When the Cuckoo Calls Your Name: A lesson in success for writers
Most of the time we humans are predictable in our reaction to the success of others. Anger, jealous, envy, hatred and self-doubt spill out like pennies in a clay piggy bank hurled against a brick wall. Another person’s success is felt like a punch in the face.
In the entertainment business, the gag reflect is in full swing.
Our hackles rise reading articles with openings like this:
Robert Downey Jr. claims top earning spot with $75 million last year thanks to his role in “Iron Man.”
How many actors who are waiting tables in New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris dreaming of their big break would like to make one percent of that amount? The chances are they won’t have commercial success. They will never experience a year or a career like Robert Downey Jr. But that is hardly Robert Downey Jr.’s fault. Nothing in the universe was set to make his rise to fame and fortune inevitable. It could have been another actor. It could have been you.
Writers face the same problem. A handful of authors make the lion share of money from writing. James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, John Gresham, Stephen King are some of the familiar names guaranteed to deforest mountains in British Columbia, to sell container loads of books, to dominating bestseller list, book review coverage, and public perception of how to measure a writer’s success.
It is the .001% of authors who are profiled in the major press, and the press never fails to mention the money they earn, the number of rooms in their house, private planes, boats; how they are cocooned inside a wall of well-paid staff. The 99.999% of writers scramble with other jobs to cover the cost of their rent, food, and transportation cost. Outside of a few lions, the rest of the animals roaming the literary savannah survive on near starvation rations.
Like Robert Downey Jr., the James Pattersons and J.K. Rowlings hit the big time. They were in the right place, at the right time, and not one of them, their agent or publisher would ever have predicted the scale of such success.
The idea of scaling hasn’t been discussed in the saga of Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. For those who haven’t followed the disclosure of Rowling’s novel published under another name, he’s a brief summary.
When J.K. Rowling sought to go undercover and write a crime novel titled The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith she discovered what most non-famous writer already know. It is tough finding a publisher, and having found a publisher, it is even more difficult for a really good crime novel to break out and acquired a Harry Potter-sized audience.
A couple of points worth noting, from everything I’ve read about J.K. Rowling, she is a decent, kind, sincere and genuine person. She doesn’t need to prove anything as J.K. Rowling. She has a brand. She knows that and like any author she must have in the back of her mind a doubt she’d like removed. That doubt is whether a novel written without the brand attached would find a publisher. The Cuckoo’s Calling had been rejected by a number of publishers. Rowling’s own publisher and editor decided to publish it under the pen name.
They created a fictional bio for Robert Galbraith and sent it out for review. Indeed the book received a good reception among critics (The Cuckoo’s Calling had good reviews). But the sales told a different story. Given the publishing world has something called a returns right—meaning bookstores buy the books but have a right to return unsold copies for a credit—the sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling range from 500 to 1500 copies.
A don at Hertford College, Oxford named Peter Millican created a software programe that could compare the text of one book with the text of books by famous writers. Professor Millican told the BBC, “I was testing things like word length, sentence length, paragraph length, frequency of particular words and the pattern of punctuation,” he explained. He concluded the probability was high that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.
A book that had small sales under the name Robert Galbraith was now on the bestseller list. The limited hardback edition of the Robert Galbraith books is now going for up to two thousand pound sterling. The failed attempt to experiment with publishing outside of the brand name J.K. Rowling, has given a good insight in the concept of scaling.
When you aren’t famous and you write a book, you are no different from any other person with a product or service that is untested in the marketplace. Markets come in various shapes, forms and sizes. The market for your novel might be for yourself, family and friends. When that market is saturated, you’ve had your success. The problem is that most of us think the market for what we write has a larger market. You might be the star of your community theatre but your heart is set on Broadway and Hollywood. The same for an author who has a community theatre-sized audience for his or her book believes that he or she is one review away from a New York deal.
