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

by Joel Friedlander on July 22, 2013 · 48 comments

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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

author-platformWhat 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 greeter 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?

“Building an author platform is how we invest in our future selves and the books we’re going to publish.”—Click to Tweet


Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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    { 40 comments… read them below or add one }

    Mick Rooney July 22, 2013 at 1:07 am

    “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.”

    And of course that would mean Rowling self-publishing under the Galbraith name. But I suspect, even for Rowling, that would have been a bridge too far.

    As a publishing consultant, I stress to authors the importance of author platform, even for the newbie, it requires at least 12 months planning and building. It works reasonably well if you have already carved out a commercial career as an author in the traditional world, but it is a huge task for an author approaching their first book. It can help if you have a professional profile in another field connected to the subject matter of your book, but it is tough if you write fiction. It is still one of the biggest questions I get from authors – How do I build a decent fanbase and readership when I don’t have a published book?

    Here are some things that can help:

    Join writers groups and organisations and hone your craft and knowledge of the writing and publishing world (Don’t make the novice mistake of then marketing to that base. Writers write books – readers read books)

    Show some of your work in beta reading groups

    Release extracts of your work through your website

    Build a vibrant and engaging social network with a reader (not writing) focus

    Consider reading and performing your work at live arts events – every small and large town has events like these

    Start meeting and getting to know your local booksellers now, not when your book comes out

    Consider financing your publication through crowdfunding – this also helps to build interest and a fanbase and well as making the costs easier

    Build and research a profile of who you believe your ideal reader is, then, find out where that targeted readership most often buy books, what interests them etc.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 22, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    Terrific advice Mick, thanks for that. I hope fiction writers take these tips to heart.

    Reply

    Simon Denman July 22, 2013 at 3:51 am

    Interesting take.
    I actually find it quite encouraging that her first 4 months sales volume under the Galbraith pseudonym were similar to my own first step into the world of self-publishing last year. And while they may appear poor for established authors, I was over the moon with the result – especially since I’ve never had any reputable reviews besides the couple of hundred that have accumulated on Amazon UK & US sites.

    Reply

    Caroline Mawer July 23, 2013 at 3:38 am

    Simon
    What do you mean “quite encouraging” / “appear poor”?
    Please be even nicer to yourself.
    After all, you can include: “sells as well as JKR” on your next book-jacket / pitches to agents if you want to.
    Continue being over the moon.
    Maybe louder?
    Best wishes and many congratulations about your JKR-level success
    Caroline
    PS And arent the Amazon reviews “reputable”. These are real live readers, the most important creatures for any writer, arent they?

    Reply

    Simon Denman July 23, 2013 at 3:54 am

    Thanks Caroline,
    British understatement I suppose :)
    Regarding the Amazon reviews, yes of course, they are invaluable and I am extremely grateful to all who took the time to post one (well most of them at least) but they’re not the same as having ones from Publisher’s Weekly, or major newspapers, and they wouldn’t mean so much printed on the back of a physical book jacket for example.

    Reply

    Aspen March 27, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    You’ve got it in one. Coulnd’t have put it better.

    Reply

    Carol Brill July 22, 2013 at 3:56 am

    “It can help if you have a professional profile in another field connected to the subject matter of your book, but it is tough if you write fiction.”

    Absolutely agree. I write fiction for women. Two “quotes” have become my mantra, “It’s a marathon not a sprint,” and “Throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks.”
    I do try to make sure the spaghetti will appeal to the women in my reading audience :)

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 22, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    The “pasta method” of marketing. Gotta love that, thanks Carol.

    Reply

    Simon Townley July 24, 2013 at 2:21 am

    It may work as a marketing tactic, but I’m not convinced that’s really the way to cook good pasta. If it sticks to a wall it’s probably a bit overdone. But I’m no chef. And I’m not Italian.

    Reply

    Thomas Rydder July 22, 2013 at 5:34 am

    What an outstanding article! Is there any better example of what happens to an author without a platform? There are so many possibilities – and pitfalls – when creating a platform, that’s it’s essential to listen to those who have come before. Learn from their success, and failure. I myself made a lot of mistakes while trying to build mine. I started a blog, and within a year, had 3,000 followers – but they were mostly other authors. Not those who would further my brand, but who, justifiably, were seeking to do the exact same thing as I. Like my daddy always said, “Work hard, but work smart.”
    Superbly done, and duly blogged, faced, pinned, linked, digged, tumbled, and stumbled :)

    Thomas Rydder
    Author of “The Clearing”
    http://thomasrydder.wordpress.com/

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Many thanks Thomas. The “writing for writers” situation is all too easy to fall into, but the experience you’ve gained over that time will serve you well.

    Reply

    Tina Chan July 22, 2013 at 5:59 am

    Interesting article! Thanks for sharing. Really puts in perspective how a platform can change the game.

    Reply

    Simon Denman July 22, 2013 at 6:21 am

    Coming back to the central question here about whether building a platform works, I think I’m going to buck the trend here and say no – at least not for fiction. Clearly, if you’re offering a service such as book design, then writing great content and building a platform is probably the best thing you can do and Joel is living proof.

    If someone can give me one good example of an unknown fiction author who built a platform that directly led to success of a subsequent self-published novel, then I may change my mind, but my guess is that in most cases the success comes first.

    I agree that once you’ve had some success, a platform is probably an invaluable way of building on that success and giving subsequent work a head start, but with so many thousands of hopeful authors out there, I reckon a lot of time and effort must be spent trying to build author platforms which bring nothing. Time that would be better spent writing more books. At least, this is what I’ve concluded.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Simon, you are right that this situation is not so easy or clear-cut for fiction writers, but how about Amanda Hocking, who worked social media very hard, or Joanna Penn who, I’m sure, is going to get that big contract any day?

    Reply

    Nancy Beck July 24, 2013 at 7:51 am

    I agree with you, Simon. I’ve always heard “platform” was for non-fiction books.

    How do you work platform into a fantasy series? I mean, I’m not a magician or a shapeshifter or dragon (LOL). So I can’t bring any expertise, experiences, etc., where that’s concerned.

    I’m following Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s advice: Put out more books. The more books I have out there, the better chance I have of being found by readers. I don’t have much out yet, and I’m not going to endlessly promote/market the first series. Their advice is also to wait until you have a significant number of fiction out there, in the area of 9 or 10 books, before doing any sort of promo.

    The only sort of “platform” I have that I agree with (and am doing) is the branding thing: I’m using the same font for my name that was used in the first series. I also have a more critical eye when it comes to covers (just changed the one I originally came up with for this new series with something I think is much better – but still evokes a fantasy feel).

    Of course, this website has helped immensely as far as the cover and fonts are concerned. :-)

    Reply

    Tracy Atkins July 24, 2013 at 7:55 am

    I think that for fiction, platform is synonymous with brand. We all realize that an author’s name carries the weight in both fiction and non-fiction marketing. Building a platform or brand is essential, however the methods to reach this goal is different based upon your genre or niche. The end goal, name recognition, is the same.

    Reply

    Amanda DeWees July 22, 2013 at 6:50 am

    I think one major reason the book didn’t sell is the title. It doesn’t compel attention, and it definitely doesn’t signify that the book’s a mystery; if anything, it sounds more like a comedy of manners. I adore mysteries, but I’d have walked right past this one if I’d seen it while shopping. Not giving the book a better title was a major miscalculation on the part of the publisher.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Excellent point, Amanda, I wondered the same thing regarding the publisher using that title.

    Reply

    Melanie van Looy July 23, 2013 at 12:44 am

    I’d be interested to know what you thought of the cover. Neither that or the title indicate what kind of story this is. I wouldn’t have picked it up myself.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 23, 2013 at 10:53 am

    I agree, Melanie. Both the title and cover seem odd choices for this genre, although to be fair the cover may be for a British edition, with a separate one intended for U.S. distribution. But now, it doesn’t immediately say “thriller.”

