What J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous novel says about commercial success

by | Jul 15, 2013 | Business of Publishing | 72 comments

In one of the great baller moves in recent literary history, news leaked out this week that J.K. Rowling published a crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbriath.

Rowling apparently didn’t just make secret arrangements with a publisher as herself, the novel was actually submitted to editors under the pen name (though it ended up with Rowling’s editor for The Casual Vacancy, David Shelley). At least one editor has now confessed to passing on it:

Most of the news reports have focused on the fact that The Cuckoo’s Calling received pretty glowing reviews, with Publishers Weekly calling it a “stellar debut” in a starred review. Especially after getting Michiko Kakutani’d with The Casual Vacancy, that had to have been particularly gratifying, and it’s interesting to ponder whether The Casual Vacancy itself would have been reviewed differently had Rowling not been the name on the jacket.

At the same time, I think people are missing one of the other important illustrative elements of this story, which is that The Cuckoo’s Calling was not a great commercial success. It had sold only 1,500 copies in Britain. Despite all those glowing reviews and being published in a commercial genre, it didn’t catch on.

Some of this may have had to do with the fact that it was by most accounts, a quiet novel:

It’s equally possible, even probable, that commercial success wasn’t Rowling’s intent and that she wanted the thrill of receiving an honest appraisal of her work unencumbered from her reputation.

Still, it was a book written by J.K. Rowling. It received terrific reviews. It was published by great publishers. And it didn’t take off.

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.
Even J.K. Rowling can write a good book that drops into the ocean and barely makes a ripple. 
Art: Elegante Gesellschaft by Adolphe Stache


  1. Matthew MacNish

    I imagine there's supposed to be some hope in this story … but I can't find it.

  2. D.G. Hudson

    So, in this instance, marketing failed, and the reading public gave its judgment. Isn't this the same bar by which all writers should be measured?

    No matter the marketing, if it's not hitting the mark,it's usually because of the writing or the story.

  3. Anonymous

    I think "they" like to put us in little boxes and keep us there forever 🙂

    For all we know, E.L. James has a great middle grade book in her. But could you imagine E.L. James publishing a middle grade book with her name?

  4. Lori Folkman

    I find it interesting that the only 1 star reviews for The Cuckoo's Calling have appeared since Saturday. It's sad that people are so spiteful.

  5. Anonymous

    DG Hudson said…"No matter the marketing, if it's not hitting the mark,it's usually because of the writing or the story."

    That has nothing to do with it. Poorly written books sell millions of copies, well written books often slip through the cracks. And the marketing is THE most important part. These new authors have street teams (you can look that up), PR firms, and they work social media 24 hours a day. They blog, hop, and swag. I saw two idiots who are even doing a video without their pants recently. So even if you are an established author who has sold millions of books, you're starting from stratch if you're hopping genres with a pen name. And it has nothing to do with the writing or the quality of the book.

  6. Elise Stokes

    Excellent post. I wouldn't be surprised if that had been Rowling's goal: to see if her work could stand on its own and not on a brand name.

  7. J. R. Tomlin

    It was actually sitting at about #4500 on Amazon which is fairly decent sales. However, large publishers are convinced that if it isn't a Best Seller the sales just plain don't count. Decent steady sales, according to the supposed professionals, are something to be ashamed of.

  8. birdinabowler

    Interesting….many thoughts…..too many thoughts……ack!
    You have thrown my brain into a three hour thinking session!

  9. Alan Tucker

    Hard work is important, but there are many cases of people making it big without a tremendous amount of work. Luck is huge. That said, in Rowling's case, she did do the work first and managed to catch that lightning in a bottle. What shines through for me is that the woman is a WRITER. She wouldn't have to lift a finger another day in her life, yet, she continues to write.

  10. Wendy Ewurum

    Im so glad you wrote this article, I'll repost on my blog and link back here if you don't mind. I will also go and buythis book that I knew nothing about. I think genres other than fantasy are suffering everywhere right now. Sad but true

  11. Shaun Hutchinson

    Matthew – I think the hope you're looking for is that not even J.K. Rowling can be the next J.K. Rowling, which actually means that anyone can be the next J.K. Rowling. There's so much luck involved in a book taking off. Starred reviews and great writing aren't always enough. I'm often floored by the amazing books that fly under the radar. But it goes to show that, all things being equal, we all have the same chances of breaking out and writing that best seller.

