I suggested recently that the decision by Stephen King not to publish his new novel in e-format might have been a cunning marketing ploy . Well, earlier this month there was an even bigger revelation from the world of publishing. We found out that Robert Galbraith, author of The Cuckoo's Calling, was actually none other than JK Rowling.
The result has been a very predictable bubble of interest. His (or should I say, her) book had sold a modest yet very respectable (especially for an 'unknown' author) 1,500 copies. Since the news broke it has been propelled to the top of the Amazon chart. Her publishers have printed an extra 140,000 copies to meet demand. Sales of the hardback in the UK climbed to almost 18,000 last week, up from 43 the week before.
Now, I am not saying this was all a marketing ruse from Rowling. She has professed huge disappointment in the solicitor at Russells who let the secret slip to a friend (who promptly posted it on Twitter). I am also swayed by her desire to keep out of the spotlight following the Leevson Inquiry disclosure about the note placed by a journo in her daughter's backpack.
But the cold, hart fact is that this revelation has made the author and her publisher a ton of cash. More than she would have made publishing it under her own name? Quite possibly. And it certainly hasn’t harmed sales of The Casual Vacancy either.
There is also a slightly darker point to all this for those of us outside the big publishing houses. The lesser lights if you will. Are we all now fighting for an even smaller slice of the cake?
Yes, according to the Chief Exec of Curtis Brown who says the old 80-20 Pareto rule, that 80% of sales comes from 20% of contributors, has now widened to 96-4. In many walks of life, from sports to banking, there is an elite making an absolute killing. It is a trend which has crept into publishing too. Publishers increasingly place the full power of their marketing budgets behind a few 'superstar authors'. In an industry driven by recommendations, this skews bestseller lists .
By definition, JK Rowling (superstar) is no more talented an author than Robert Galbraith (unknown). But 'her' book sold a lot more than 'his'. Fact.
I am now in danger of sounding bitter and cynical. I'm not. One good novel often begets another. I'll read whatever Bernard Cornwell puts out. And the advent of ebooks and self-publishing means there are many more authors out there. Perhaps too many. It is difficult not to get lost in the noise. If I was a publisher, in a world where friendly bookshops are dying out and unfriendly Amazon is squeezing my margins, I would probably stick my house on a superstar too.
I just hope that a of few lesser lights will get a shot too. After all, the cream always rises to the top. It may just take a little longer than before.