WRITING ON THE ETHER: Is Publishing’s Star System Cuckoo?

18 July 2013 iStock_000024022247Small photog Ixpert Texted Story Image

Table of Contents

  1. “Only a few people can be stars”
  2. The Technical Point: Honk If You Love Progress
  3. OK, an Extra Technical Point: Why Are UK Covers Better?
  4. The Cultural Point: Warped Speed in the Star System

“Only a few people can be stars”

When I interviewed the literary agent April Eberhardt on agent-assisted publishing for this week’s series of eight articles and essays at Publishing Perspectives, we were still a couple of days away from finding out who Robert Galbraith was.

April Eberhardt
April Eberhardt

Eberhardt said this to me, in some pretty prescient commentary I didn’t get to include in What Is a Literary Change Agent? And What’s Ethical?:

I’m tired of having missiles launched my way…I have authors whose manuscripts I’ve submitted 50 or 60 times and they all come back to me saying, “You know, this is wonderful, this is a great story, but we can’t take a chance on a debut author or new fiction or someone that we can’t guarantee is going to be a blockbuster.

The supposed Galbraith book, of course, was not a case of a publisher taking a chance on an unknown author—that case contravenes nothing of what Eberhardt is saying. Jo Rowling’s editor and publisher produced The Cuckoo’s Call.

More from Eberhardt, still, remember, before we learned that the pseudonym Galbraith belonged to Rowling:

You can probably sense some of my frustration. It’s just that there’s a lot of very good-hearted advocacy [for untested authors] that’s not being recognized by the industry.

I’d just like to interject here that I don’t hold the Galbraith/Rowling situation against Rowling or her colleagues. Nor do I think that the revelation of her as author of the book was the stunt that many have enjoyed claiming it was.

author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, Cassandra Marshall, The Stars Fell Sideways, MolliePup Press
Philip Jones

If you’re running around shouting “Cuckoo Conspiracy!” at everybody, you need to hunker for a few minutes with one of our best commentators, The Bookseller’s Philip Jones, writing at The FutureBook. In A cuckoo in the nest, he debunks the stunt idea along with murmurings that the thing wasn’t selling well at all under the Galbraith name. Here:

There are those who think this was planned by the publisher, Little, Brown, but the lack of available stock suggests otherwise. Conspiracy theorists have also suggested the leak was a way of maximising publicity for the paperback edition of The Casual Vacancy, but that book remains outside the top 100 Kindle list, and is only out in paperback this week. It will be intriguing to see which title sells more when both are finally available nationwide in all formats, but I don’t see it as a given that publicity for The Cuckoo’s Calling will spark sales for The Casual Vacancy.

And here:

Some have suggested that the early performance of The Cuckoo’s Calling prior to the big reveal is an indictment of modern publishing, because it had sold so few. But The Cuckoo’s Calling was well reviewed, and sales were not out of step for a debut crime novel published in early summer by an unknown writer. According to figures I’ve seen, they were also not out of step with early sales of the first Harry Potter book.



I especially appreciate Jones’ inclusion of the Blackfriars imprint (which did not produce the Rowling book), based as it is in a digital-first approach for literary fiction:

I am rooting for Markova, Buchanan and Anastas, as much as I am for Robert Galbraith.



And I understand, I think, Rowling’s interest in writing something out of the glare of the press. I’ve had a Tony-winning actor ask me to pretend to still be interviewing him in his dressing room on Broadway—”let them think you’re still in here”—so he could calm down before a performance. The brighter the glare, the more fearful of failure one can become.

But I do want you to get what Eberhardt was saying because that very star power is something we need to look at.

April Eberhardt speaks on new pathways to publishing at Writer's Digest Conference East in New York in April. Photo: Porter Anderson
April Eberhardt speaks on new pathways to publishing at Writer’s Digest Conference East in New York in April. Photo: Porter Anderson

She goes on—and I’m annotating more than usual  because at this point in our interview, Eberhardt and I were fully on record but in more chat mode than formal-quote mode:

That’s correct, I am not actually pursuing traditional work right now. [Meaning manuscripts the authors of which want to go straight to the Big Five and other major publishers.] Because in good conscience, I can’t say that the traditional publishing route is right for most authors. You know, it’s a star system. And unfortunately, only a few people can be stars. The rest get left in the dust.