  12. Kim Batchelor

    Maybe it just takes more than one novel for good old Robert to finally find the success that has so far eluded him/her. Imagine that.

  13. Liss Thomas

    Great article Nathan. I think JK Rowling's book will probably blow up know that the cat's out of the bag but good for her. She may not have to write again but she is like most authors, we love to write!

    I'm not a big author but I continue because I love it. Stop? Me? No way!

  14. Julia Robb

    Nobody can guarantee success, or even readership, for books, including great books. Ask Herman Melville.
    It's hard for writers to accept they may not be the next best selling author, but it's necessary to obtain any peace.
    I believe great writers should write their heart and the hell with everything else.
    That's what I've done, and am doing.

  15. L.G. Smith

    Well, it's number one now, isn't it. And that's how 70% of the bestsellers list is comprised…it's all name recognition driving sales, not necessarily story content. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just how it seems to work with buyers in the general public.

  16. Natalie Aguirre

    Great post. I wonder if it would have ever sold well if the fact that JK Rowling wrote it hadn't leaked or if she would have disclosed it herself to boost sales.

  17. Laurie

    Didn't Stephen King try to do this, too? And similar results — the books under the pseudonym didn't do as well until they were revealed as the famous author. (Also similar that he was "outed" a bit too early to really see it as an interesting experiment.)

  18. Debby Hanoka

    It all goes back to something Amelia Earhart said when she became the first woman pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. I paraphrase: "… for the men to stand aside and give the ladies a chance. They might be pleasantly surprised at what we can do." (Very subtle sarcasm intended.)

    Kudos to Ms. Rowling for messing with their heads!

  19. Mira

    This is a really fascinating situation, and I think more is to be revealed – for example, I hope we eventually find out who leaked it. I can't know for certain, of course, but I suspect it wasn't Rowling – why would she go to all this trouble and leak it out? She doesn't need the money. I would bet she wanted to see where it would go.

    I understand what you are saying, Nathan, there is a great deal of luck in publishing. However, I think it's a little tricky to make conclusions about this. There are a couple of points to consider:

    a. This was only released in April. That's three months! It can take alittle longer for a book to find an audience. Harry Potter didn't take off until the fourth in the series.

    b. I'm not sure what marketing the Publisher did other than submit for reviews, but she did no marketing whatsoever.

    c. It's only one book. Some feel it can take multiple books for a series to take off.

    d. The cover is so-so. The title is so-so.

    e. The hero is military, which may not appeal as much to a female audience. Women tend to be the big book buyers. I'm just guessing on this one. But my point is that word of mouth might have been the way this would have reached audiences, and there wasn't time for that.

    Would this book have taken off given more time? I think really we don't know.

  20. Kathryn Packer Roberts

    I love that she did it this way. She's had all the fame, now to do what she loves, a way to start fresh. She could've leaned on her previous series for it to sell. How tempting would that have been? But she didn't. It's a way to get honest feedback, sidestepping the yes-men, or kiss-ups. Which means she truly wanted to learn a new skill or perfect the skills she already (definitely) has. It's great.

  21. Melody

    The news that Rowling had published under another name was inspiring to me; even more inspiring is the realization that people actually passed on the disguised work. Wow! If one ever had doubts about being "the next J. K. Rowling" when rejected, this should help. 🙂

  22. adan

    stunning, and not the first instance; and maybe says more about joe konrath's assertion re the need for just plain good luck 🙂 so with that, it's "definitely" best wishes for everyone 😉

  23. Regina Richards

    Great post. Though I'm not sure if it feels like balm or salt.

  24. jenna123

    Something to remember is that it's a thriller, the true home of the series. It's like romance in how fans want to know that they can get more of what they've paid for. I think if you give it a few sequels it might have done just fine.

  25. Stephen Spain

    What I find interesting about all this is that no one seems to find it at all untoward for Rowling to have made up a biography for her pseudonym that included military and police experience. Not only is it dubious to pretend to have military rank and/or experiences that one doesn't, it is actually a crime in the US to profit from such misrepresentations. I get the desire to use a pseudonym, but it was an unqualified error to appropriate a military/police identity for the fictional "author."

  26. Lexa Cain

    I loved this post. It's just random luck, huh? Anyone can do it — or not.

