The Importance of Being Rowling (and Why Quality Matters Less)

BY Wahyd Vannoni  September 4, 2013 at 11:42 AM EST

What’s in a name? Quite a lot when it comes to book sales. J.K. Rowling, above, reads the first pages of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.” Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ran Yaniv Hartstein.

Is there a formula for new authors to get their books on the bestseller list? Or is it “ultimately in the hands of the book gods,” as Morgan Entrekin, the president of Grove Atlantic and publisher of “Cold Mountain,” told the New York Times Saturday?

Earlier this year, Little, Brown & Company distributed bound galleys of a London detective story from first-time author Robert Galbraith. But the advance copies didn’t make much of a splash. As James Stewart wrote in his “Common Sense” column in the Times, many retailers didn’t remember ever seeing the copies or hearing from the publisher.

“I don’t know if we bought any copies. Maybe one,” bookseller Roxanne Coady, told Stewart.

That changed in a heartbeat this July when London’s Sunday Times revealed that Robert Galbraith was actually J.K. Rowling. It was an act of the book gods themselves! And not surprisingly, the change of authorship resulted in soaring sales.

Given its widely acknowledged quality, could “The Cuckoo’s Calling” have conceivably crept onto some bestseller charts eventually? And why did so many readers rush out to get Rowling’s second post-”Harry Potter” novel when her first — “The Casual Vacancy” — got such poor reviews? Hult Business School marketing professor and consultant Wahyd Vannoni wrote a post for the popular Italian website Linkiesta asking, in effect, “What’s in a name?” Pretty much everything, he concluded. We asked him to translate and elaborate. Here, for the first time in English, are his thoughts.

Wahyd Vannoni: The first question I ask my brand management students is to consider two white shirts, identical in size and fabric, and think about how much they would pay for each.

Then, through a touch of word-processing gimmickery, I add the logo of a brand, say Nike, Adidas or Burberry, on one of the t-shirts. I then ask again how much the students would pay for each t-shirt. Invariably, the amount they would pay for a t-shirt with a recognizable logo increases.

This is at odds with how we would like to perceive ourselves, namely, as rational beings who have a keen sense of the value of things. We know what a computer is worth given its specs. But what happens when we face something new, something for which we have no frame of reference?

In the past couple of months, we had the opportunity to study a large scale example of how the public might react without and with a brand name on a product.

On July 13, it was announced that a previously unknown author named Robert Galbraith, author of “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” was none other than J.K. Rowling. This revelation allows us to measure the effect of the brand, or name recognition, on a previously unknown publication.

The above chart reflects the number of mentions on social media for the terms “Rowling” (yellow) and “Cuckoo” (blue), generated via Topsy.com.

From April 15, the day Amazon.com published the book, to July 13, the day before the Sunday Times revealed the identity of Galbraith, 21 reviews were published, and nearly all save two reviews gave the book between four and five stars. Qualitatively, most reviewers praised the book, with lines like, “This is a great book to cuddle up with in front of a fire” or “From the first sentence he makes you glad you found this book. I hope this author will be around for a long long time. Completely compelling.”

On July 14, the day of the announcement, 28 reviews were published. As of Aug. 30, 3,039 reviews have been published and the average customer review is four stars — very close to the average of the first 21 reviewers who wrote thinking that Galbraith was a new author.

In terms of sales, The Independent, citing data from Nielsen Book Scan, reveals that only 43 copies of the book had been sold during the week preceding the revelation. The following week, 17,662 had been sold.

 

It is also interesting to compare these numbers with the performance of Rowling’s previous book, “The Casual Vacancy,” which had sold 124,603 copies in its first week of publication. To date, “The Casual Vacancy” averages three stars, but 883 out of 3,930 gave it only one star.

Going back to “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” even some professional publishers passed on the chance to publish it. Orion fiction editor Kate Mills **[admitted]( http://www.thebookseller.com/news/trade-excitement-over-new-
rowling.html)** she had turned the book down, calling it “well-written but quiet” and saying it “didn’t stand out” for her.

It is, of course, impossible to know for certain whether Galbraith would have eventually become a success. The optimists would argue that eventually, quality does come to the surface. All successful authors were unknown before they published their first books, including Rowling before the success of the Harry Potter series.

The pessimists might argue that more often than not, quality goes unnoticed because the public does not have time to assess value or disregards anything that has not been endorsed by friends, family and other members of the public. This is one reason why Hollywood spends so much to market new releases: they must generate positive word-of-mouth from scratch for those critical first two weeks of box office exposure.

One way to settle the matter, and assess the extent to which quality is overlooked by the public, would be for Amazon to prominently disclose the number of books rated four stars and above with sales under, say, 1,000 copies.

So far, Amazon.com and other online booksellers allow readers to discover new books through sections such as: “Related to Items You’ve Viewed,” “Recommended for You” and “Inspired by Your Wish List.”

All of the above take into account my past purchases, probably my computer cookies (where else I have browsed), how these relate to other customers’ purchases and the kind of books that they want to promote.

However, as far as I can tell, all of the suggestions generated by the algorithm tend to be books that are already quite successful: “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg or “Inferno” by Dan Brown. And it’s unclear what the advantage to an online retailer would be to periodically promoting little known authors to the masses. I may be wrong, but Amazon and its competitors have likely already calculated that there would be too many failures and that diverting resources from promoting the authors whose works carry guaranteed financial success would cost too much.

Finally, one key question, to which there will probably never be a firm answer, is whether Rowling would have revealed her identity in the end, regardless of whether the book had succeeded. Without pretending to know what Rowling might have done in a hypothetical scenario, I can highlight two plausible approaches.

Skeptics would say she would not have revealed her identity, especially if the book were failing. The law firm at the source of Galbraith’s leaked identity had to compensate Rowling and make a substantial donation to a charity. Almost like a parent company who wouldn’t want the public to know its association with an unsuccessful subsidiary, Rowling really cared about not being outed, this outlook suggests.

However, on the other hand, Rowling’s use of a pseudonym may have been a personal challenge: could she still write a book that the public would like without her name influencing its initial perception? Like wine tasted blindly, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” credited to Galbraith may have been an attempt to garner objective assessment before revealing the real author.


This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions