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.

Back to Table of Contents

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.

Back to Table of Contents




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.

Back to Table of Contents


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

Posted in Writing on the Ether and tagged , , , .

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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34 Comments on "WRITING ON THE ETHER: Is Publishing’s Star System Cuckoo?"

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Sadly, this just makes publishing more like every other entertainment business. Or at least it confirms it. Music. Movies. We are all blinded by the light of the glow of the superstar…living in shadows.

Porter Anderson


We are, indeed, sir, well said. That gorgeous glare seems to blind us to everything that isn’t…gorgeously glaring.

I cannot think that there’s a way to turn this around, of course. But I sure wish it hadn’t come to publishing as forcefully as is happening.


On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

Phyllis Edgerly Ring

In answer to your question, yes, and, unquestionably, yes. April Eberhardt and Joan Smith are each right on the mark about what is as oppressive as all of the other imbalance out there that’s weighted so heavily in favor of advantage and gain alone. Thanks very much for this very thoughtful amalgam of info.

Porter Anderson

Hi, Phyllis, and many thanks for this very kind comment.

It can be, exactly as you say, oppressive, to see so many instances of “gain breeds more gain,” cant’ it?

While I know we all want to cultivate positive outlooks in the industry, these are the hard realities it’s good for us to take in squarely, so we don’t fool ourselves. The battle is still uphill for most of us.

Thanks again, it’s great to have you with us at the Ether!


On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

AJ Sikes
As if we needed another reason to give New York the bent eye. I know it’s just New York following the trail of breadcrumbs through the free market, and detouring when the trail leads to a supply without a proven demand. But, stepping back just a moment, that’s a heck of a gamble to take. Ignoring potential, which is really what’s being done here, is like the whole tangle of Big 5 houses doing what 12 agents who shall not be named once did: passing up the chance to be the one who discovered JK Rowling. Just because it doesn’t… Read more »
Porter Anderson
Thanks for the input, Aaron, as always. I think one of the apparently unavoidable elements of this is a kind of caste system that comes into play as soon as a very few are made stars and the rest of the world is fighting it out, as you say, on those non-star, self-propelled efforts (valiant efforts, mind you) to overcome each other and get a leg up. Starts to have a Dante-esque feel to it that has nothing to do with Dan Brown, the star. Behind all this is the fact that the public cannot be counted on to perceive… Read more »
AJ Sikes
Thanks for the reply, Porter. You make a very good, and painful, point about the fate of journalism as reflected in the state of publishing. Wires and lights, in a box. ERM knew what was in store, and how. It does feel like an attempt at climbing higher on the backs of the teeming masses of my fellows. And with an image like that, your analogy of Sisyphus plays all too well. Solace, I think, can be found in the collectives springing up here and there. One small press I’ve worked with has a business model that positions each author… Read more »
David Mark Brown

Absolutely, it’s a star system. I’m just glad a few people had the nuts to tell me this three years ago. The truth then and now was and is if I want to make a regular living as a novelist, I have to bypass traditional publishing. Does the new KDP generation have its foibles? Sure. But I’m certainly glad to have self-published a handful of books in three years rather than to still be querying publishers. And indeed, ebooks (along with SEO and algorithm driven killbots) have made that possible.

Porter Anderson
@davidmarkbrown:disqus Hey, David, Yeah, you’re speaking for a great many people on this — good folks with the same experience. And you know, there doesn’t even have to be a malicious tone in the traditional industry at all. As April Eberhardt notes, in any star system, only a few are stars and the rest are left in the dust. It’s just how star systems work. Which is absolutely no help to the people who don’t get to be the stars, of course. So I’m glad you feel you found alternate pathways early. Go for it and develop those approaches every… Read more »
David Mark Brown
Agreed. I harbor no ill will for traditional publishing or those pursuing it. I feel fortunate in many ways for the entrepreneurial opportunities opened up by this “wild west” frontier. Sure, I would love to be the next star in the system. But I would also be thrilled to make a living as a mid-list author with faithful readers that feel like family. In some ways this is more attainable now than it was five years ago. I’m curious to see how the film industry adapts to its own star system with bloated budgets and sequels run amok. Perhaps films… Read more »
Lara Schiffbauer
I can understand why publishing is unwilling to take risks on “unknowns” or put a lot of money into the known money-maker, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of good authors out there who get overlooked because of the nature of the business. It’s another reason that self-publishing is so attractive, because it levels the playing field some. At least a story is available to find readers, instead of sitting in a computer file somewhere. The whole JK Rowling thing only reinforced my belief that there’s a lot of good books and authors out there… Read more »
Porter Anderson
@laraschiffbauer:disqus Well said, Lara, Just because an author isn’t a “star” doesn’t mean that they can’t spin a mean yarn” The real problem, to my mind, is that the public seems completely unworried by the fact that as Robert Galbraith, Jo Rowling had only respectable but modest success. Her book, while move OK, was just moving OK. Not storming the bookstores. So the opposite of your good note is what worries me: If non-star writers can spin great yarns (and they can), why is it that the public is so gullible as to think that star writers can do no… Read more »
Lara Schiffbauer
As far as people being sheep, I think you are running up against human nature. I’m not being mean, but studies in sociology give it a name and it’s called “group think”. When it comes down to it, our survival over the years have a lot to do with being in a community, and conforming to the will of the majority. Can this be dangerous? You bet. 🙂 And even those people whose star seems unmerited, there’s something about the story that people respond to. I may not understand the appeal of the Twilight series, but it filled a need… Read more »
Porter Anderson
Yeah, Lara, I can only applaud your realistic, clear-eyed look at things. The most successful major authors I’ve met have said — some only in private, but some in public, too — that they’re pretty much at a loss to explain their work’s success. It’s not that they don’t feel it’s good, it’s just that the kind of blockbuster hit we’re talking about here seems to have a life of its own, and that’s not something the people who have contributed to it were able to control. It’s really perplexing. But you’re right that the old thing about good work… Read more »
Anne R. Allen