    @Mira – your comments were very insightful. Thanks. 🙂

  27. Jennifer R. Hubbard

    It illustrates how important name recognition is in driving sales. But we knew that already!

    I imagine she may have done this out of a sheer desire for freedom, to explore her writer's voice outside the heat of the spotlight.

    It is fun to wonder who else might be out there writing under different names.

  28. Sarah Hipple

    I don't know, it all sounds like things were going about right. Either she set out to write a quiet book or it just happened. Either way, no big surprise that a quiet book wasn't making a splash, even a well-written and interesting quiet book.

    I don't think many quiet books take off for the bestseller list, but I might be wrong.

    I am very glad it was viewed as a good book, though. That just makes me happy.

  29. alyssa

    @ Mira –
    re (e)-
    Kate Atkinson's hero Jackson Brodie (Case Histories, etc.) comes to mind, as he's ex-military (and ex-police) and a private investigator. And loads of women like him. So that might not be the case at all. 🙂

  30. Pabkins

    That is so true! I sometimes think just because an author is big name that their books sell even when they are unimpressive. It's interesting to see that it goes the other way around as well!

  31. Neil Larkins

    Where I read this story it was said when the reveal came that it was Rowling, sales jumped over 500,000%. Amazon and B&N reported being backordered on print copies. Or was that a typo? If not, it shows the power of a known name. Is this what Rowling wanted? Really?

  32. Bruce Bonafede

    I like to think the entire thing was a prank cooked up by Rowling (including the timely "revelation" of the true authorship) as a satirical comment on the arbitrary nature of commercial publishing. No way to know, of course, but if it was it's a lovely thought.

  33. textualsilence

    It could be as simple as not wanting every word to be judged in comparison with the Potter series – every person I've spoken to w/r/t the Casual book has mentioned the comparison in writing style without fail.

    Interesting post. Good to get writers talking.

  34. Keren David

    1500 copies in three months in hardback in Britain – a much smaller market than the US – for a debut author, this isn't bad!

  35. Unknown

    All this hoopla presupposes that J K Rowling can actually write worth a damn.
    As opposed to being relentlessly marketed.

  36. wendy

    It's like music artists who tap into the public mood for one or two albums and then lose their way for the others. Stephenie Meyer captured popular tastes with Twilight, but I think failed – for the most part – with The Host. It was made into a movie, but I think she was the producer – or one of them, at least. And, perhaps, it's harder for a writer of one genre to cross over and have commercial success with another genre. Another great English writer for children, Enid Blyton, never even managed to her stories for adults published. And her first marriage was to a publisher – the one who published many of her early children's stories.

    I think people want to read or watch something uplifting and decent – something that is in some way lovely. For a case in point, the Disney studios have probably been one of the most successful movie studios ever. However their latest production, The Lone Ranger, was extremely violent – I'd speculate Disney's most violent effort ever. Despite the charisma and acting chops of the leads, the film hasn't done all that well, earning well behind that other recently released children's movie, Despicable Me 2. Despite the title, this movie was utterly charming, I thought, as was its predecessor. Could the general public – for the most part – want to be charmed and delighted and to have fun with their media entertainment of choice?

  37. Steve MC

    I think she did it to be read without prejudice, either for or against.

    And for the same reason Stephen King did: "Jo is right about one big thing — what a pleasure, what a blessed relief, to write in anonymity, just for the joy of it."

    The whole thing reminds me of when Joshua Bell played the subway.

    No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. – Washington Post

    He earned $32.17 in forty-five minutes.

  38. Sun Singer

    Well, we really can't say that Rowling can write a book that goes nowhere because once we knew the writer's name, the book soared.

    It was Galbraith's book that sank. And that's worse news for writers.


  39. Bob

    I find the bio she used misleading and, frankly, an outright lie. It's also an insult to veterans.

    I'm glad she's had her fun and got her great reviews. And it sold like crap under the pen name.

    That's how the gatekeepers of publishing work.

  40. Melissa

    So it wasn't a commercial success, but got great, gratifying reviews. Now that people know that Rowling actually wrote it, I'm sure there are going to be a lot more sales. Something tells me that the leak was on purpose, either by the author, agent, or publisher looking for more sales. 🙂

  41. Neil Larkins

    I think these "reviewers" knew all along it was Rowling or highly suspected it and wanted to give her pseudo the best boost they could. They protect their own and I don't believe anything they have said about it. They may even have been in on the entire ruse from day one. Sorry to be so cynical, but today, no matter how cynical you are it's never enough. Yet, if all these folk were actually in on the ruse from the first or even signed on later, they are the ones who are cynical — cynical towards we their rubes…oops, I mean their customers.