    Reply

    Melanie July 23, 2013 at 11:47 am

    I am British, but I still wouldn’t pick it up, do you think a British version would have a more romantic cover, and why?

    Spencer Bowden July 23, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    What do you mean didn’t sell? It apparently sold 8,500 units in a few months. For a brand new author in that genre that is BRILLIANT. Why does everybody keep thinking that if you don’t sell a million plus units you have failed? If I sold 8,500 books in circa 3 months I would be very pleased.

    Reply

    Spencer Bowden July 23, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    From Robert Galbraith’s web site:

    At the point I was ‘outed’, Robert had sold 8500 English language copies across all formats (hardback, eBook, library and audiobook) and received two offers from television production companies.

    Can someone explain how 8,500 sales (in six weeks I am told) plus two offers from television companies is BAD? Imagine if you self pubbed that and were getting 70% royalties from Amazon? Would you be slitting your wrists saying woe is me or would you be bragging your 5* reviews on Twitter?

    Reply

    Nancy Beck July 24, 2013 at 7:41 am

    FYI, the American book cover doesn’t convey mystery, that’s true. But the original British cover does (at least in my opinion, for whatever it’s worth :-)):

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cuckoos-Calling-Cormoran-Strike-ebook/dp/B0091LLCTM/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1374676822&sr=1-1&keywords=the+cuckoo%27s+calling

    Reply

    Greg July 22, 2013 at 10:22 am

    It might seem hard to believe for a lot of us self-published’s out here, but you can become too hot.

    Rowling was too hot, and perhaps what’s worse, typecast. Some of you might remember that other book she did a year or so ago, The Casual Vacancy. That got snubbed by critics, if I remember correctly, mainly because it was written by her. If she’d appended a pen name to it would it have turned out differently?

    You always want what you don’t have.

    I can go out and have a beer in any bar any night of the week, but Prince William can’t, although he’d surely want to. J.K. Rowling can pen a bestseller anytime she wants, but I can’t, although it sure would be nice!

    Reply

    Frances Caballo July 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    This is an interesting take on this topic. While most bloggers have focused on whether she had always planned to step forward, you focus on the importance of having an author platform to improve sales. And you’re right, of course. Without a marketing startegy that includes the author, books are likely to languish, even a well-written book like this one from Rowling. I agree with Mick Rooney: writers need to start marketing their books long before they are printed.

    Reply

    Spencer Bowden July 23, 2013 at 1:30 am

    JKR had no platform at all when she wrote the first HP book. Yet she has sold more books than anyone, period. Also, the sales for The Cuckoo’s Calling were apparently 8,500; that aside, even if they were just 1500 that IS NOT poor sales in that genre over that time period for a new author. That is VERY GOOD sales. Please get off of this poor sales bandwagon.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 23, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Spencer, that’s why I acknowledge in the article that some authors build a platform simply by publishing but, unfortunately, that will only work for a very very small percentage of authors, so it simply seems smart to me to do something to increase our chances of success.

    Reply

    Spencer Bowden July 23, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    The thing is, if you write fiction, you just won’t get the fans until you start writing. What are they following you for if you don’t have books out? You mentioned Amanda Hocking to another poster above; she had already written at least nine books before she posted them up on Amazon, and it is well documented that she made good by bombarding book reviewers. Yes that helps build a following, but I disagree you must have a platform to sell enough to make a living. She has sold millions of books, but even now only has 23,812 twitter followers. I suspect most of them don’t actively follow her posts.

    Clearly having a readership makes sense; in fact it is common sense. Trying to build a platform before you actually have any writing for people to follow you for? Seems kind of dumb frankly.