How do you know if the book you’ve written will ‘scale’ from an audience of a couple of hundred, or a couple of thousand, to millions around the world? The answer is you don’t know. No agent or publisher knows either. The same with films even with established stars, no one is sure whether the movie will scale and capture a huge market or flop like a fish in the bottom of a boat.
Inexperienced authors judge themselves by the standards of established authors. When their book doesn’t have J.K. Rowling success, they feel like they are a failure. Status in the entertainment world—film, painting, photography and books—is bestowed by measuring commercial success. And commercial success is what we call a work of art that scales much like the Big Bang from a pinpoint to an entire universe in a nanosecond.
Most books are fragile in the marketplace. They never ‘bang’; they whimper and die and are assigned to a potter’s literary grave. In retrospect, we can say the book didn’t scale because the subject was too narrow, the writing not artful enough, the characterization weak, the story derivative and a hundred other reasons that support the decision of the marketplace. None of this is to be taken seriously. Anymore than an analysis as to why someone believes the stock market dropped 5% in one day, or an earthquake hit China.
Those authors whose books scale across the literary universe are not necessarily some rare literary genius. There are hundreds of writers who have published books as good as or better than the one people line up by the thousands at midnight to buy. J.K. Rowling was on welfare, working out of coffee shops. She had no special connection in the literary world. No doubt she can write, but with Harry Potter she won the literary lottery, and most likely, like most lottery winners was as bewildered and surprised as anyone else.
Authors without broad brand recognition doom themselves by using the J.K. Rowling measure of success. Her lesson with The Cuckoo’s Calling published under another name is that the talent of a writer, any writer, is only one part of the complex network of gears grinding below the surface of life. Once in awhile the great machine produces a book that explodes, gathering millions of onlookers, both readers, occasional readers and non-readers. The author’s life jumps from the book review pages and lands on vastly larger stage of the news and social columns. The author becomes newsworthy, her houses, cars, boats, her likes and dislikes, what she eats for breakfast, her charities and hobbies, and her lectures and travels. A celebrity is born and like any new star shines bright.
How or why this mysterious event happens to anyone particular author is difficult to explain. But this has happened before and will happen again. When the audience for a book scales on the order of magnitude of the Big Bang, nothing can ever be the same again for that author. Whatever he or she writes thereafter will enter the public consciousness. Attempts to hide behind another name will likely fail. That new star in the literary sky just doesn’t twinkle, it dominants the literary sky and most of asteroids in the vicinity disappear from sight.
If you are a writer, you won’t allow bitterness and regret to color your opinion of the success enjoyed by authors such as J.K. Rowling. You will make a decision not to expend emotional energy over what you can’t possibly control. You will also understand that the essential feature of any author’s life isn’t whether the book scales to reach the mountaintop of the richest, but whether the author has gone into the world and climbed mountains. Be the writer who has put experience of life above striving for status.
Be the writer with an inexhaustible curiosity, a hunger for knowledge, and a humility that goes hand in hand with a wisdom that the world each day has something new to teach. Be the writer who disconnects from the Internet, cell phones and TV, and goes out into unfamiliar neighborhoods and observes the lives of people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. Be the writer who is the student and not the professor. Be the writer who is a child and not a parent. Be the writer who withholds making a quick judgment.
Be the writer who gets out of the apartment or house and enters a courtroom, a classroom, a prison, or a hospital and who watches the flow of people passing through these public places. The people in these places have lives worth understanding, and they will share their secrets, dreams, desire, disappointments and pain. Many of them are inside these places which cause them stress, duress, and anxiety. Here you will find courage, desperation, corruption, hatred, love, hope, depression, the elements that define who we are and the nature of our troubled times.
If you want to embark on a path as a writer, enter the flow of lives around you. Leave your comfort zone. Be the writer who explores cultures, religions and languages to discover the forces that shape our differences in perception, understanding, and emotional reactions.
After this exploration, whether your book scales to the higher elevations of J.K. Rowling’s commercial success, it won’t matter. You will have scaled to the top of your personal intellectual and emotional mountaintop, planted your flag and looked out on life in a way that few ever will. That, my friend, is success.