  42. Cole

    Book publishing just like any other business is 90% Marketing and tapping into the right market at the right time. Look at McDonalds. Food that will literally kill you if you ate it and only it for more than a week or two, and it crushes all else in the food industry. It certainly isnt about quality, unless you're operating in a market that demands it (few and far between). It's more important to have a provocative book than a good book. Look at JC Reid…her books have the phrase 'my heart dropped into my panties' like 30 times and they sell hundreds of thousands of copies. It's just the reality of the world we live in. Candy over substance. Eventually it will catch up to us just like it has over and over throughout history.

  43. Nathan Bransford


    If that's the case, why did they trash "The Casual Vacancy" when it was written under her real name?

  44. michellelouring

    When 'The Casual Vacancy' came out, I said to myself that Rowling should never have written it under her own name as everyone expected something completely different. Of course, I would never have looked twice at it if she hadn't had her name on the cover…
    But it seems that it really doesn't matter what she does! I fully understand her reasoning, though.

  45. Tina

    I am not sure if this is affirming or depressing. I admire her for trying to get published on her own merit.

  46. Mirka Breen

    The brightest part of this saga is J. K. Rowling showing the world that a good imaginative writer can write many different genres. Don't box her in. Anyone listening?

  47. Neil Larkins

    Hmm. So why did they trash The Casual Vacancy? Made me rethink. Thanks, Nathan.

  48. Peter Dudley

    Would Robert Galbraith have an easier time or a harder time pitching a second novel on the strength of 1,500 sales?

  49. Anonymous

    I find it interesting that up until Rowling revealed she was the author the book didn't have one single one star review.

    It's very defining of the entire Amazon review process.

  50. Kim

    I don't think it's fair to say that this wasn't a commercial success. It was released as a debut, it was only out for three months — it takes longer than just three months to have word of mouth help out sales — and it was only released in the UK. There wasn't any promotional events for the book either. Can you really judge how a book does only on the first three months? Of a debut? I don't think so.

    I think we'd be able to say whether it was or wasn't based on what happened when it went to paperback.

  51. Norma Beishir

    Oh, I love that!

    I recall my editor telling me, years ago, that Jerzy Kosinski submitted a manuscript under a pseudonym to see what would happen…and everyone turned it down!

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  53. Anonymous

    "If that's the case, why did they trash "The Casual Vacancy" when it was written under her real name?"

    Because they can, because they gain pleasure from it, and because they also get attention.

    Casual Vacancy is a really great book, and I think it's along the lines of Franzen's style with a UK POV. But if you read some of the Amazon reviews they make it sound dark and depressing, which is far from what it's really like.

  54. mehul desai

    If this was not an orchestrated sham, encompassing “fake” rejections, and from what I read she made a false bio for Galbraith, then it displays you that even she is a mortal. So, scribe friends take it to hart, if she can go wrong, so can we, and if she can succeed, so can we.

  55. Karen Clayton

    I wonder if "leaking" that JK Rowling was the author of the book wasn't a way to help out the book's final sells. Now if I can only get her to do that for my book!

  56. abc

    sort of unrelated–the kid and I are reading The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde. Wondering if you read it. I ask because it reminds me a lot of your style (which pleases us). Imaginative, but very funny.

  57. Doug

    Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written a blog post noting that,

    "What I’m seeing on many publishing blogs I read … is that they all blame the author. …

    "Traditional publishing is now claiming that the editors who rejected the book were right, and the author—in her insistence on anonymity and in writing a “quiet” book—is the one who ruined the sales of this novel.

    "Welcome to traditional publishing in the 21st century.

    "Their job isn’t to nurture books. It’s not to publish books that readers want to read. Their job is to publish blockbusters, and any book that isn’t a blockbuster is the fault of the author …

    "Read what the industry bloggers are saying, think about the kind of cynicism it takes to believe that Rowling would do this as a publicity stunt, and realize that these people are the gatekeepers.