I agree 100% on the bland, romance-y cover of the US version vs the intriguing cover of the UK version. Of course the Casual Vacancy didn’t have a very enticing cover either. But this shows it’s not covers, or reviews, or good storytelling that sells books. It’s stars. It’s as if we’ve all been bonked on the head like a bunch of cartoon characters and all we see is the stars circling our noggins.

Porter Anderson
@annerallen:disqus Funny image, Anne, the old bonked on the head cartoon thing, yeah, exactly. Philip Jones in London, in fact, has messaged today the same thing you’ve just mentioned — we’re looking at a case in which what’s on the cover doesn’t matter a whit. And I’d forgotten, in fact, what an opaque unpleasant cover Casual Vacancy had, it was awful. But, then, yeah, it’s the star power doing the selling. And as I was just saying to Aaron in a comment, that’s the peculiar way the public has of not caring about important things, too. They’ll just buy the… Read more »
AJ Sikes

At the risk of raising the flag of Elite-istan over my head, do you think it’s a fact of life that we’ll never escape? Has it always been that, well, the majority won’t bother too hard trying to find what’s worth reading?

Porter Anderson
@f8089fc9074b34812a8c6b0347bb80ba:disqus Yes, like the poor, the populists will always be with us. And probably shall inherit the Earth, too. At least the remote controls. The problem is that the digital dynamic — being a distributional energy, remember, that seeks out the biggest (most populist) audience like a forest fire seeks out oxygen — amplifies the problem many, many times. We now have far more entertainment options than before because of digital, while the same energy has not given us nearly as many more serious, cultural options, and, indeed, is imperiling many truly artistic efforts because the public loves “sit back… Read more »
Grigory Ryzhakov

I’m confused about a bird’s taxonomical position in the title: is it a cuckoo or a cormoran? Lol

Porter Anderson

You’ll have to let us know, Grisha, I don’t expect to be reading The Cuckoo’s Calling, myself. 🙂

Grigory Ryzhakov

It’s a deal. Maybe “cuckoo” is like “bird” – used here as a British slang word for a “young attractive woman”, the one on the hideous cover 🙂

Heather C Button

It’s a star-system, akin to fashion from the 80s when supermodels sold the clothes (aka the writer) and not the fashion designers. Although I don’t exactly want it to be the big houses (designers or publishers) that determine what we wear and read.

Porter Anderson


The fashion design world does have some parallels with publishing, Heather, though in that model the key artist (the designer) is more frequently the producer of his or her own work — a studio, a team, eventually a line or label. A franchise. We’re beginning to see the possibilities of this in entrepreneurial writers’ independent efforts, but the rise of the artist-director, if you will, in publishing is still a very limited concept and not yet fleshed out in many cases. Rowling being something of a fabulous exception.

Many thanks for reading and commenting, welcome!


On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson


[…] In Writing on the Ether, Porter Anderson looks at the revelation of J.K. Rowling's pseudonym for The Cuckoo's Calling and implications for publishing.  […]

[…] Aside from strictly aesthetic considerations—ebook design is still quite clunky and unappealing, not to mention glitch-ridden—it’s so much easier for me to immerse myself in the world of the book if I’m reading, well, a physical book. I visualize things better, perhaps because I read print books more slowly. I tend to skim electronic text, picking out only what’s most obviously “important”; social media has, unfortunately, trained my eyes and mind this way. I read more now than I did before the advent of ebooks. I read stuff I probably wouldn’t have ever read otherwise. But the way I… Read more »

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I totally agree that Publishers are looking at a “Star” system. The reality is the previous system was extremely inefficient. It was based on subjective opinions and had a terrible success rate. This does put agents in a precarious position, because Trad. Pub. may be wondering if they need agents for discovery purposes (although they may still feel they need agents at point of contract and subsequent communication with the writer). Right now, I see Trad. Pub. doing four things to support their star system: a. They are sweeping for indie “super-stars”. They are doing this by looking at sales… Read more »

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

Anne Hill
Two thoughts here, Porter. First, yes absolutely it’s a star system. But at least (except for the cobwebbed few who remain fond of corduroy blazers with elbow patches) it’s clear to everyone that it is a star system. This transparency helps clarify the options available for the rest of us, and creates a greater motivation and interest in digital/alt/indie/disruptive/self/artisanal/lean publishing among authors who might otherwise prefer to keep playing by the old rules. Second, I find it useful to imagine this conversation taking place in a different economic context. What if the middle class were doing just fine, instead of… Read more »

[…] industry journalist Porter Anderson notes in his article on this subject, “The brighter the glare, the more fearful of failure one can become.” You need look no further […]


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