    Reply

    Nancy Beck July 24, 2013 at 7:55 am

    Spencer,

    And Hocking was (still is, I guess) a very quick writer, as you’ve noted in your post. Where she let down some people (obviously not very many) were the typos and grammar issues. But she must have still been a very good storyteller to get the trad deal she eventually got. :-)

    Reply

    Will Hahn July 23, 2013 at 4:14 am

    Great thoughts Joel, thanks. I need clarity on the numbers though- everyone I’ve seen in articles to date was pretty clear that 1,500 paper copies, first weekend “first-time” author, was quite respectable. It’s well beyond the combined output of my e-books, and I’m parsecs away from any offer for paper-pub. I also think the reviews ahead of time belie the idea that JKR truly self-pubbed (or had no platform). The few who were on board with the secret were clearly on board with the effort too. Anyone who comes out with dust jacket material alongside the book (meaning, any paper book I suppose) is beyond the reach of what you describe in platform-building that the rest of us schleps have to slog through.
    Finally I will agree the title and cover art, etc. is not only misleading, it doesn’t even look good. I was stunned, could hardly believe something that simplistic would have been vetted by a real publisher. Has there been any suspicion voiced about that- was it all part of the plan?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

    No, I don’t think there was any subterfuge or a “secret plan” to this, the information simply leaked out through someone in her law firm. Also, there’s nothing “self-pubbed” about this book or the entire incident, and self-publishing isn’t a synonym for “no platform.”

    Reply

    Tracy R Atkins July 23, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Rowling has provided on the greatest case-studies in recent history on the dynamics of book marketing. I am really thrilled that this has worked out in a public way like this, with some sales data. Joel, you are spot on with your commentary on what this means for platform significance. Great article and great commentary too.

    Reply

    Venkatesh Iyer July 23, 2013 at 9:25 am

    These words of the author made me wonder: 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.

    Did J K Rowling orchestrate her own exposure as Robert Galbraith?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 23, 2013 at 10:59 am

    No, I don’t believe so, and she appears to be somewhat irritated to have her identity revealed, although she has also said she intends to continue writing books under the Robert Galbraith name.

    Reply

    Nancy Beck July 24, 2013 at 7:58 am

    Joel,

    I’m sure a lot of people will be happy she’s going to continue the series under that name. :-)

    After all, once Nora Roberts was found out to be J. D. Robb, the Robb novels and name never went away…

    Reply

    p July 27, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Honestly i hope to strive for an audience of one. Because i have submitted proposals which some were leery of based on their limited experience and others benefitted while they clearly missed out. So ive decided the platform works if you know YOUR sudience and write for them. Not everyone will love you but if you can carve a niche for your specific audience i believe its worth it. If others latch one great but dont do flips for them they arent your supporters anyway. But jk rowlings approach is still very clever, perhaps shes writing not to make money but from the right motive..as non christianing goes i mean..

    Reply

    Krishna bhatt July 31, 2013 at 2:25 am

    It is incorrect to assume that great books are written on the basis of the demand of the readers. By virtue of its originality a novel breaks newer grounds in the literary world. So good authors never care for what people demand in a book. They do not fall in the trap of ‘Genre’, to be defined.

    Reply

    Zauberkünstler November 4, 2013 at 1:58 am

    Its excellent as your other content : D, appreciate it for putting up. “What makes something special is not just what you have to gain, but what you feel there is to lose.” by Andre Agassi.
    Zauberkünstler http://tiny.cc/5d47vw

    Reply

    Reviewer 199 December 7, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Mr. Denman, these hundreds of readers who took the time to post reviews of your work on Amazon would be disappointed to hear you feel their opinion “doesn’t mean as much” and is just “not the same” as having glowing reviews from Publisher’s Weekly. While you claim you are grateful to readers, your comments seem quite disparaging. After all, didn’t the article say that although critics praised Galbraith’s work, it failed to find a home amongst readers? Perhaps you would rather a blurb on the back of a book jacket. But if no one picks up that book, does the review make any difference?

    Reply

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