Friday, September 6, 2013

What J.K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith Can Teach Us About Author Platform

by Joel Friedlander

The literary world was shocked this past week by the revelation that J.K. Rowling, one of the most famous authors in the world, had written, sold, and published a crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the name “Robert Galbraith.”

Weeks ago there were some readers who thought a well-known author was behind the book, like this one on Amazon:

“This book is so well written that I suspect that some years down the road we will hear the author’s name is a pseudonym of some famous writer.”

Some thought that Rowling should be allowed any leeway she likes, considering that her level of fame can sometimes be a burden, as from this commenter on Google+:

“This way she gets to test her writing instead of her marketing or brand.”

There was no secret that Robert Galbraith was a pseudonym, and this device is often used by authors who want to try writing in a new genre, for instance. Here’s the way Galbraith was described by Little, Brown, the book’s (unsuspecting) publisher, on its Amazon page:

“Robert Galbraith: After several years with the Royal Military Police, Robert Galbraith was attached to the SIB (Special Investigative Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who returned to the civilian world. ‘Robert Galbraith’ is a pseudonym.”

So why does this all matter, and what can we learn from it?

Reviews, Sales, Platform

What really caught my attention about this story was the fate of the book so far in its publishing journey. It came out in April, and the publisher obviously believed enough in the book to commit resources to launching and promoting it, despite the fact there was no author to help out.

Reviews from major media were glowing. Publisher’s Weekly called it “stellar,” Booklist “instantly absorbing,” and Library Journal, “engrossing.”

Is there a self-publisher who wouldn’t like to get reviews like that? And if you did, don’t you think you’d be ready to go to the bank with all the sales you’d make from these mighty media recommending your book?

Don’t get up from your desk just yet. As it turns out, the book sold poorly, moving only 1,500 copies before the news broke about who was behind Robert Galbraith.

Stopping right here for a moment, how do we understand that great reviews like these don’t automatically lead to book sales? How’s that supposed to work?

Former agent Nathan Bransford weighed in with his opinion:

“It just goes to show how fleeting commercial success is in the book world. Take away those magical series of events that result in bestsellerdom and it’s just another well-received crime novel that fails to catch fire.”

And his conclusion:

“Even J.K. Rowling can write a good book that drops into the ocean and barely makes a ripple.”

But I’m not so sure that’s the lesson to be drawn from all this.

And why did Rowling, who can create a bestseller with every single book if she wanted to, go through all the trouble of this exercise? Here’s what she had to say on the new Robert Galbraith author site:

“I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback. It was a fantastic experience and I only wish it could have gone on a little longer.”

It’s the Platform, Honey

You can see that Rowling’s motivation was entirely for her own benefit as a writer. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and writers should stretch themselves when it seems right to do so. Take chances and try new things.

But she didn’t do it for her readers; it was more to escape from their expectations, and maybe to escape the kind of scrutiny that greeted her earlier foray into contemporary fiction.

Would The Cuckoo’s Calling’s sales have eventually picked up? Would word of mouth kick in at some point as more and more people discovered the new writer Robert Galbraith? We don’t know.

What we do know is what every indie author already knows: platform sells books.

Your author platform—all your readers, all the people who give you credibility and trust and attention—are crucial to indie authors’ success.

My opinion is that it was the complete absence of any platform for Robert Galbraith, the lack of any fans, anyone who cared about him, the lack of anyone willing to host him on a blog tour or help him set up readings at bookstores, or a tribe that would greet his long-awaited first book with enthusiasm that held back sales of what’s obviously a well-written book.

Your platform—or your tribe, your fans, your readers, your subscribers, whatever you want to call them—are the people who care about you, who will help you succeed, will cheer you on and pass your book around their own networks.

Trying to publish a book without an author platform makes the task infinitely more difficult. And even though there are still people, like J.K. Rowling, who built their platform solely by publishing, they are the exceptions.

For the rest of us, building an author platform is how we invest in ourselves and the books we’re going to publish.

Without it, even J.K. Rowling herself couldn’t sell many books.

And with it? When the news broke, The Cuckoo’s Calling went to #1 on Amazon, and has stayed there ever since.

We have to acknowledge that it’s possible to create enough sensation to sell books that have no author, but that’s not what was happening here. Rowling wanted the book to succeed only on its merits and without any connection to her.

Of course, as indie authors, we could have told her the best test to really see if your well-written book has what it takes to escape from obscurity: self-publish it. Now that’s a test.

What do you think about building a platform to sell your books? Is it working?

Joel Friedlander is a self-published author, an award-winning book designer, and an accomplished blogger. He's the founder of the Self-Publishing Roadmap online training course, and a frequent speaker at industry events where he talks to writers about how the new tools of publishing can help them reach and inspire their readers.

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