary palate cleanser. Rowling’s first post-Potter foray into adult fiction had been met with mixed reviews. She wanted her next to be judged on its own merits, and not through the distorted lens of her own celebrity. And behold, The Cuckoo’s Calling received excellent reviews in all the right places, like Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal, etc. And it sold 1500 copies, which is considered respectable for a first crime novel, if not spectacular. When Dymaxicon published first-time crime novelist David Swinson’s A Detailed Man, we sold more copies than that—without a marketing budget.

The publishing industry has been feeling sorry for itself for some time now, with much talk of what a “crisis” it is in. But it’s complicated. According to the Association of American Publishers’ annual Bookstats report, sales of both print and electronic books were up in 2012, not down. E-book sales nearly doubled, but even print books saw an uptick. A lot of this growth is attributed to a few titles, like 50 Shades of Grey, that do exceptionally well, and then there is the surge in self-published e-books, which may only sell a few copies but comprise a very long industry tail.

So although books are selling as well as, or better than in the past, it generally agreed upon that it is now harder to launch a book than ever. This is because the traditional ways of launching a book do not work anymore, and no one can say with any certainty what does work—it all feels like a big crapshoot. But there are a few emergent truths worth noting.

Last year the New York Times Magazine excerpted Dymaxicon author Nancy Rommelmann’s memoir, The Queens of Montague Street. Because the book is available only for the Kindle, it was easy to see exactly what kind of sales this event precipitated: The excerpt appeared on February 5th, 2012, and 294 copies sold in the month of February. In other words, publication in the New York Times does not lead to bestsellerdom. If it did, the Robert Galbraiths of the world would easily find an audience once their books were well reviewed.

It used to. That is because bookstores used to stock the books reviewed in the Times, and not just that, they would read and recommend them to customers. What we lost when we lost bookstores was the concentrated power of the bookseller to promote works of particular merit—personal recommendations drove sales.

Literary fiction suffers particularly from this new climate. Reading culture and the process of discovery have changed, but fans of literary fiction are always the first to tell me they don’t like e-books, or that they never review books on Amazon, or even that they refuse to patronize Amazon and will only buy books from bookstores. These attitudes go a long way toward ghettoizing the very books they purport to love.

Today Amazon reviews are more important to a book’s ability to move than is a mention in the New York Times, because people buy books on Amazon now, not at the bookstore, and the system by which books are discovered is no longer rooted in connoisseurship, but in ranking algorithms. Popularity, as indicated by reviews and sales ranking, is what creates customer confidence and leads to book sales. You can’t sell books without selling books today.

So marketing efforts aimed at driving connoisseurship are futile—book tours, press junkets, these expensive analog marketing devices are pretty much worthless. This isn’t a bad thing—in fact Amazon is a haven for the odd, the esoteric, the out-of-print, and a boon for small publishers like me who could not otherwise sell to a national audience—it just represents a change in how things flow. I could not afford to launch a book at all if I had to pay for a book tour, and the fact that A Detailed Man did as well in the tough crime fiction market as Galbraith before Galbraith was Rowling is kind of miraculous. Swinson’s book was well-reviewed and features were written about the author in the Long Beach Press-Telegraph, the Seattle Post Intelligence and Washington City Paper, and it was featured for many weeks on the front page of the National Library’s website, but what drove sales most was a three day Kindle giveaway in which it topped the “free” bestseller list on Amazon. We gave away over 14,000 copies, and then sold over a thousand in the next few days, having reached the magical tipping point.

The giveaway promotion was necessary, but not sufficient. We only reached such a high number because the author’s personal network of over 2,500 Twitter followers and 700 Facebook friends rallied.

The books that have done well for Dymaxicon are those whose authors already have a following. Twitter and Facebook matter more than the New York Times, too. Only last year we published Beer in the Sun, a brilliant story collection by a Southern writer named Walt Foreman, stories that at their best could rub shoulders with Flannery O’Connor. But since Walt is a bit of a recluse with no use for things like Twitter or Facebook, the book sank like a stone upon publication. To date it has sold just a handful copies. So now, when I’m thinking about publishing an author, I look to see if they are on Twitter, and how many followers they have. It’s not the deciding factor, but it matters.

The reason a pseudonymous author is a scary thing for a publisher is not that there isn’t a warm body to send on a book tour, it’s that there is no phalanx of fans and followers in place to help give the book a leg up onto the sales charts, and there is no longer a mechanism in place for tastemakers to influence sales or help launch a book. It didn’t matter that Robert Galbraith had the support of Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and it may not matter that Julia Alvarez and Robert Stone and John Burdett all blurbed Gabrielle Chavela’s Part of Your World—without a network behind the author, the book may be a tree falling in a forest, unheard.

These are the hard lessons we are learning in publishing right now, and I for one am thankful to Rowling for conducting this grand experiment, if only because it shows me, as a publisher, just what I may be up against—it is both scary and exciting.

Hillary Louise Johnson (@hillaryjohnson) is the founder of Dymaxicon and the author of a novel, Physical Culture. Excerpts from the Dymaxicon titles mentioned above can be found in the Dymaxicon medium collection. Gabrielle Chavela’s novel, Part of Your World is available for Kindle and coming soon in paperback.