That’s the concept I’d like you to look at today, if you will. Because for some reason, we’re not particularly good at saying what Eberhardt just said: star system.

You backseat sociologists can enjoy guessing why we don’t talk about this much. I’d put my money on (a) because it’s not always thought attractive to admit one wants to be a star, and (b) because to think of it as a star system can make it seem fully as daunting as it is, and who wants to be Sisyphus?

But as the Galbraith-Rowling revelation hit, two things came into very sharp focus, one technical and one cultural.

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Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook


The Technical Point: Honk If You Love Progress

The technical point was, man, what a friend we have in ebooks.


Laura Hazard Owen
Laura Hazard Owen

Laura Hazard Owen, our great colleague at Om Malik’s paidContent nailed that one in .

One signed copy of the book, Owen wrote, went for close to $2,000 on eBay. (Did somebody tell that buyer this isn’t a Harry Potter book?)

And as Owen wrote:

Print copies of the book are extremely scarce, because this demand hadn’t been anticipated. (That’s a strike against those who claimed that this was all a marketing stunt — along with Rowling’s PR firm’s statement that this “was not a leak or elaborate marketing campaign to boost sales.”) The book’s U.S. and U.K. publishers are scrambling to get more copies printed: In the U.S., Hachette will start shipping a 300,000-copy print run this week; in the U.K., Little, Brown is printing 140,000 more copies.

As Owen tells us, it’s springtime for ebooks:

In the meantime, however, most bookstores don’t have print copies of the book. Amazon says the hardcover will ship in one to three weeks and refers readers to Kindle if they want to read Cuckoo immediately.

And there you have it. The infinite front table. The shelf where all copies face out. The inventory that never runs out. eBooks.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookLest you run afoul of people who want you to think that ebook adoption is somehow bottoming out (you’ll see such articles out and about), note the report from Publishers Weekly’s staff, E-books Drive 3% Quarterly Gain in Adult Trade Sales:

Sales of adult e-books rose 13.6% in the first quarter of 2013 helping to offset sluggish sales of print books in the period, resulting in a 3.3% increase in [US] adult trade sales at companies that report to AAP’s [Association of American Publishers] StatShot program.

Jeremy Greenfield
Jeremy Greenfield

It sounds like a different story if you read our good colleague Jeremy Greenfield at Digital Book World in eBook Growth Slows to a Crawl in Q1: What Does It Mean?

Greenfield writes:

The first quarter results from the Association of American Publishers confirms it: Ebook revenues in the U.S. won’t be doubling or tripling again any time soon. The boom times are coming to an end.

What frequently confuses people on the ebook-growth story is that “slowdown” and other such terminology can sound as if a fad of some kind has run its course. Indeed, there probably are proponents of print who would like that. Greenfield writes:

The good news is that the threat to the entire physical book ecosystem is now over – or at least put off – and publishers can go back to spending less of their time wondering whether they’ll be out of business in six months. It’s time now to start honing those digital disciplines and building strong publishing businesses.

That sort of writing seems to suggest that e-reading is going to put publishers out of business unless the rate of its popularity growth subsides. Publishers, however, make money from publishing in electronic formats, too, of course. Mulholland Books—an imprint of Little, Brown— publishing the Kindle edition of the book in the States, should be a company full of smiles right now.

What forward-looking publishers see in ebooks is the bottomless warehouse. The end of backlist. The beginnings of networked books that can link you through a jungle of potentially lucrative interconnected thoughts and writings. The twilight of returns. Trucks not wasting gas dragging books all over creation. Trees still standing and making oxygen, a gas for which I’ve developed quite a fondness, myself, next to Ether, of course. You may feel differently. 