    "These gatekeepers just attacked JK Rowling … JK Rowling, who has made billions for the industry."

  58. Anonymous

    I think the sucess of this book is being misrepresented. I have heard that it sold less than 500 copies from one source and around 1500 copies from another; I have also heard varying opinions on whether this constitutes sucess or failure.

    But there seems to be information from Rowling herself that actually "it sold 8500 English language copies across all formats (hardback, eBook, library and audiobook) and received two offers from television production companies".

  59. Anonymous

    Well, this is encouraging. Very encouraging. Especially since I'm pondering giving up on publishing altogether.

  60. frau wyler

    It's good to know that there is still hope that books sell on merit, not based on the name of the author- or the cover…

  61. Carmen DeSousa

    Love this post because it reminds us all… I don't have to go into detail…as writers, we know.

    One thing I will say, though, I was appalled when I went to look at the reviews and saw that three one-star reviews popped up the same day as the announcement.

    I never read 'Harry Potter', as it didn't appeal to me, but I admit that the moment I found out Rowling wrote a mystery, I wanted to read it. I want to know why it wasn't popular until her true identity became known.

    Whether this was purposeful or not, this was an interesting experiment in today's book publishing market. In my humble opinion, HYPE, not great writing or even marketing sometimes, is what sells.

  62. Dosti SMS

    I wasn't very thrilled about The Casual Vacancy, JKR's entree into adult fiction. In fact, it wasn't my thing at all. I couldn't even finish it.

    But with The Cuckoo's Calling JKR's done it again. She's brought back the warmth I always associated with Hogwarts in this solid muggle detective story! The writing is BRILLIANT- with lines I found myself highlighting and smiling at. I love the quirkiness in her descriptions and how well fleshed out the characters were. Their accents, their airs, the mannerisms- all so beautifully captured, just like she did in Potter!

    The main character is this stand-up guy whose back story reminded me a lot of Dr. Watson from Sherlock Holmes! His secretary, Robin, made a great partner-in-crime-solving(?)! I do hope we see more and more of her. YES, there is more. This is only the first book in a series and I'm already waiting for the next book! It's also a pretty good mystery. I couldn't solve this whodunnit till the very end of the book when I was surprised to find out who the murderer was.

    I guess the bottomline is this:

    The Cuckoo's Calling, plot-wise, is NOTHING like Harry Potter. It's an adult detective novel, for godssake. BUT it comes closest to being as warm, as amazing, as engrossing and as much of a treat as a Potter novel! The characters leap out of the page! Even better, since it's an adult novel, the characters don't hold back at all! The mystery is tightly knit, hard to solve! Descriptions of food- even if it's Pot Noodle and sticky toffee pudding rather than pumpkin juice, chocolate frogs and treacle tart- will make your mouth water. When you near the end, you will feel yourself slowing down, not because you're bored but because you don't want it to end.

    An all too familiar feeling, isn't it?

  63. Jacqueline Seewald

    I don't think the question here is whether or not this is a quality novel. The fact is until it was leaked that Rowling was the actual author of this mystery novel, it had few readers despite excellent reviews. To me this demonstrates the significance of brand name building. As soon as it was disclosed that this novel was written by Rowling, it rose to the top of the bestseller list.
    I've written a more complete discussion of this myself if anyone is interested: http://authorexpressions.blogspot.com/2013/08/jk-rowling-and-mystery-fiction-by.html

  64. Jack

    "In the event that that is the situation, why did they waste "The Casual Vacancy" when it was composed under her genuine name?"

    Since they can, on the grounds that they pick up joy from it, and in light of the fact that they additionally get consideration.

    Cool Vacancy is a truly extraordinary book, and I think its along the lines of Franzen's style with a UK POV. Yet in the event that you read a portion of the Amazon audits they make it sound dull and discouraging, which is a long way from what its truly like.

  65. shyamli

    One thing I will say, however, I was horrified when I went to take a gander at the audits and saw that three one-star surveys popped up that day as the declaration.

    I never read 'Harry Potter', as it didn't speak to me, however I concede that the minute I discovered Rowling composed a secret, I needed to peruse it. I need to know why it wasn't mainstream until her actual character got to be known.

    Whether this was deliberate or not, this was a fascinating test in today's book distributed business. As I would see it, HYPE, not extraordinary written work or actually advertising once in a while, is what offers.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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