Could you have a better demonstration of the sheer power of e-reading than the ability to instantly fulfill an endless run on a book suddenly gone red hot? No rush to the printer. No

If you’re one of those “love the smell of books” people, frankly, I’m a little weirded out by you, but I’ll respect you in the morning. Just sniff the damned things somewhere else, please. I’m happy for print people to collect and hug their paper. But do not try to dismiss this super little demonstration of just what an utter transformation digital publishing has made in our ability to deliver a book. The digital dynamic—that distributional energy, remember—has just backed right over your print stock.

Beep, beep, beep, baby.

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OK, an Extra Technical Point: Why Are UK Covers Better?

Behold and then just shut your eyes.


Cuckoo merged covers

The UK cover is on the left. Nice. Could be in my beloved city of Bath, a handsome sandstone row, creepy lonely figure, the obligatory bats. Sweet.

The US cover on the right? Where’s the Shirtless man to Kiss that Beautiful Woman? Are we not able to make a cover that doesn’t look like romance anymore in this country? I think her ghost lover is about to arrive—shirtless, of course. Hell, she may be witnessing the second coming of Lawrence Welk, are those bubbles?

It’s a crime novel. Who designed this US cover? And how many copies are we trying to sell to readers who are going to think—you know it, I know it—that this is a romance? Hachette, talk to us.

OK, I’ll stop. The Romance Writers of America are sitting in Atlanta in high conclave this week. They probably know where I live. Ethernauts: after three days, look for me.

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The Cultural Point: Warped Speed in the Star System


It’s instructive that the revelation of [Rowling’s] authorship has quickly become a story about a well-known writer doing something quirky and eccentric – rather than a telling tale about the state of publishing.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook
Joan Smith

I couldn’t agree more with Joan Smith at The Guardian. The main story here is being missed entirely. What Eberhardt was talking about without even a glimmer of the fact that we were about to be Rowlinged over by this incident is captured very well in Smith’s opinion piece JK Rowling’s book ruse is a cautionary tale for unknown writers. Note that by “ruse,” Smith’s headline does not refer to the Rowling event as a publicity stunt. She is, instead, simply calling the use of a pseudonym a ruse. (In British English, neither the word ruse nor scheme has the automatically negative connotation attached in American usage.)


Smith writes that by comparison to Rowling’s alter ego Robert Galbraith:

Most first novelists don’t have the option of doing something that will have such a dramatic effect on sales, and they’re already painfully aware that the situation for unknown authors is dire. Publishers have seldom been so reluctant not just to take a risk on new writers, but to back up publication with the resources which go into promoting successful authors.

About to open your mouth to say, “Well it’s always been this way,” right? Read on, emphasis mine on her mention of this as a recent development:

Whether she likes it or not, [Rowling] is in that category of stratospherically famous authors who have become brands; Dan Brown is another obvious example. This is a recent development and its impact on other writers is disastrous, creating a situation in which huge publicity budgets are placed behind a handful of authors, skewing bestseller lists.


I interpret Smith’s comment there to mean that while, yes, we’ve had major writers, of course, gods among us, our pantheons of award winners, the recent development is in our contemporary commercial system’s way of steering resources to blockbusters at the expense of all else.

Smith goes on to recall a similar event in the career of Doris Lessing (now 93), well worth your attention for the comparison factor of an event in the worlds of genre and literary fiction, and in celebrity vs. non-celebrity status.

Smith comes to an all but unavoidable conclusion, lamenting:

The negative impact on thousands of writers the public has never heard of or, more importantly, had the opportunity to read. In that sense, it could even be argued that Rowling’s well-intended hoax has backfired, turning into yet another story about fame in the modern world.

What do you think? Is April Eberhardt right that traditional publishing in general is operating as a kind of star system? And is Joan Smith right that the real story of the Rowling outing is what a celebrity name means in the industry! the industry! today?

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Main image: iStockphoto – Ixpert

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